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UT-Rio Grande Valley taking that next step in regional legacy-building: Division I football

UT-Rio Grande Valley taking that next step in regional legacy-building: Division I football
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Seven years after it was formed from two existing UT branches, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is amping up its efforts at student engagement — and a regional legacy — by creating a football program.

The UT System Board of Regents gave UTRGV officials the go ahead last week to develop a Division I football team, a women’s swim team, a marching band and a spirit program, all supported in part by a student fee that will increase by a maximum of $132 per semester and won’t be applied to most students until 2026.

“We can offer our students a lot of great programs, terrific faculty,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in an interview before the vote. “What we can’t offer them right now is a traditional college experience.”

The four programs combined are expected to provide more than 500 new participatory opportunities for the more than 31,000 students who attend UTRGV, but officials say the reach and impact will go beyond those joining the teams.

In a border region with high poverty rates and an economy dependent on agriculture and international commerce, the priority after the
merger of UT Pan American in Edinburgh and UT Brownsville
had been the launching of a medical school in 2016.

Next year, university officials will hire a football coach and begin recruiting a team for games expected to start in 2025. The fee increase, which students approved last year, will become effective in the 2023-2024 academic year, and only for incoming students.

“Most people don’t know that the old Edinburgh Community College, which is our predecessor back in the 20s and 30s, had a football team, so it’s interesting that (the community) hasn’t had one in a long time,” Bailey said.

Bailey has been
the university’s president since before it started classes
in 2015 and has emphasized the need to get students to participate in a school community that could tie together its two main campuses, which are more than 60 miles apart.

“It’s very exciting,” said Jose Herrera, a senior pursuing a biomedical sciences degree who said he appreciates the university’s affordability and quality but agreed with its leaders that “the only thing that is missing is the student life.”

Bailey has served at institutions with and without a football program and believes it makes a difference.

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He was provost of the University of Texas at San Antonio from 1998 to 2005, long before he had varsity football. Today, UTRGV references UTSA’s investment in athletics as an example to follow.

Universities whose students “live on campus, work on campus … who participate in student activities, they tend to have better retention and graduation rates,” Bailey said. “So this is really a key part of student engagement, which we think will lead to better academic success.”

The timing

UTRGV opened in the fall of 2015, two years after the Legislature approved its formation and that of its School of Medicine.

Creating a new regional university for the entire Rio Grande Valley required dissolving the two existing UT branches in Edinburg and Brownsville, which had their roots in local institutions and could not tap into the system’s Permanent University Fund.

The need for additional funding was tied to the goal of starting a medical school. In 2016 the
UTRGV School of Medicine
welcomed its first class of 55 students. Today it has more than 200, and more than 200 medical residents training throughout the region.

With the school of medicine established, officials are turning to the next priority.

“A lot of it is about timing,” UTRGV Athletic Director Chasse Conque said. “The expansion of our conference, the Western Athletic Conference, was a really significant moment for us in January of 2021. And now we have a football arm to our conference, which didn’t exist in 2017.”

Timing also matters to students. Johnathan Dominguez, 22, and Jose Herrera, 21, the president and vice president, respectively, of the student government association, said their need for a sense of student identity didn’t come until their second year at UTRGV. As freshmen, their main concern was getting the hang of their academic life.

They take classes in both Edinburgh and Brownsville, despite the distance, and attend games and activities throughout the region. Both backed the proposed student fee.

“What we hope to achieve… is a sense of community,” Dominguez said. “A community of people who gather to support each other and be there for one another.”

“Hopefully we have huge attendance at our games,” Herrera said. “I usually see game days as relaxation time, where we get together as a family and we are really proud of being Vaqueros.”

Since its inception the university has had a soccer team, volleyball, and basketball. Among the initial growing pains at UTRGV was the creation of a mascot to represent them and the regional nature of the school.

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Boosters at both legacy schools and even casual observers had a hard time letting go of UTPA’s beloved Bronc and UTB’s Ozzie the Ocelot. It took much debate and a student survey to come up with the Vaquero, and the decision was still so controversial, it spurred calls for Bailey’s resignation. The furor eventually died down.

From year one, UTRGV officials created events throughout the region, such as a picnic with the president and a speaker series. But with limited student housing near the two main campuses, Bailey acknowledges there is a prevalent commuter-school mentality.

