ARLINGTON — Front and center in the black-and-white photo, Chuck Curtis stands underneath his trademark cowboy hat, hands jammed into his jacket pockets. He doesn’t look happy, and he had no reason to be. Only a couple weeks earlier, his own administration sacked his football team.
A rally in protest of the decision turned out one of Maverick Stadium’s biggest crowds in Curtis’ two years as head coach. Behind him in the photo hangs a banner:
“UT Arlington football will return.”
Nearly 37 years later, a lot is going on at UTA, but football is still as dead as Chuck Curtis.
Meaning that, with no imminent signs of resurrection, UTA will remain the largest university in the nation without a major blocking and tackling.
Here in Texas, where football ranks as the state religion, it almost seems like a sin.
On Monday at College Park Center, UTA’s new president, Jennifer Cowley, hired in April, introduced UTA’s new athletic director, Jon Fagg, at a press conference in which they jointly celebrated the athletic department’s pending move from the Sun Belt Conference to the more neighborly WAC. Cowley, an Arlington native, boasted of two dozen conference titles at UTA over the last decade and clamored for more.
Backing up Cowley’s motto to “dream big,” Fagg, getting his first shot as an AD after two decades in college athletic offices, said he wants to make “the impossible possible.”
Apparently some dreams are too far beyond the pale.
“I didn’t come here to start football,” Fagg told me after the presser. “I came here to handle the sports that we have and we’ll cross other bridges later.”
For the record, at least twice this century the university has undertaken feasibility studies to determine the cost of restoring football. Chuck Neinas, the interim AD who would bail out the Big 12, headed the first in 2004. Neinas reported that it would have been less difficult to maintain the UTA football program over the previous 19 years than to start up a new one.
Cowley has seen that study. Her take on a restart?
Here’s how big the tab would be: Another feasibility study, revealed after an open records request by The Dallas Morning News in 2018, they concluded that adding football as well as women’s soccer and beach volleyball to satisfy Title IX requirements would run $146.7 million over 10 years. Pretty steep for an athletic department that reported $503,000 in donations the previous year and a $14.1 million overall operating budget.
The cost was so prohibitive, Jim Baker, Fagg’s predecessor, stipulated that football would have to be funded exclusively by boosters or other private resources, not student fees.
Considering the expense, it’s no wonder UTA officials aren’t football crazy. Given the landscape of college football these days, what with NIL making millionaires out of teenagers and big-name coaches driven to distraction as a result, there’s a lot to unpack. And then there’s the economy. Frankly, I wouldn’t start a hot dog stand in this climate. Assuming I knew how to run a hot dog stand.
But here’s the PR problem for UTA: If it’s too costly to put on a football program when you’re the fourth-biggest university in the state, with an enrollment of more than 40,000, how come Texas at Rio Grande Valley is doing it?
In November, the 30,000 students at UTRGV — a regional merger of the former UT Brownsville and UT Pan American — approved a fee increase of $11.25 per hour, capped at 12 hours. The money would fund, among other things, football, which would compete in the WAC starting in 2025, as well as women’s swimming and diving and not just one but two marching bands.
Of course, in UTA’s defense, you don’t need even one marching band if you don’t have a football team.
What UTRGV has going for it that UTA doesn’t in this case, anyway, is the largest and most populous area in the nation without a D1 football team. The North Texas area already has SMU, TCU and UNT. For that matter, UTA was the fifth-largest university in the state in 1985, and size didn’t save the football program then. Most of its students were commuters, prompting a smart-aleck local columnist to call it a “drive-thru university.”
The thing of it is, UTA officials didn’t exactly disagree at the time.
“I think we could become a more traditional school,” UTA athletic director Bill Reeves told reporters in ’85, “but we’d have to have some success to begin with.”
On that front, Baker, the outgoing athletic director, is mostly famous at UTA for firing Scott Cross, only the best basketball coach in school history. The first day he’s on the job, Fagg will constitute an upgrade.
UTA can claim all sorts of improvements, starting with the fact that the Mavs no longer play basketball on a stage. College Park Center is a nice place to watch a game, and no one hollers for you to sit down up front.
Cowley said she hears from alums all the time about what they’d like for her to do as president. The return of football comes up. She said it’s not on the front burner now, even on simmer, but “it’s certainly open for long-term thinking.”
One step at a time, apparently. An alum stood up at Monday’s press conference and asked the new president if she could do something about the fact that he can’t walk into a sporting goods store in Hurst and buy so much as a UTA keychain. Cowley told him she’s on it. She practically got a standing ovation.
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