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0 Comments | Apr 05, 2022

Boys to Men . . . Jeff Traylor, Head Coach, UTSA Roadrunners Football

Jeff Traylor CoverWhen UTSA football head coach Jeff Traylor first showed up for work on December 9, 2019, the team was just coming off a combined record of 7 and 17 for the preceding two seasons. The task at hand was clearly a challenging one. Still, if you’d asked Coach Traylor at that time what he felt were the odds of the team finishing the season two years later at 12 and 2 and winning the Conference USA championship trophy, even he might have been a bit doubtful about that enormous of a turnaround, and Coach Traylor is a pretty optimistic guy.

Still, it can’t have come as a complete surprise, given the already remarkable results of the previous season.

“I was grateful as can be for the seven wins we got in my first full season with the team,” he says. “After all, college ball is such an inherently fair system. Everybody has the same number of scholarships to go around (85), the same size coaching staff, more or less the same strength staff. Really, we could have won all those games in 2020 but for one or two events. Most of them ended up being one-possession contests.”

But spend a bit of time talking with Coach Traylor and you get the impression that the team’s rapid transition to success is about a whole lot more than athletic talent on the field. There’s a new ethos to the team, one that’s hanging on the walls in the locker room, the team meeting rooms, and pretty much any place where the players meet or train. Traylor summarizes it with his five fingers.

“Your pinky represents integrity; you do what’s right, regardless of how difficult it is. Your ring finger is passion; you keep your heart in it no matter what’s happening. Your middle finger represents mental and physical toughness; you point to your brain and your heart. Your index finger is selflessness; you point it toward your teammates. And your thumb points back at yourself to demonstrate perfect uncompromising effort.”

He then closes his fingers up into a fist and smacks his other palm.

“Trust the process,” he says, “Control what you can control. Just focus on winning the day. Do that each day and we’ll all be just fine.”

There are 112 players on the UTSA football team, and when Coach Traylor walks into the locker room and shouts “Integrity!” they all yell back as one, “Win the day!” Ditto for a few days later when he walks in and shouts “Passion!” And so it goes, one day at a time, one win at a time. Next thing you know you’re winning 12 games and holding a loft a conference trophy.

But there’s another important element to what this new coach has brought to the UTSA team and indeed to the entire campus. It’s an enthusiasm for the local schools, kids, and community. When he arrived in late 2019 there were just eleven local kids on the squad. Today that number is forty and the goal is for even more.

“Every kid you recruit out of high school is a gamble—physically, mentally, emotionally, “he says. “If I’m going to gamble, I’d rather gamble on a local kid any day. And we stay connected to as many of them as we can, because even if we lose one to an out-of-state school, they might well decide after a year that they’d rather be back playing at home. The more local kids we have, the more it connects us to the community, and vice versa.”

That enthusiasm for community didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Traylor grew up in Gilmer, Texas and graduated from Gilmer High in 1986. But he swears that every step along the way, going back as far as he can recall, he always wanted to be a football coach.

“I wrote in my high school yearbook when I was eighteen years old that I wanted to be coach of our team,” he recalls. “It took me twelve years to make that dream come true.”

In the end, he coached at Gilmer High for fifteen seasons and compiled a 175-26 record, leading the Buckeyes to five state championship games, three state titles, and twelve district championships, in the process winning Texas State High School Coach of the year four times and coaching no fewer than six future NFL players. Throughout those years, more than 100 kids earned full college scholarships. Years later, the school would name their stadium after Traylor. The coach remembers with a grin a call he got many years later from a student he’d been working to recruit out of Marshall, Texas. At the time of the call the kid was running in a track event at Gilmer High.

“Coach,” he said, “guess what? The stadium here at Gilmer is named after a guy with the exact same name as you!”

One can imagine the kid’s surprise when Coach Traylor explained the reason for the similarity of names. His response?

“I thought they only named stadiums for people after they’d died.”

Back on the coaching thing for a bit, we talked about what makes a good one and what makes a person want to be an athletic coach, even more so than wanting to be a player.

“I’ve asked my parents about that,” he says. “What was there about my upbringing that could explain it? They honestly have no idea. All I can tell you is that I’ve always wanted to do something that made an impact on the lives of young men. And for as long as I can remember, football coaches were always my heroes, in particular Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys) and Grant Teaff (Baylor Bears). But I can’t credit my parents with my love of athletics or coaching. They were both musicians who met at Texarkana Junior College on music scholarships.”

Coach Traylor recalls being pretty judgmental about his own coaches in high school.

“I could tell right away which ones truly loved their players and which were just doing it for a paycheck. Shortly after high school, I remember telling Coach Greg Owens (Sulphur Springs Wildcats) that one day I would return as head coach of the Gilmer team. And I also told him that when I did, I would make a point of teaching those kids all the things that no one in my generation ever learned from their coaches—how to jump, how to do squats properly, all the training things we never learned.”

If there’s an underlying philosophy to Traylor’s approach to coaching, it can be summed up in four words—turning boys into men.

“Boys take,” Traylor says. “Men give. At the end of all this, that’s going to be my real legacy. How many boys did I help to turn into men? And remember, even if a few of these guys are talented enough to make it to the NFL, the average career there is about three and a half years. So odds are that one day you’re going to be twenty-five years old and your football days are going to be over and you’ll be looking at what do I do for the remaining fifty or so years of my life?”

Coach Traylor has high regard for the leadership of the university and their emphasis on the futures of the young men who take part in the football program.

