Thursday, August 29, 2013

UTA and Football

Might as well get the big topic out of the way...UTA football. It is simultaneously the 800 pound gorilla and the elephant in the room.

If you know UTA, then the next part is merely a history refresher. UTA began organized football play in 1919, when it was a junior college. They won numerous conference titles as well as two national championships in the '50's. I have heard speculation, but nothing to confirm, that the NC's were the reason UTA moved to four-year status in 1959. I suspect it had more to do with academic aspirations, but to each their own.

They founded the Southland Conference with four other schools in the mid '60's and won two consecutive championships starting in 1966. The 1967 team went to the Pecan Bowl and beat North Dakota State, 13-0. They were one win away from three in a row the following year. In 1969, they were still competitive and popular on campus.

That all changed, starting in 1970.

There were many events that individually would have only had a small effect at worst, but taken together, really spelled trouble for the team. The events, given in no particular order, all worked together to both kill support and hinder the teams competitiveness (some would say that is one and the same).

1) UTA began a transition from a more traditional campus to a commuter school. This killed local, student support, as those attending UTA showed for class and left. The school built no residential housing, instead only focusing on academic buildings. Several historical buildings were destroyed, including Memorial Stadium (more on that next), and several were replaced with parking lots.

2) At the behest of the City of Arlington, UTA moved out of their on campus facility, Memorial Stadium, and moved to Turnpike Stadium, which was located very near where the current Rangers Ballpark is today. Memorial Stadium was then demoed. My understanding is that the stadium was old, showing its age and was in need of repair. Some I have interviewed even went as far as to say it was unsalvageable. I can't say it was or wasn't, but I do know that many stadiums that are currently as old or older than Memorial would have been are fine football facilities.

It was replaced with the current Maverick Activities Center and a parking lot. Moving off campus further disengaged students from the program. The last year UTA played at Memorial, they averaged 8,460 fans, a large total for that time period and not much less than total enrollment. The first year at Turnpike, they drew 4,580 per game.

3) UTA had many mascots for its sports teams, but they had been using Rebels for two decades. It had become very controversial and in a move that was less than democratic, the Administration spearheaded a change to its current Mavericks name. Regardless of where you stand, it did further alienate supporters, creating a divide between fans and the program.

4) An ill-advised and poorly planned move from the College Division (today's Division II) to the University level made the program a laughing stock. They won two games in two years, including an 0-10 mark to start. They program operated on a shoestring budget. Several news articles I retrieved from the Dallas Morning News archives reported that UTA funded 68 scholarships, while the NCAA limit was 95. Moving up and hoping to win is not a good strategy for success. Winning breeds fan support. Losing kills it. UTA wouldn't have a winning season again until 1979. From 1970 to 1985, only three of 16 seasons finished with more wins than losses. The silver lining is that five of those 13 seasons were 5-6 marks.

5) A popular coach was forced out. I don't know all the details, but Burley Bearden was an assistant for Chena Gilstrap when UTA won the Junior Rose Bowls for the JuCo Championships. Gilstrap was the coach until 1966. He was instrumental in the formation of the Southland and was the Athletic Director after that. By every single account I have read, he was very popular. Bearden coached the two conference championship teams and is still the only coach at the four-year level with a postseason win. He was well-liked by players and staff. It is possible that he was a good coach but a poor recruiter, though, as he went 18-9 in his first three years and 5-15 his last two. I don't know how much stock I put into that. The five losses in 1969 and ten losses in 1970 came against very tough opponents. It was the price they paid for moving up.

6) Funding was less than ideal as well. As I mentioned earlier, UTA underfunded the amount of scholarships for most of the 1970's. Coaching salaries were lower than peer schools.  I can't imagine what the recruiting budget looked like either, though I do know it was poor for every other program at UTA.

There have been other things folks have mentioned, like the acrimony over the funding sources of the football program, but I don't think those had much as much impact on the winning tradition and fan support they had enjoyed in the '60's. It was a common sight for UTA to draw over 10,000 for a game in the late '60's. They did it once in the last 16 years of the program.

There were two chances for redemption, but as was the case in the '70's, UTA fumbled the ball, both literally and figuratively.

UTA built a solid, competitive team for the 1979 season. They were two points away from an Independence Bowl berth (sealed by a fumble in the McNeese State game). They still finished 9-2 that year and one game behind McNeese State for the Conference title. That would rank as the second best year for UTA in terms of winning percentage.

That alone wouldn't have been as big a deal. Teams will consistently have roller coaster results from year to year. But the following year, UTA opened Maverick Stadium, the first on-campus stadium in a decade. The buzz surrounding that AND following up a 9-2 season was a golden opportunity. Had they sustained the winning into the 1980 season, there might have been a revival of fortunes and UTA would be playing football today. However, they dropped the first game 31-14, and it wasn't as close as the score indicated. Expectedly, the stadium sold out (18,033) and is still the record for highest attended home game. That happens all the time when a program unveils a new stadium. But by losing that game, followed by a 3-8 season, including an 0-5 start at home, signaled that the 1979 team was an apparition, not a new Maverick norm. From there on out, 4-7,000 was the attendance average at Maverick Stadium and UTA would never see 10,000 at home again.

