Jeff Huehn / UTSA
Free safety Nate Gaines remembers the swell of sound, the surge of emotion. Two hours and 15 minutes before last season’s home opener, he ambled down Roadrunner Alley for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s traditional Spirit Walk into the Alamodome.
Except the route of the walk had been moved. This time Gaines followed a path lined with cheerleaders and UTSA's Spirit of San Antonio band between parking lots B and C – right through a sea of tailgaters, screaming and cheering them on. The new route, made due to construction, created an up-close and electric connection between players and fans.
“It was surreal,” said Gaines, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior. “It gave me life and set the tone for the day.”
UTSA went on to beat Alabama State 26-13, a victory that propelled the Roadrunners to their first bowl game in school history and set fans up for big expectations in 2017: a winning record, a second bowl game, perhaps even a shot at the Conference USA championship.
Those who cover C-USA share the fans' view. In a preseason poll released last month, UTSA was picked to finish second in the West Division. The Roadrunners received seven first-place votes while Louisiana Tech, the favorite, captured 20.
The return of six starters, including quarterback Dalton Sturm and receivers Josh Stewart and Kerry Thomas, from an offense that averaged 29 points, fuels optimism. All-conference linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and defensive end Marcus Davenport are among seven starters returning from a defense coaches expect to be much improved.
Much excitement centers on the work of second-year coach Frank Wilson. In one season under Wilson, the Roadrunners improved from 3-9 to 6-7 and came within a few points of a winning season. A rising star, Wilson already has been mentioned for other coaching openings, including the one at Ole Miss, where he coached the running backs for three seasons.
UTSA wants him to stay and just sweetened his contract. A new five-year deal will pay Wilson more than $1 million in 2017 and make him the conference’s highest-paid coach. To make it harder for anyone to steal him, UTSA included a buyout clause of $1.2 million.
What does the future look like for the Roadrunners? One online publication, 247sports.com, just ran a piece headlined: “Not just a recruiter: Frank Wilson building his empire at UTSA.”
The optimism and hype continue to grow, and Wilson gladly embraces them. “We continue to create a culture, a state of mind, an expectation, a standard of excellence, and strive for it,” he said after a recent practice.
At the same time, he balances excitement with reality. “You can’t talk your way into a conference championship,” Wilson said. “You can’t back-door your way in. You have to earn your way. And it begins on the practice field. … You do it outside of football with self discipline, doing the right thing when nobody is looking. Never looking over your shoulder, because you’re totally focused on the big picture. And for us, that full measure of success is the championship.”
Championship-starved fans will drink to that – and throw a massive downtown fiesta in the process: tailgating. Since UTSA’s inaugural season in 2011, tailgating has exploded. Tents, food, smokers, trucks, people everywhere. While there is no data to measure its growth, the eye test is telling.
Brandon Raphael, senior associate athletic director for development and ticket operations at UTSA, estimates the orange-and-blue tailgating crowd has doubled since 2011.
“You have more tents and more people playing football in the parking lots,” Raphael said. “And more folks are getting there earlier and setting up.
“That first year, you had some people who were experienced with college football, but the majority didn’t know about tailgating – how it worked, what time to show up. This last year was definitely our biggest year for tailgating and we expect more this year.”
Raphael recalls two couples who tailgated out the back of their cars that first season.They started with a hibachi grill. Two years later, they bought a trailer with a smoker and invited friends to join them.
“That grew from two [parking] spots to four spots to eight spots,” Raphael said. “Going into their fifth year, they had around 12 to 15 spots and 50 to 60 people coming per game.”
Tech entrepreneur David Spencer graduated from the University of Texas at Austin but ranks among UTSA’s strongest boosters. He bought 30 parking spaces to tailgate for UTSA’s first season and 1,600 people showed up for the party.
“UTSA football is fascinating, compelling, and fun,” Spencer said. “It is beyond fun. Tailgating is part of that. There is a camaraderie and a spirit for the city that is palpable. Who doesn’t love to come out and root for the hometown team? What’s good for UTSA is good for this city.”
The football team feeds off fan energy. So do the coaches.
“The fans that showed up were loud and proud and represented extremely well,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.”
The Roadrunners wouldn’t trade Wilson, either. An accomplished recruiter, he signed one of the conference’s strongest classes in 2017 and has UTSA poised to challenge for West Division supremacy.
Saturday’s home opener against has been postponed until Sept. 16, leaving loyal UTSA fans anxious with anticipation. Nonetheless, Wilson has Roadrunner Nation believing every game can be won.
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