“No one at UTSA, including President Taylor Eighmy and Athletic Director Dr. Lisa Campos, has ever said one word to me about winning,” he says. “They are all about the complete student. Just be the best you can be every day and the winning will follow.”

Every week Coach Traylor meets with academic advisers and they share with him a report that details the academic status of each of the more than 100 young men in his charge—GPA, test scores, class attendance, all of it. The players—the students—are fully aware of this, and they know they aren’t going to be cut any slack when it comes to academics.

There’s a fundamental love of not only the game and the leadership challenges that go along with coaching, but also the recruiting process. Following his graduation from Stephen F. Austin State University, where he played as a walk-on quarterback, he held assistant coaching positions at Big Sandy High School (89-92) and Jacksonville High School (93-99) before returning to Gilmer. His first position after Gilmer was under Charlie Strong at Texas, where he earned Big 12 Recruiter of the Year honors.

“I learned an awful lot from Charlie Strong,” he says. “I’ve always loved the recruiting process. I just enjoy getting to know the kids and their families. I have to say, though, that I’m not a fan of the word recruiting. I don’t feel that it does justice to the discipline. Sure, it’s about identifying talented kids, but it’s also about understanding, getting to know them, their families, the whole package. You need to fully appreciate the impact that you’re in a position to have in these kids’ lives.”

Based on the success of his first two years with the program, Coach Traylor has just signed a new ten-year deal with UTSA.

“The school figured that there’d be some competition given how we’ve done so far, and they just wanted to get out in front of that,” he says. “I love the program here, the support of the campus and the community, all of it. We’re the seventh largest city in the country and we’ve got a great university. I want to be a part of building something truly special here.”

In fact, Coach Traylor had his eye on the UTSA program going all the way back to when it started in 2011 with the first full season under Coach Larry Coker (formerly a national championship winner with the Miami Hurricanes) and then Frank Wilson in 2016. Asked about future aspirations, whether with bigger schools or perhaps the NFL, Coach Traylor’s answer does not surprise.

“I love coaching young men. My purpose is to help make boys into men. In the NFL the players already have families and kids. In many cases, they’re making more money than the coaches. I feel like I’m just more suited for working with college-age kids. There are only two universities in Texas who in the last three signing classes have signed 100% Texas high school players, and we’re one of them. I’m as proud of that fact as anything else I’ve done in my career.”

We talked a bit about the recent changes to the NCAA rules on student athletes making money from their athletic work, the so-called “name, image, likeness (NIL)” policy changes handed down this past summer.

“Our boosters are the main ones who are going to have to deal with that,” he says. “There are plenty of businesses out there who stand to benefit from doing deals with a few of these kids. In the end, though, we have eighty-five kids on scholarships and we’d like to take care of all of them. These NIL changes will likely only affect maybe ten percent of the players. The biggest problems could come in the locker room with the kids who benefit from this and those who do not.”

And what have been his biggest challenges since coming to the UTSA program?

“Well, having Covid show up three months after I got here certainly didn’t help any,” he says without hesitation. “I basically had no team for the first few months. Heck, I had Covid myself around that time and couldn’t even attend our first bowl game. Once that was behind us, we had to deal with the George Floyd situation. The kids were fantastic with that. We have several on the team whose parents are police and who stood up to make clear that not all cops are bad. And then there was the big freeze last February—lots of kids’ families without power or water.”

And what does Coach Traylor do in those precious few hours when he’s not focused in one way or another on the team and his players?

“I read a great deal for one thing. I’m currently reading Built to Last by Jim Collins. Then I have teed up a Mark Batterson book called Do It For a Day. I learn a lot from books like that. My wife and I also travel a good bit, mainly to spend time with our kids in New Orleans, Manhattan, and College Station.”

Coach Traylor has been married to wife Cari for thirty years and they have three children: son Jordan, who coaches linebackers for the New Orleans Saints; son Jake, who works on the Today Show in New York City; and daughter Jaci, who’s enrolled in the Mays Honors Business School at Texas A&M.

“It’s rare that all five of us manage to get together,” he says. “But we try at least to meet up for Christmas in New Orleans.”

I did, of course, ask the obligatory bucket list question, but the answer was pretty predictable.

“I really want to be a lifer in coaching,” he responded without hesitation. “But if my kids ever get married and have children of their own, it’s possible my perspective on that will change.”

Does he have any overall thoughts on his career to this point, or where he might be headed next? Oh yeah.

“To walk into a stadium back home with my name on it; that’s pretty special,” he says. “And to have been a part of what’s happening here in San Antonio, to have played a role in building a brand new forty-five-million-dollar athletic facility, that’s awesome as well. I’ve been blessed in so many ways. Of course, now that we’ve had the success that we did this year and last, I have to face up to answering the question of whether or not we can sustain this level of performance or whether we’re just going to be a flash in the pan.”

But Coach Traylor is a guy you’d be ill advised to bet against. And no one is better than him at explaining what makes a successful team click. I asked what he would tell a young person who thinks they want to be a coach. With that, we’ll let him bring it home.

“I think every coach should have to take classes in psychology. You’re here to serve. If you get up every day and you serve your players, then your life will be extremely blessed. If you use your players, your life’s going to be miserable. I’ve seen coaches do it both ways. Servant leadership is seen by some as weak; I see it as the ultimate strength. That’s what I would tell anyone who thinks they want to be a coach. Win/loss records are something people will forget about. But how many men came out of how many boys you started with—that’s what it’s all about. You’ll be considered a man if you’re taking care of people. Otherwise you’re just a boy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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