Marshall football: UTSA hit the ground running
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Take a major United States metropolis starving for college football. Add a national champion coach not ready to hang up his whistle. You get a Conference USA newcomer in the University of Texas at San Antonio that won't walk into Saturday's 2 p.m. game at Marshall with any rookie jitters.
There are six first-year schools in Conference USA this season. Of those six, the 2-3 Roadrunners join Middle Tennessee as the only two with conference wins. Louisiana Tech is 0-1 in C-USA, Florida Atlantic is 0-3 and North Texas and Florida International have yet to play a conference game. UTSA's progress is even more impressive considering the program didn't play a game before 2011.
The Roadrunners' huge first step in 2009 was to secure the services of Coker, who led Miami to a BCS title in 2001 and coached six seasons for the Hurricanes without a losing record.
"I wasn't ready to retire," the 65-year-old Coker said. "I was contacted by UTSA and when I looked into it, with the Alamodome to play in and the (seventh) largest city in the country, in Texas with no Division I football here or NFL football here, I just thought it had great potential. And I believe I was right when I did it."
Much like Florida, football is king in Texas. San Antonio wanted a hometown team and Coker knew there was plenty of home-state talent to reel in. All but 14 members of the Roadrunners roster are from Texas and 18 are from San Antonio alone. Another key ingredient was UTSA's refusal to let its wallet guide its decisions. It their 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Roadrunners didn't seek the big-money guarantee games that would have meant large paydays, but likely big losses.
In its inaugural season in 2011, its lone season in the Football Championship Subdivision, UTSA went 4-6. In its one season in the Western Athletic Conference in 2012, the team went 8-4 with a schedule that included teams from FCS and lower divisions, but plenty of Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said that formula has allowed the Roadrunners to avoid the catastrophic struggles that many start-up teams face when they move up in competition.
"The schedule they took on the first couple of years wasn't the Arizonas and Oklahoma States and those kinds of people," Holliday said. "Those kids had a lot of success early. A lot of people who start new programs like that, they play the Alabamas because it's all about money, and they destroy their kids' confidence.
"This team's a confident football team coming in here Saturday because they've won," he added. "Winning breeds confidence. And if anyone wants to start a program, they should look at what Larry and them have done there."
UTSA quarterback Eric Soza, third in C-USA behind East Carolina's Shane Carden and Marshall's Rakeem Cato in passing yards per game (268.4), agreed that the school's strategy paid off.
"I think each year ... that first year, the schedule was perfect for us," he said. "There were a couple of tough teams on the schedule, but it was mostly FCS teams. Last year it was a WAC schedule and there are some quality opponents there. I think that's the position we needed to be in.
"Seeing success at that level, we were able to prepare ourselves in the offseason, knowing this season was going to be the toughest schedule we've ever had," Soza continued.
Soza is right about the schedule, which includes Oklahoma State, Arizona and Houston as non-conference opponents. The Roadrunners fell to those three, but did beat New Mexico and then the University of Texas at El Paso for their first C-USA win. That gave UTSA an early indication that it could compete in its new conference.
"I think it was a confidence-builder for sure," Coker said of the UTEP win. "You know how confidence is, you have to keep rebuilding it. I think our confidence level is good. I think there are some things we certainly have to get corrected. I think we have to play better to have a chance to get a fine team like Marshall."
The Roadrunners know Saturday will be a step up in conference competition. Plus, no team from Texas has won at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in nine tries. But Soza said UTSA is excited for the opportunity. The team's excited for every opportunity, he said, considering the support the Roadrunners have received from the city of San Antonio. The team's average home attendance of 36,732 is behind only East Carolina on the C-USA list.
"How many people can say they've started a program?" Soza asked. "Just going out and being able to play the game you love, a game we've been playing since we were 6 or 7 years old and now being able to play at the Conference USA level, it's just a blessing. "
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.