Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The awkward pause became uncomfortable for a moment as University of the Incarnate Word Athletic Director Brian Wickstrom considered how to answer a question from a reporter.
How far from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs did he think his football team was when he hired coach Eric Morris from Texas Tech nearly a year ago?
“I’m trying to think of a synonym for a loooong ways,” Wickstrom finally said. “Not close to anybody’s vision in year one. I’m still in shock that we won the conference and we’re in the playoffs.”
In just their second season competing in Division I and just one year after the program finished 1-10 and the school fired Morris’ predecessor, Larry Kennan, the Cardinals went 6-4 this season. Their 6-2 conference record earned them a share of the Southland Conference championship.
The six victories are the most in the program’s history and earned UIW a spot in the FCS playoffs. The Cardinals will travel to Bozeman, Montana, to face Montana State at 2 p.m. Saturday in temperatures expected to be in the 20s with snow possible that morning.
While Morris and his coaching staff are basking in the lion’s share of the credit for this turnaround story, the reality is – like everything in college football – money also played a big part.
The Catholic school with a little over 6,000 students had only fielded a football team since 2009. In discussing the future of the program during the process of hiring Morris, Wickstrom and his coach agreed that more investment was needed immediately in order to build a winner. It certainly wasn’t as simple as changing the voices calling the plays and barking at players during practice.
Wickstrom, with the approval of UIW President Thomas Evans, said he committed to replacing the dilapidated field on which the Cardinals played and practiced at Benson Stadium in order to lure Morris away from his role as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech. Wickstrom also committed to paying for players to attend summer school, a routine practice at larger football programs and numerous other FCS schools.
Summer is a crucial time for the development of college football players, who go through conditioning programs set up by strength and conditioning coaches. It's also a traditional time for team bonding. Those coaches are allowed to spend a certain number of hours per week with student-athletes in the summer.
Not even having players on campus in the summer until the start of training camp was a big disadvantage for the program previously, Wickstrom said.
More than $1 million was invested between January and the start of this season in trying to upgrade the program, Wickstrom said. He characterized it as a new level of commitment to the student-athlete experience at UIW.
Standing on the track that rings the field at Benson Stadium on Tuesday after practice, Morris made it clear that getting players on campus during the summer and having them work hard in the weight room and get to know each other was as big a part of the turnaround as anything. Morris praised school officials for following through on their commitments.
“I think any time you’re a part of a good program, they do the little things right,” said Morris, who first built a reputation as a fierce worker when he played wide receiver at Texas Tech. “I don’t care if it’s a business or a school system or just anything you do in life. When people pay attention to those things, it’s going to end up giving you a bigger, better product.”
The investment didn’t end there. The school also committed to pay cost-of-attendance stipends allowed under NCAA rules to the 63 scholarship players on the roster as well as to the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the volleyball team.
Stipends range in amount and rely on an NCAA formula depending on cost of living in the communities where schools are located. They are generally between $2,000 and $5,000 per student athlete per year and meant to relieve the stress of having to pay for living expenses that scholarships don’t cover.
“We’ve done a lot of things to legitimize us being a Division I program that they hadn’t done before,” Wickstrom said. “It all happened in January when we hired Eric Morris.”
Unlike many of its Division I counterparts, UIW athletics operates without the assistance of a student fee for athletics. Wickstrom and others at the school secured commitments from Frost Bank, H-E-B, and Metropolitan Methodist Hospital as sponsors, Wickstrom said. They also got private donations from UIW supporters such as Todd Rasco, founder of the Cardinal Club booster group, president of Alamo Title Houston, and a UIW alumnus.
Wickstrom was hired as athletic director in August 2017 and came to UIW with a reputation for successful fundraising during his time at seven other schools. Wickstrom also secured support from Kerry Hatley, who owns an oil company in Midland and has been a Texas Tech booster. He previously had no official tie to UIW, Wickstrom said.
Another big upgrade came in improving the amount and quality of school-provided food for players during training camp and the season known as training table. The school also improved travel to road games by streamlining the amount of time trips took student-athletes away from school and upgrading hotel and flight arrangements. UIW also is in the process of adding another academic adviser for the program, Wickstrom said.
Junior offensive lineman Terence Hickman II attended Judson High School in Converse and admitted he didn’t even realize UIW had a Division I football program until late in his senior year of high school.
A starter on last season’s 1-10 team, Hickman said the culture shift brought to campus by Morris and his staff can’t be underestimated. He said Morris demanded players be on time to team meetings and practices and stay on top of their studies, which Hickman said wasn’t as much of a priority with the previous staff.
“All of these upgrades represent how we grew up as a team,” he said. “It has been amazing. We turned into a real D-I program. They’re talking about building up the locker room next year.”
Wickstrom, who came to UIW in 2017 with a reputation as a strong fundraiser after working at seven other universities, said when he arrived at UIW, he sensed the campus was waiting for something around which it could rally. He believes it has found it.
“We have donors that don’t even have ties to Incarnate Word but have ties to San Antonio and like what is happening,” Wickstrom said. “To be honest, the best thing about it is our president 100 percent supports everything we’re doing. He’s on board. So he is helping sell athletics for us, not just us selling it on our own without his support.”