Scoring Big with New Football Teams: In an Era When Many Schools Are Dropping Team Sports, a Growing Number Are Bucking the Trend by Taking to the Gridiron

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The University of Texas at San Antonio campus is dominated by modern cream-colored buildings with dark red the roots and acres of parking lots, testimony to 40 years of serving largely as a commuter school. But last fall, it was also hard to miss the rectangular color posters attached to almost every lamppost--showing alternately a running back clutching a football, a tight end leaping for a pass reception, close-ups of a marching band, and enthusiastic fans doing the Wave. The pictures represented a low-key advertisement of a big-time endeavor: the first year of a brand new football team aiming to compete among the sport's Division I elite.

Across the country in Paxton, Mass., meanwhile, anyone turning onto the main drive of much smaller Anna Maria College gets the message that football has come to that campus, thanks to the sprawling new field and gleaming bleachers immediately visible to the right.

While Anna Maria's administrators and coaches have more modest ambitions for their three-year-old Division III football team than their counterparts at UTSA, both schools belong to an expanding phalanx of colleges launching football teams during tough economic times--and realizing considerable returns on their investment, from higher institutional profiles and greater school spirit to new revenue streams.

Over the past three years, according to the National Football Foundation, 19 new college football teams have taken the field at all levels of competition, including Georgia State University, Lamar University (Texas), and Old Dominion University (Va.). More than a dozen schools will be adding intercollegiate football in the coming three seasons, among them Mercer University (Ga.), The University of New Orleans, and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"Football's popularity has never been greater," notes National Football Foundation President and CEO Steven Hatchell. "And the fact that so many schools are embracing it is a testament that more college administrators see the value of the sport to the student's overall educational experience."

UTSA's Fast Track

Adding football, say administrators at The University of Texas at San Antonio, was a natural choice in a state where the nation's top 25 rankings routinely feature such heavyweights as Baylor, Texas A&M, and The University of Texas at Austin. UTSA Athletic Director Lynn Hickey recalls her job interview 12 years ago with school President Ricardo Romo. "He asked, 'Should we have football?' and I said, 'No sir, it would be cost prohibitive.' But after being here for a year--living in this culture--I knew I had said the wrong thing."

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"San Antonio is the seventh largest city in America. We didn't have a major college football program or a pro football team," explains Romo. "What I've heard from folks on the streets is, 'We've been waiting for a football program. We've been starved.'"

Romo also sees the new football team burnishing UTSA's status as one of seven schools identified by the state as Tier I universities, which have access to a $600 state fund for expanding research facilities and personnel. "We're attracting really good scholars. We now have a $3 million endowed chair in medicinal chemistry, and we've got three or four outstanding scholars in the field," he reports. "The vision is to be Tier I in everything, including Tier I in football." UTSA hired longtime college football coach Larry Coker, who led the University of Miami (Fla.) to a national championship in the 2001-02 season. And while UTSA's new team debuted in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision as part of the Southland Conference, it will advance to the Western Athletic Conference and the more competitive Bowl Championship Subdivision next season, playing the likes of Louisiana Tech and the University of Hawaii.

USTA already boasts a big league home field, San Antonio's indoor Alamodome, to which more than 56,000 fans flocked for the opening game last September. …