Sunday, August 16, 2015

History Lesson: Moving the Football Program Off Campus Proved Fatal.

Those who know me personally know I am a research nut, no matter the topic. Once I get an idea that I want to look into something or answer a question of some kind, I dig into the topic and won't leave it until I either tire out or feel I got everything I can.

That's how I came about gathering so much information on UTA football. Unlike the current sports UTA offers, I can't go and look at the latest media guide or fact book to answer some question. So I did the next best thing, crafted my own. I found a 1983 UTA football media guide online, which formed the backbone of what I did.

A lot of the meat of my research, though, came from information came in the online archives of the Dallas Morning News found on the website of the Dallas Public Library. I've had this information for a while and though it did provide a lot of insight, it didn't go in depth, as the Dallas Morning News covered UTA in a bare bones fashion. I thought about making the trek to Fort Worth to see if the Star Telegram had anything. However, I received a late Christmas present pertaining to that (I typed the majority of this piece in January, but decided to hold off on posting it until the offseason to give the individual sports competing in their respective seasons their deserved spotlight).
Recently I found that the Star Telegram's past issues are archived on the Dallas Library's website. Aww yeah! I went immediately to the games were there was missing information or holes. One thing led to another and I am finding articles on why UTA left their on-campus stadium, Memorial Stadium, for Turnpike Stadium, the soon-to-be home of the new Texas Rangers baseball franchise, the reasons for the jump to the next level and some of the how's and why's.

And sadly, it didn't relay any new flattering info on a topic I already knew. UTA is the case study on the absolute worst way to both run a football program and advance it to the next level.

UTA had a great run of success in the late, 1960's. They finished as co-champs of the SLC in 1966, outright champs in 1967 with a Pecan Bowl win and were a point away from a co-championship in 1968, that game is here. Even in a tough year, 1969, where they won one home game and finished at 5-5, they still averaged over 8,000 in attendance per game at their stadium. Though the last game of that year was the lowest attended game in years, it was still above just about every other attendance performance that would happen in future years.

It is clear that UTA officials were a bit embarrassed by their stadium situation. From the Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 24, 1969:

The Rebels last year started a lucrative home-and-home romance with San Diego State. Their game in San Diego drew 35,000, but San Diego comes to this sandlot (Memorial Stadium) this fall.

"I'm a little worried about what they're going to say when they first see our place," says UTA athletic director Chena Gilstrap.

The solution is certainly Turnpike Stadium, although Gilstrap has considered such radical moves as the Cotton Bowl and the new Texas Stadium.

"I don't think there's any question but that UTA has to get into Turnpike Stadium by 1970," says Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff. "It's Turnpike or bust."

Maybe part of it is knowing what I know now, but I just can't fathom why they thought moving the games off campus, into a baseball-first stadium was a good idea. I can see the idea where Memorial might be considered shabby or small, and from all accounts from people I talked to from that era, it was. But was Turnpike Stadium better?

UTA's home from 1970-1976.

Sure its seating capacity was higher, but was the fan experience? Those that attended Texas Rangers games at the old stadium will tell you it was a crappy stadium with average construction and forgettable appearance. The baseball stadium had front row seats that were a long way from the action and the seats that were close were at an awkward angle, when it was configured for football. The third base grandstands swiveled into the outfield, cutting off views of seats in the leftfield bleachers as well as creating a huge gap between the stands and one of the endzones. Let's also not forget infield dirt over a large portion of the field. It just wasn't a positive football experience for anyone.

After UTA left Memorial, it would never again have a crowd that would have filled Memorial. In fact, they'd never climb above the 10,000 attendance mark save for the inaugural game at Maverick Stadium. One of the reasons I like College Park Center is that it doesn't feel empty when the crowds are smaller, as compared to Lamar's Montagne Center or UNT's Super Pit, which seat over 10,000. UTA could actually have a smaller crowd, but the experience and atmosphere are far better. I can only think Memorial is the same way when compared to cavernous Turnpike/Arlington Stadium, especially when 2-6,000 show. All-time average attendance at Turnpike was 4,719, more than a thousand below any other venue. Even if UTA achieved those same numbers at Memorial, which I doubt, I can't help but think it would have been a better game environment. A better game environment then leads to a better environment for the home team, which in turn creates a home-field advantage, which then leads to more wins, which brings in more fans.

Turnpike certainly never provided a fun college football atmosphere and neither did it give UTA a home-field advantage, as the Rebels/Mavericks sported a .379 winning percentage as the home team.

I can't even begin to think how recruiting was impacted by this. UTA was already behind the eight-ball as they offered only 68 scholarships, compared to the 80-85 the rest of the Southland Conference offered and the max of 95 the NCAA allowed. To show off this stadium as your home field, with minimal player amenities at home must have turned some players off.

Coach Bud Elliott fielded a competitive team within the conference most years in the 1970's. That is commendable in and of itself.

All that isn't to say there weren't external factors that contributed to the program's demise. UTA was transitioning from a traditional to commuter campus, the Rebels-turned-Mavericks mascot controversy was brewing, the funding and scholarship limits previously mentioned, the faculty pushing to end funding for the program (President Nedderman, the one who would eventually pull the plug, issued statements of support for the program) all had negative effects. Yet, if the Athletic Department had made the right moves, I am convinced the program would be here today. While moving the home stadium off-campus wasn't the sole reason for the demise, it certainly was a huge factor, one as glaring as a Las Vegas sign in the middle of nowhere at night.

With informal talk of playing at Cowboys Stadium if UTA ever fields a football program, I hope the decision-makers at least look at history and the real world, UTA-focused case study of what happened the last time. Certainly, playing at Jerry Word is not the equivalent and a capacity-expanded minor league baseball stadium, but there's no question playing off-campus led to fewer fans. Of the four venues UTA called home, the top two are on-campus. Cravens actually had a high winning percentage, more than Maverick Stadium, but they drew less.

If the decision makers feel they have to play off-campus, then hopefully there are some contingency plans in place to avoid what happened last time. I fear disaster if there aren't.

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