The second chance for UTA may have been the season that wasn't. UTA set several offensive records in 1985, even though they finished 4-6-1. They would have been in a tie for firstt if they had found a way to score a total of seven more points against three teams.

19 starters were set to return for the 1986 season. Arkansas State's Head Coach Larry Lacewell stated the Mavericks would have been the team to beat in 1986. Instead, his team went 12-2-1 en route to the 1-AA national championship game. Some of UTA's players were on his roster. Another six transferred to Southwest Conference schools. I admit this is pure conjecture, but I firmly believe UTA would have been in the 1-AA playoffs that year, and played in more than one game. Would that have been enough to change the Mavericks fortunes?

However, from the moment the football program was disbanded, conversation shifted to when will UTA bring back football.

My position: it will be sooner rather than later. Reading the tea leaves, interpreting quotes from the various actors, moves made by the Athletic Department and trying to sense the community at large, I see a real change that didn't exist even less than a decade ago.

In my opinion, if UTA restarts football, several conditions have to be met.

1) The existing sports can't be negatively impacted. Back when UTA had football, no other men's sport had full scholarships. They did immediately after the program disbanded. The current offerings have been successful in both the SLC (three Commissioner Cups for the best overall athletic department) and the WAC (second highest finish per sport of the ten Universities). I see no reason the Sun Belt will be any different. They have been given the resources to compete and should maintain that.

2) Similarly, the existing sports should have the best venues and facilities they can. College Park Center, the new basketball and volleyball home, satisfies a lot of that. Softball and baseball are next. After that, I think the UTA Tennis Center should provide locker rooms and offices and then we are set in that realm. Maverick Stadium is still a top notch track and field venue.

3) The funds needed to restart the program should be raised externally. I don't care where it comes from. In the case of CPC, funds came from the system, donors and indirectly from the gas wells near campus. Existing sources should not sacrifice anything for start up costs.

The good news, I think all of this is quite doable. Since football's demise, UTA has proven it can run a quality, competitive athletic department. I see no reason they can't do it with football if the above conditions are met.

Volleyball Season Begins Friday

I post a lot on the UTA Maverick board, a small but loyal group of posters contributing to the discussion of UTA athletics. Especially early on, many of my posts will be duplicated either on or from there. This post will be the same.

UTA begins their first year in the Sun Belt conference this year and the first sport to begin play will be the volleyball team, the only fall team sport. That will be at 7 pm at the College Park Center against Abilene Christian, a transitional DI program.

The Sun Belt released their preseason poll and it is about what I expected. From the post:

Summer doldrums are over. Volleyball begins play this week with the first matches at CPC.

Here's the SBC preseason poll with the parenthesis indicating last years record and, if applicable, the SBC record, bold is a non-SBC conference record:

1. Western Kentucky (33-4, 15-0) – 100 points
2. UALR (13-14, 9-5) – 77 points
Troy (21-12, 10-5) – 77 points
4. Arkansas State (19-14, 8-6)– 64 points
Texas State (14-16, 9-9) – 64 points
6. UT Arlington (9-22, 5-13) – 47 points
7. Louisiana-Lafayette (16-16, 6-8) – 46 points
8. South Alabama (13-17, 6-9) – 39 points
9. Georgia State (4-20, 2-10)– 24 points
10. Louisiana-Monroe (5-18, 1-13) – 13 points

This is about where I would put them. WKU is in the preseason top 25, so that is no shock. I think I would have Troy as outright 2. The Arkansas teams are even and round out the top four, in either order for me. And until we beat them on the court, you have to give the nod to Texas State.

As for the teams below us, historically, we are better than the Louisiana's, and as last year showed, that is the case even when we struggle. You'd have to go back to 1995 to find South Alabama's last winning season, both overall and conference. Didn't follow the Colonial, but past records indicate that Georgia State isn't that good, so that fits.

We have experience this year, something we didn't have last year, so hopefully that will translate into something better than what is listed here, but as it stands now, this seems to be pretty accurate with what we know about the conference. 

Further, let me add the all-time records against our new conference mates.

Arkansas State, 7-1
Georgia State, 1-0
Lousiana-Lafayette, 8-0
Louisiana-Monroe, 38-2
South Alabama, 1-0
Texas State, 40-24
Troy, 0-0
UALR, 8-5 
Western Kentucky, 1-0

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

UTA Mavericks blog

Greetings. I am a UTA Maverick. Graduated with a bachelor's in 2003, Masters in 2010. Began my love affair with the athletic department in 2000, shortly after I transferred to UTA. During that time, I was fortunate to be a sports broadcaster for much of the athletic department's team sports and witnessed many historical moments. My favorite is a tie: the 2001 NCAA Baseball Tournament, in which Craig Martin hit a late inning homer to win their first NCAA tourney game, and the 2003 NCAA softball team that beat Florida and Florida State in the tournament, behind the pitching of the staff ace, Katy Cox.

I intend for this blog to about commentary only. If you want game stories, that is what and are for. I will not compete with those, but I do want to add something that is missing, Maverick discussion that goes beyond the games.

I've had the desire to write a UTA-focused blog for a while, and no time like the start of the athletic year.

So with that, I give you...The Maverick Rambler.