The creation of the sports and spirit programs might lead to new student housing projects, university officials hope. They took advantage of the regents’ decision to a land purchase the next day, with acreage adjacent to the Edinburgh campus for future housing and student life projects.

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Having such a large regional footprint from the get-go is seen as an opportunity to have greater impact, Conque said.

“We tell our prospective student athletes that we are not the University of Texas at Edinburgh, or the University of Texas at Brownsville, we are the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley,” Conque said. “There’s not many institutions that get to represent a large region like we do… we are the Division I team here in the four-county region.”

The plan

In 2017 officials commissioned a feasibility study, led by former Longhorns coach Mack Brown, for the creation of a football program. It showed the university could support a Division I program under the Western Athletic Conference.

But with the School of Medicine still getting off the ground, officials decided to put a pin in it.

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In 2021, once the pandemic’s impact began to subsidy, university officials conducted a student referendum on whether they would support an increase in the current intercollegiate athletics fee from the current $15 per credit hour to $26.25, with a cap at 12 hours, or $315, per semester.

About 5,700 voted – close to 18 percent of the student body – with more than 60 percent in favor of the fee increase.

Starting next fall, only a small percentage of students will see the higher fee. Most are protected from it by the university’s set
tuition rate policywhich locks a rate for four years, a guarantee they lose only if they take longer than four years to graduate.

The average cost per academic year for students currently enrolled at UTRGV is about $1,100 – after financial aid and grants, which many receive.

“Only about 12 percent of our students pay full tuition and fees,” Bailey said. “Over 60 percent of our students don’t pay anything, we’ve been able to provide full financial support… so our students are in a very good place and they are graduating (with) among the second-lowest debt load in the US among public universities.”

Officials calculate that it won’t be until 2026 that the majority of students enrolled at UTRGV will pay the full $26.25 per credit hour fee.

“With student debt that is nationally recognized as next to nothing, that has allowed us to be able to work with our student body on a possible path forward to bring these initiatives to campus,” Conque said.

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Investments for the new programs will begin in 2023 with a $30 million expansion and update of the university’s existing athletic facilities.

The creation of the first UTRGV marching band will also come in 2023, giving students graduating from local high schools the opportunity to join a university band. Football and the women’s swimming and diving team will be the third component.

The women’s swimming and diving team will kick off in the fall of 2024. Football practice will also start in 2024, to be ready to play a full Division I schedule in the fall of 2025, Conque said.

At first, the university plans to lease existing facilities and stadiums throughout the Valley to bring games and competitions to a variety of locations. Eventually it might build a stadium, or stadiums.

“We’ll be able to take our show on the road and do things in Harlingen, in Weslaco, McAllen,” Conque said. “It’s a great opportunity, that we didn’t have to commit to that kind of investment out of the gate and we are able to take our time.”

The initial major cost of the football program will be the salaries and benefits of a coach and two coordinators, estimated at about $707,000 in the first year. Assistant coaches and support staff are expected to be hired in 2024, increasing the payroll to more than $1.5 million.

Once a team is recruited and games begin, the university will spend between $3 million and $5.5 million on salaries, student aid, operational expenses and travel. Officials expect the additional revenue created by these new programs to offset some of the costs.

The athletic fee increase, even in its limited reach, is projected to create $3.9 million in additional revenue in 2024, growing with each new freshman class to a projected $5.3 million in 2025 and $7.7 million in 2026.

Once the games begin, the school is projecting to start making $910,000 in athletic department revenue and $320,948 in NCAA conference distributions in 2026.

One component of building university pride is appealing to the community in general, particularly the alumni of not just UTRGV but all the schools in its family tree — the UT branches and their predecessors.

The university recently announced the formation of its
Football Founders Societya group of donors who pledge a minimum of $50,000 over five years to support the program.

With 29 members as of this month, the society has so far raised $1.5 million to cover initial football-related investments. This, coupled with a $1 million donation by the university’s foundation to support all four of the new athletic and spirit programs, puts the school $2.5 million ahead of the game.

“It’s not what we are about to do, it’s what we are in the midst of doing,” Conque said. “Now it’s about executing our plan …We’ve got time on our side, so we are really excited about that, that we’ve been able to build a plan that’s going to deliver to the university of the Valley what we promised.”

danya.perez@express-news.net| @DanyaPH

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