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A Whole New Ball Game

The University of Texas at San Antonio hopes the fastest route to tier-one status is straight down the middle of the football field.

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Is the fastest route to top-notch academics a football team? If you're the University of Texas at San Antonio, maybe so.

Next fall, UTSA will spend millions to field a football team it hopes will someday compete with cross-state rivals like the University of Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. But the plan goes far beyond athletics. As the college makes a push to become one of the next tier-one research universities in Texas, campus leaders say the school’s academic and athletic goals are closely linked.

Students and administrators, led by UTSA President Ricardo Romo, hope the team will foster school pride and capture the attention of alumni, who they believe will be more likely to support university financially. They also hope a team will transform the university from a commuter school to one where students live and play. “The whole campus is kind of buzzing about it,” says Travis Goodrich, a UTSA sophomore. “We need school spirit. We don’t really have that right now.”

But there are skeptics. While many faculty have enthusiastically supported the creation of the football program, others have wondered whether the university has its priorities straight. Mansour El-Kikhia, president of UTSA’s faculty senate, says faculty support is mixed for the project. The major fear, he says, is that the team will distract from the university’s academic mission or divert dollars from the institutional budget. The university has pledged “that no funds will be taken away from the institution to finance this football team,” El-Kikhia says. “Of course, there’s always the fear that UTSA will become a diploma mill for athletes and so forth.”

UTSA had dreams for a football team long before Romo’s tenure as president began. But when he took the job, he was skeptical himself. "When I got here I didn't think we had the resources to pull it off," he says. "I needed to see some things happen.”

One of those was a student fee to fund the program. In 2007, a referendum on campus approved a $20 increase in the maximum annual student fee — from $120 to $140. More students voted for it than for any referendum in UTSA history. The UTSA campus has 140 registered men’s and women’s flag football teams — the most on any campus in the country, Romo says, and more evidence that students were ready for a football team.

The UTSA Roadrunners will start as a Division I-AA team, with the hopes of eventually moving to Division I competition. But football isn’t the only goal. The campus is in a race to become one of the next tier-one universities in Texas — an elite national designation based on a school’s research funding and the quality of its students and faculty. UTSA and six other schools are competing for access to a pot of $680 million that was appropriated last legislative session to help one or more universities reach tier-one status. 

Among the obstacles UTSA faces is overcrowding on campus. The university’s rapid growth in enrollment has contributed to problems finding enough rooms to hold classes. The school already makes more use of available space than any other school in the UT System: Classrooms are used an average of 43 hours per week, compared to a 31.7 across the rest of the state. And some faculty question whether the school’s library is adequate for its tier-one aspirations.

Of the seven Texas schools competing for state funds designated for tier-one development, three have football teams: the University of Houston, Texas Tech and UT-El Paso. In 2004, students at UT-Arlington, which is also competing for tier-one funds, began discussing whether the school could revive its football program, which was dropped in 1985. President James Spaniolo rejected the idea as unrealistic.

But UTSA Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, who wasn’t always supportive of a football program on campus, said administrators have found several recent success stories of start up programs in Florida, especially the University of Southern Florida in Tampa. South Florida played its first four seasons in Division I-AA, where San Antonio will begin, until it moved to Conference USA in 2001 and then the Big East in 2005. “We can attract a lot of people, and we can raise the level of recognition of the university through our athletics program,” she says.

Administrators have promised that the school won’t divert academic money to the football program. Instead, money for the team is being raised from a mix of corporate and private donors. Administrators hope to eventually raise $15 million. So far, they’ve raised $2 million, including a $1 million gift from one alumnus and his wife, a current UTSA undergrad. 

Steven Kellman, a professor of English at UTSA, said he would rather have had the school’s most generous alumni contribute to academics, not a football team. He worries that if the team isn’t profitable quickly, the school will be footing the bill. A 2009 NCAA study found that only 18 athletic programs reported positive revenue for all five years surveyed. “I can't imagine that a new program just getting off the ground would have positive revenue, even with outside donations,” Kellman says. “UTSA is a young institution that cannot count on a large corps of alumni, particularly wealthy alumni.”

Romo says the boosters who donate to football are not necessarily the same people who would donate to academic programs. But Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland and a contributor to the Sports Economicst blog, says the concern that football is siphoning off potential donations for academic purposes is a frequent source of conflict at schools with teams. And he says that even many of the most successful programs struggle to turn a profit. “In many institutions the athletic departments get subsidized by the rest of the university — not the other way around, as the idea of football as a profit center for the university suggests,” he says.

Hickey insists the football team would be an asset rather than a burden to the university. She says UTSA’s sports programs have an obligation to keep up with the university's improving academic profile. More media and alumni attention on the university will benefit academics as well as athletics, she says. “We’re the same people. We’re the same university. But because we have this program, all of a sudden our value and the merit of being part of us has changed in a lot of peoples’ eyes,” she says. “We’re not going to close doors for academic fundraising — we’re going to open doors.”

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