By JJ Perez
It was a somber Tuesday afternoon one year ago when UTSA announced they were parting ways with Head Coach Larry Coker. Athletic Director Lynn Hickey held an emotional press conference to discuss the issue. I reflect on all that has occurred.
The Build Up
What transpired Tuesday, January 5, 2016 was built up over several months. Some would say even longer than that. UTSA had just logged a 3-9 season, their worst in record in program history. Much-maligned offensive coordinator Kevin Brown had recently been released while defensive coordinator Neal Neathery was under consideration for a position at another university. There wasn’t a lot of news and information coming out of UTSA. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, it almost felt like there was feeling that a black cloud was lingering over the program. Then the biggest news of all broke. UTSA’s first-ever head coach was out. I remember being shocked when I heard the first report. It was difficult to confirm any information at the time. It wasn’t almost until an official announcement was made before it all seemed believable. But it was real. And a wave of change was about to hit UTSA.
Was Coker fired or did he quit?
The official statement from UTSA was that Coker stepped down. But he wasn’t at the press conference. We still haven’t heard much from Coker outside of a few quotes to the newspaper. UTSA settled the remaining portion of his contract with him earlier this year. As a part of the settlement, he also received a suite at the Alamodome for UTSA games. But this season he was never seen at the ‘Dome. None of these are the actions of someone who decided to step down. We reported some additional details of his departure which you can read here (LINK). But it’s not like any of that should really matter. Larry Coker is a good man and was a legendary coach. Although his time at UTSA came to an unceremonious end, I hope that in time he is remembered as the legend that he is. I attempted to reflect on Coker’s tenure at UTSA in this story (LINK). I think that’s a fair reflection of all that had occurred.
Coaching Search Frenzy
What followed Coker’s departure was as a frenetic of a coaching search as you will find. Initially, UTSA wanted the process to take 10-12 days, which is very fast. It ended up taking just eight days. Some of the names initially linked to the job included Craig Navair, Tony Levine, Hal Mumme, Mel Tucker, Curtis Looper, David Bailiff and a few others. In the end, there were 60 official applicants and a dozen candidates were interviewed. It wasn’t widely reported but there were three finalists for the job: LSU RB/Recruiting Coordinator Frank Wilson, Oklahoma State Defensive Coordinator Glenn Spencer, and Arizona State Associate Head Coach/Offensive Line Coach Chris Thomsen. In the final days of the coaching search, Spencer was thought to be the front runner. As it turned out, Thomsen was very much in consideration as well. When all of the dust settled, it was Frank Wilson who would be announced as UTSA’s next coach in a Friday afternoon press conference on January 15.
Race to Signing Day
To say Frank Wilson hit the ground running is a huge understatement. It was less than three weeks until National Signing Day when he was hired. UTSA had already signed several Junior College players the previous December but there was still a significant amount of work to get done in a very short time. Wilson arrived in San Antonio with a suitcase full of clothes and immediately got to work. Within days of his hiring, Wilson had selected a majority of his coaching staff. And before they were all officially announced, those coaches were on the road recruiting. In less than two weeks, the thrown-together coaching staff would secure some very talented recruits. All told, UTSA would announce a 21-memebr 2016 recruiting class. Considering the circumstances, it was one of the better classes UTSA could have signed.
A Spring of Change
After hiring a staff and meeting with the players, UTSA didn’t experience a lot of attrition. Normally with a new coaching staff arrives, a significant of amount of players decide to leave the program. This was not the case for UTSA. As the team began preparing for spring practices, an immediate change was noticeable, mostly in the Strength and Conditioning Program. The hiring of Ryan Filo almost immediately began to pay dividends as players began setting personal records in the weight room. When UTSA hit the practice fields in March, the vigor was off the charts. Players and coaches were flying around with an energy not seen before. Minutes into the very first practice, Wilson was taking actual reps with the running backs group. At the first practice in pads, we got our first look at the Bird Cage Drill (a practice technique used to test players in confined full contact situations) and the energy there was off the charts. We saw the offense change from a spread scheme to more of a pro-style set. We saw the defense change from a 4-3 to a 3-4. And we saw real competition all around because Wilson’s depth chart truly was “etched in sand.” It was certainly a change from previous spring practices.
In what seemed like the longest off-season in UTSA history, summer turned into fall and it was time for some football. Staff shored up several areas of need with graduate transfers. And UTSA began the fall in a true camp-setting. For the first few weeks of fall practices, players living off-campus moved onto campus and were roomed with teammates. It was certainly different from years past. The biggest storylines headed into the season surrounded the quarterback position and the addition of the graduate transfers. Fall practices came and went very quickly but that didn’t diminish the energy in and around the program. The 2016 season was about to begin and it felt like excitement was at an all-time high.
Ups and Downs
The 2016 regular season was filled with many highs and lows. I’ll remember it as a season of ups and downs. Some things that come to mind: The thorough domination of Arizona State through three quarters and then the fourth quarter collapse. Getting trounced by Old Dominion only to come back the next week to upset Southern Miss. I don’t think anyone will ever forget that five-overtime marathon vs UTEP. Solid wins vs UNT and MTSU put UTSA in position to compete for the CUSA title. And then there was that sobering loss to eventual conference champ La Tech. UTSA showed they were legitimately close to competing for CUSA title but just not there yet. What about that day in College Station? UTSA would lose to Texas A&M 23-10 but I think many Roadrunner faithful would point to this game as a measuring stick of how far the program has come in such little time. Then, of course, the season finale vs Charlotte. With bowl eligibility on the line, it seemed like the Roadrunners were going to cruise to an ease victory. But a specials teams mishap made the game close in the fourth quarter. Eventually, UTSA would outlast UNCC for the win and make history by becoming bowl eligible for the first time ever. The celebration was on.
Bowl Game and History
The New Mexico Bowl was a tough draw for UTSA. It was a home game for the New Mexico Lobos and Albuquerque isn’t the easiest place for fans to get to. But UTSA made the best of it. Thousands of Roadrunner faithful invaded New Mexico. I spent three days with the team and everywhere I went there were Roadrunner fans. The most eye-opening moment came the Friday before the bowl game. The two schools held a pep rally in Old Town Square. It was simply a UTSA take over. The band, cheerleaders, and thousands of fans took over the area. On game day, no one knew what to expect. UTSA had sold about 2,500 tickets but the weather was extremely cold and windy that day. At least 5,000 Roadrunner fans showed up. And they were loud. It didn’t end in a Cinderella fashion UTSA was hoping for, however. The Roadrunners’ quest to win the Gildan New Mexico Bowl was cast aside by the Lobos. UTSA was a 6-6 team playing in their first bowl and they played like it. But regardless of the result, UTSA’s first venture into the post-season was a success. The team played well at times and the fan base showed they were loyal and willing to travel. Even though the outcome on the scoreboard wasn’t what everyone wanted, there was a feel of accomplishment in the air.
With less than four weeks until National Signing Day, things are looking up for the UTSA’s fledging football program. Staff signed four dynamic Junior College players in December and UTSA is position to sign the #1 recruiting class in Conference USA and program history on Feb 1. The team will return a large majority of starters and contributors from last season. Overall energy and excitement surrounding the program seems to be increasing… They say a lot can change in a year. No kidding.