How UTSA plans to keep pace in the American Athletic Conference

Not long after Jeff Traylor was hired at UTSA in December 2019, he sat down for a meeting with athletic director Lisa Campos and the board tasked with constructing the Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence. The $40.4 million project created a new hub for UTSA athletics, providing the football program with fresh locker rooms, offices, meeting spaces and practice fields.
“I remember telling them, if you give me this $40-45 million building, I’ll never ask you for anything else, and we’ll win all the games that you want to win,” Traylor said.
For a while, Traylor’s words proved to be prophetic. The RACE facility opened in August 2021, and since then the Roadrunners have gone 23-5, winning consecutive Conference USA championships.
But as the 2023 season nears, UTSA faces a fresh set of challenges. The shift to the American Athletic Conference pits the Roadrunners against a group of schools with greater budgets and facilities, and the explosion of name, image and likeness deals puts more weight on boosters across the country to help keep rosters intact.
Though UTSA has expanded budgets through his tenure, Traylor is once again stepping back in front of Campos and the program’s supporters, asking them to hit a new set of benchmarks to help UTSA maintain its upward trajectory. More resources toward recruiting and increased salaries for assistant coaches are near the top of the list.
“She’s going to show me where I was, where we want to go, and where we are. And she’s exactly right,” Traylor said this spring. “We have chipped away, and we have chipped away, and we have chipped away. It’s just got to go faster, or we’re going to get passed. … It’s going to be a daunting task to continue to do more with less.”
Campos arrived at UTSA in November 2017, overseeing the athletic department’s rise from $26.4 million in expenses for 2016 to $39.2 million for 2022, per the university’s financial reports to the NCAA.
UTSA president Taylor Eighmy said that figure needs to rise to “at least” $45 million, and Campos acknowledges the program has “work ahead of us, for sure,” to be competitive with the resources of other programs in the new AAC.
While football drives the realignment conversation, men’s basketball coach Steve Henson said the Roadrunners “have work to do” to get on par with the budgets of their AAC opponents, and women’s basketball coach Karen Aston said her program is “really far away from” the top half of the league. UTSA’s coaches acknowledge that gap won’t close overnight, and Campos said she’s committed to notching incremental improvements.
“Everything, from operations, recruiting, travel, salaries, number of employees we have, we’re going to have to be really strategic in our investments and how we move the program forward,” Campos said. “There's a lot of growth opportunity, but I'll reiterate that where we were five years ago to where we are now, I think we’re proven we’re committed to that, and we’re moving in the right direction.”
Primed for a jump
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said UTSA is “a UCF waiting to happen” — a young program in a major city that is ready to increase athletics investment and vault to national prominence.
But while UCF is jumping from the AAC to the Big 12 after a run that included six AAC titles and three appearances in New Year’s Six bowls, UTSA has ground to cover just to reach even footing in the AAC.
UTSA’s total athletics expenses of $37.6 million for the 2021-22 academic year ranked 10th of 13 responding football schools in the AAC, per data provided to the U.S. Department of Education as required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA).
UTSA’s total football expenses of $12.8 million ranked ninth in the league, per the EADA figures, sitting at less than half the total of top spenders Temple ($29 million) and SMU ($27.1 million).
Though less detailed than the annual financial reports submitted to the NCAA, the EADA data allows for stronger comparisons around the AAC, with every program except Navy providing data. Many AAC schools were protected from disclosing their annual financial reports by state law or their status as a private institution.
The AAC’s top six programs in total expenses are incumbent league members, ranging from SMU at $79.4 million to Tulsa at $47.4 million. Only Tulane, the league’s defending champion and 2023 preseason favorite, at $34.2 million ranks behind some of the six newcomers from C-USA, which ranged from North Texas at $44.2 million to Charlotte at $33.6 million in total expenses.
Aresco said he expects the financial gap between the two groups to “narrow considerably,” adding that the league will “look to UTSA to invest like they said they would, and they will.”
“What we’d like to see is everybody within a certain range,” Aresco added. “We don’t want to see somebody at 80 and somebody at 20 or 40, because you’re not going to be able to compete as effectively.”
Following the departure of big-budget programs Houston, UCF and Cincinnati to the Big 12, Aresco said the AAC sought additions that showed recent growth and a willingness to spend “to compete at the level we compete at.”
“All of the new schools coming in knew they would have to invest at a higher level,” Aresco said. “Whether that’s 100 percent more, 50 percent more, it’s a gradual process. They’re not going to do it all at once.”
With the move to the AAC, UTSA is anticipating an increase in media rights earnings through the league’s deal with ESPN, which has reportedly paid member schools about $6 million per year in recent seasons.
Though the league lost three of its most high-profile programs, Aresco said ESPN “kept our incumbents whole” through realignment. Without providing specifics, Aresco said the league’s newcomers will receive a lesser portion of those distributions, adding that “of course our goal is always equalization down the road.”
Prior to exiting Conference USA, UTSA’s annual earnings through media rights and conference distributions totaled about $1-2 million, an amount Eighmy described as “miniscule” compared to the anticipated income in the AAC.
Aresco said two of the leading indicators of an athletics program’s increased investment are support from donors and the backing of the political establishment, and the Roadrunners see positive trends in both areas.
