There’s a memory that always gives Jeff Traylor a chuckle. While he was the associate head coach at the University of Arkansas, one of the high school players he was actively recruiting Facetimed him in amazement. The player had just arrived for a football game against the Gilmer Buckeyes when he took note of the stadium’s name. “He said, ‘Coach, you won’t believe this. I’m at Jeff Traylor Stadium! What a coincidence!’” When Traylor informed the young man that the stadium was actually, seriously, honestly, verifiably, legitimately named after him, there was a brief pause before the teenager replied, “But you’re not even dead yet!’”
It’s not often that Texas high school football coaches reach a legendary status in their 40s, but that’s exactly what Traylor did in his hometown of Gilmer. After serving as an assistant coach for Big Sandy and Jacksonville high schools in Texas from 1989 to 1999, Traylor got his first head coaching gig at Gilmer High in 2000. Over the course of 15 seasons his teams amassed three state championships, five state title game appearances, and 12 district crowns in the little northeast Texas town of 5,000.
During those two-plus decades as a high school coach, Traylor established meaningful relationships with the Texas High School Coaches Association. Those connections would serve him well on the recruiting trail as he made the jump to become an associate coach in the college ranks in 2015. During his time as the lead recruiter at The University of Texas at Austin, Traylor helped the Longhorns sign the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class in back-to-back years and was named the Big 12 Conference’s Recruiter of the Year for his efforts. He would go on to help the University of Arkansas ink its first national top 20 recruiting class in 2019.
“I have 4,900 numbers in my phone, and I’d bet 2,000 of them are Texas high school coaches,” Traylor says. “I’ve never changed my number, and I still return every text and phone call.”
The state’s high school coaches know that Traylor is not only a proven winner but also a transformational leader. Frankly, they’re rooting for him. More important, they’re increasingly pointing their top-flight athletes in Traylor’s direction. That support will be monumental as the first-year head coach aims to build UTSA into a program that can consistently compete for Conference USA championships.
Traylor says he had his eye on UTSA from the moment the university played its inaugural football season in 2011. He saw the potential of Roadrunners Football even as he served assistant coaching roles for well-established programs like Texas, SMU, and Arkansas over the five previous seasons. UTSA was a destination for a pioneer, he says, and if it wasn’t apparent from his introductory press conference where he enthusiastically admired men like William Travis and Davy Crockett, Traylor exudes that pioneer spirit. “Going to a young football program like UTSA would scare a lot of people, but it really excited me,” Traylor says as a smile emerges from his thoughtful focus. “This is a place where you can start your own traditions and paint your own picture. I love that.”
From his perspective UTSA already had four of the six “puzzle pieces” necessary for a college football program to flourish in Texas: a supportive university administration, a fan base that wants to win, an appealing city, and an impressive stadium in the Alamodome. What the Roadrunners lacked was a solid foothold in the fertile Texas recruiting footprint—an area where Traylor will surely benefit UTSA—and modern-day athletics facilities. That final piece of the puzzle will fall into place when the multimillion-dollar Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence opens in 2021. “That’ll be a game changer, in my opinion, and it’ll be an eye-opener for recruits,” Traylor says.
The nation has already seen what happens when universities make significant investments in football programs based in large cities without an NFL team, especially those from the Group of Five—a collective that includes the American, Sun Belt, Mountain West, and Mid-American conferences in addition to Conference USA. The University of Memphis recently earned a bid in the 2020 Cotton Bowl after a 12-win season in the American. In the aughts, Texas Christian University and the University of Utah rode year-after-year success in Group of Five conferences to invitations in Power Five conferences—the Big 12 and Pac-12, respectively.
Traylor, however, already has a model of success in mind: the University of Central Florida, a college football program that Orlando has rallied around. UCF’s performance in the American has been unmatched. The Knights have played in the heralded Fiesta Bowl twice since 2013 and nearly crashed the College Football Playoff during a sensational 2017–2018 season in which the team finished 14–0. Traylor says UTSA will soon have all the pieces in place to compete on the field and the recruiting trail with UCF and even some Power Five programs.
“I think it’s fair to think we can get there. We went 4–8 last year, so we have a long way to go to get on Central Florida’s level. But if you have a vision for what UTSA can become, that’s where we should start,” Traylor says. “We can’t be it if we can’t see it.”
Many recruits are already buying into Traylor’s vision. He won a December recruiting battle with Arkansas and Ole Miss for tight end Allen Horace, the highest rated recruit in UTSA history, and signed seven recruits graduating from high school in 2021 on a single April weekend in self-isolation. When those players join forces with a promising young squad that includes 2019 Conference USA Freshman of the Year running back Sincere McCormick, it’s hard not to see a bright future for UTSA football. From there, it’s all up to the coaches and players to put in the work.
“We’re going to win every day,” Traylor says. “I have enough confidence in myself, my staff, the players on our roster, and the players we’re recruiting to know that if we keep stacking those days on top of one another, we’ll be hell on wheels on the football field. That day is going to come. It’s just a matter of when.”