It was Roman dramatist, philosopher and politician Seneca who said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Seneca walked the Earth centuries before college football became virtually a secular religion in the United States, and long before the dollar’s allure changed the landscape of conference alignments across the country. But if he were alive today, Seneca undoubtedly would give UTSA a wink and a nod for being prepared when Conference USA came knocking at the door of the Roadrunners’ fledgling football program.
If anything, the Roadrunners, President Ricardo Romo and Athletic Director Lynn Hickey have demonstrated that there’s nothing as fortuitous as being in the right place at the right time. And standing ready to seize the moment.
"We have people like Dr. Romo and people like Lynn, and the community has been so proactive in putting our brand out," said UTSA football coach Larry Coker. "It’s like the Conference USA people said, ‘Wow, yeah, boy, San Antonio is a great city and they’ve got this [Alamodome] and good attendance, and people backing the program.’"
After finishing 4–6 in its inaugural season last year as an independent in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, UTSA gained membership to a pair of Football Bowl Subdivision conferences in an 1-month span.
UTSA is on track to become a full-fledged FBS member in 2014. No other NCAA athletic program has gone from having no football team to full membership in the FBS, formerly Division I-A, in just four years.
The Roadrunners accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference in November 2010. The official move into the conference was July 1. By then, the Roadrunners had already begun talks with C-USA and accepted an invitation to join that conference. The Roadrunners will join C-USA at the start of the 2013–14 school year and pay a $2 million membership fee.
"The stakes have gone up," Coker said, referring to the FBS competition the Roadrunners will face. "It’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be a climb. It’s going to be a tough transition. There will be no free lunches. We’ll be the underdog in a lot of those games.
"It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but there’s a hunger for football here. I think we have an affordable ticket to games, and the atmosphere at the Alamodome, the tailgating and everything else, has made UTSA football an event."
Conference officials could not help but be impressed by the fact that UTSA set NCAA single-game (56,743) and season average (35,521) attendance records for a first-year program. The Roadrunners play their home games at the 65,000-seat Alamodome.
"The attendance had to catch everybody’s attention," Coker said. UTSA would have ranked first in the WAC and second in C-USA in average home attendance.
UTSA is among four football-playing schools moving to Conference USA in the 2013 season, offsetting the departures of Houston, SMU, Central Florida and Memphis, which are bound for the Big East.
Hickey said the move to the new conference will affect all of UTSA’s 17 sports.
"This is not just about football," she said. "We will see increased visibility regionally and nationally, which will help our recruiting, our fundraising and our branding."
Romo said the Big East’s raid into C-USA essentially altered the direction of the entire UTSA athletics program.
"That changed the dynamics quickly," Romo said. "Basically, where they wouldn’t have paid any attention to us for two or three more years, all of a sudden they said, ‘We want you guys.’ And they came after us. We always thought Conference USA would be a great conference for us. We always felt they had the kind of teams we would want to play. It’s perfect for us because of the geography."
The three other schools joining UTSA in C-USA football are North Texas, Florida International and Louisiana Tech, making it a 14-team conference. North Texas and Florida International are departing the Sun Belt Conference, and Louisiana Tech is leaving the WAC.
UNC Charlotte and Old Dominion (Virginia) also will join C-USA, but their football teams won’t compete in league play until 2015.
Current C-USA schools are Alabama–Birmingham, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Mississippi, UT El Paso, Tulane and Tulsa.
While the ante will go up for UTSA, the Roadrunners stand to make more money in C-USA than by staying in the WAC because of TV revenue and other payouts.
"[C-USA] has always had a reputation of keeping athletics and academics prioritized correctly," Hickey said. "Conference USA is a nationally recognized brand, so the opportunities we’re going to have from ESPN, FOX and CBS Sports are going to be a new way of life for us.
"When you look at the map, the group of schools that we’re going to be able to compete with will allow our fans to be a part of this. We’re going to have new rivalries, but we’re also going to be able to keep some of our old rivalries. It’s a win-win because it’s the best of everything."
C-USA will be divided into two divisions, with the winner of each meeting in a conference championship game. League officials haven’t announced the division alignments yet, but UTSA is expected to be in the same division with North Texas, Rice, UT El Paso, Tulsa, Louisiana Tech and Tulane.
UTSA safety Mauricio Sanchez, a sophomore who graduated from Warren High School in San Antonio, said the Roadrunners’ quick rise to the FBS ranks has given them a sense of urgency.
"It’s a big challenge, but that’s what champions are made of," Sanchez said. "You have to have a goal in place and do whatever it takes to reach it. We’ve been working hard because we know we’ll be going against tougher competition."
While Coker expressed surprise that a conference invitation came so quickly, he said UTSA’s preparation and the lure of San Antonio and the Alamodome accelerated the Roadrunners’ ascent to the FBS.
"Five years is kind of the magic figure," he said. "I figured that if we proved ourselves and you’re competitive and you’re recruiting better, I thought we would be very attractive in five years."
Instead the invitation came within two years.
C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky left no doubt about what he thought of UTSA and San Antonio when he welcomed the Roadrunners into the conference.
"We’re so impressed by the work that’s being done at UTSA and the community of San Antonio," Banowsky said. "I have been in Texas for a long time, so I know how dynamic and vibrant that community is and how much it has to offer.
"As we introduced the possibility to the other members in the conference, people were really taken aback by the potential and wonderful opportunity that a relationship with not only the city of San Antonio but, more importantly, UTSA, is."
Banowsky said San Antonio would be a "wonderful venue" for the C-USA football championship game (Alamodome) or the league’s postseason basketball tournament (AT&T Center).
Landing either event would be a boon for San Antonio, which has hosted three Big 12 football championship games. The city also has been the site of three NCAA men’s basketball Final Fours and two women’s Final Fours. While San Antonio has been mentioned as a site for C-USA championship events, no serious discussions have been held. Any negotiations would have to be put on hold for at least a year, since UTSA will compete in the WAC throughout the 2012–13 school term.
UTSA competed in the Southland Conference from 1991 until the end of the 2011–12 school year. While UTSA won’t start C-USA play until next year, Coker said the Roadrunners already are benefitting from being associated with a bigger conference.
"There’s no doubt that it’s raised our profile and it’s made a difference in our recruiting," Coker said.
Coker, who led Miami to the 2001 Bowl Championship Series national title, said he had never seen the landscape of college football change as drastically as it did during this offseason. That Texas A&M would leave the Big 12, and rival Texas, to defect to the Southeastern Conference was inconceivable just a few years ago. But that was before the dominoes started falling and conference realignments trumped decades of tradition.
"I could never imagine an A&M going to the SEC or a Missouri going to the SEC," Coker said. "Then you’ve got West Virginia coming to the Big 12. It’s really been unbelievable. It’s really left an opening for us."
And UTSA was ready to fill it.