UTSA’s recent Park West Fieldhouse project was funded with $8 million from Bexar County, and the city of San Antonio has committed $5 million for the department’s upcoming basketball and volleyball practice center.
The Roadrunners also announced that 2022-23 was a record-breaking year for fundraising. The $2.9 million committed to the Roadrunner Athletic Fund was nearly $1 million more than any previous year, and the $5 million in overall gifts and commitments to athletics marks the second-highest total in the program’s history.
Eighmy also pointed to encouraging outcomes in the most recent Texas legislative session, as UTSA’s allocation for the biennium spanning Sept. 1, 2023, through Aug. 31, 2025, is $71 million higher than the previous two-year period. The university’s allocation rose from $292 million to $363 million, per UTSA.
“When we do well that way, it perhaps allows us to reallocate dollars in some small way to support athletics,” Eighmy said. “There’s all sorts of work we do to optimize our financial situation for the university, but athletics is part of the equation.”
'A really large ask right now’
More than a year before Traylor’s arrival, in August 2018, UTSA unveiled a RACE facility initiative that included a covered football practice field, tabbing the project for an estimated cost of $44 million.
But when UTSA broke ground on the facility in March 2020, the practice pavilion was no longer part of the plan, instead pushed to a later phase of construction. Earlier this year, Campos said cost estimates to cover the practice field had increased by about 30 percent from the original projection of about $6.6 million.
At the grand opening of UTSA’s Park West Fieldhouse last month, Campos and Eighmy offered no timetable for construction of the football pavilion, calling the planned $30 million basketball and volleyball training facility the department’s next priority.
Traylor acknowledges that covering the practice field is “going to be a really large ask right now,” but he continues to count the project as a “need” for the Roadrunners to remain competitive.
Six of the 14 schools in the AAC boast a true indoor practice facility, while Rice has an 80,000-square-foot training bubble and UAB offers an open-air pavilion similar to UTSA’s design for RACE. Charlotte and East Carolina have also announced plans to build an indoor football practice facility.
UTSA last month added lights above the grass practice field at the RACE facility, opening the possibility for early morning practices to minimize heat exposure, or for night sessions to acclimate the Roadrunners to any late kickoffs.
Still, Traylor noted that UTSA would have just one field available for any practices under the lights, forcing a deviation from the usual approach of training the offensive and defensive units on separate fields.
“If we’ve got good weather, we’ll be fine. It’s when we don’t have good weather, that’s where it gets really scary,” Traylor said. “If it rains on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and you play that weekend, that’s really nerve-wracking, because you don’t get the reps that you need to get in.”
North Texas coach Eric Morris said the program’s temperature-controlled Lovelace and McNatt Families Practice Facility gives the program a “huge advantage,” allowing him to push players harder or “get a couple more reps” without the heat adding a toll.
South Florida became the latest AAC program to open an indoor practice field in January, when it unveiled the $22 million Porter Family Indoor Performance Facility.
“It shows there’s a commitment to taking the next step as a program,” USF coach Alex Golesh said. “You can strategically plan workouts and practices where you can get out of the heat and be able to coach without that element.”
Campos said UTSA’s practice pavilion is “a need that we’ll continue to focus on.”
“We’ve been so focused on just having the RACE facility to begin with,” Campos said. “Having our own fields to practice on. You think about the trajectory of having to practice on high school fields, to then having to rent rec sports fields, to now having our own fields in a short amount of time has been a huge improvement. So, we know everything is not going to happen overnight, and it’s going to take some time.”
'We need a miracle’
From a zoomed-out perspective, Traylor said the Roadrunners’ progress since the inception of the football program has been “pretty remarkable.”
UTSA and Charlotte are both in their football infancy, starting in 2011 and 2013, respectively, while UAB’s program was revived in 2017 following a two-year hiatus. But nine of the 14 AAC schools have more than 50 years of football history, and four of the programs boast more than 100.
UTSA and UAB were both established in June 1969, standing as the two youngest universities in the league. Nine of 14 football schools — and 10 of 15 overall — are more than 100 years old.
“We have some work to do in certain areas to catch up to some programs who have been playing football for over 100 years,” Traylor said. “We’re going to need some more boosters to step up and write some pretty large checks to get some things taken care of that we need taken care of.”
Eighmy said UTSA’s momentum and growing athletic budgets earned the program recognition as a candidate for the new AAC, and Campos said the department “always wants to be on the top of the league in all that we do,” making financial goals “a moving target” to keep pace.
In the AAC move, Campos sees fresh opportunity for revenue generation, but also higher bars to clear.
Just like in 2019, Traylor can point to all the areas the Roadrunners need to address to be able to “sit here and win a lot of games for a long time together” — a list including recruiting budgets, coaching salaries, nutritional expenses, NIL deals and an indoor practice facility.
Though he worries about sounding ungrateful for all the progress the department has made, Traylor warns that the positive momentum can be fleeting and difficult to reignite if UTSA doesn’t find “checks, and big checks, to stay competitive” in the AAC.
“Do we just want to be a stepping stone? Do we just want to be a minor league? Is that just OK?” Traylor said. “I just don’t see this city that way. I don’t see this university that way. I don’t see myself that way. I know we can do it. It’s just, we need a miracle.”

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