Longhorns are big favorites this week. UTSA isn’t afraid.

WEST POINT, NY – SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Jeff Traylor of the UTSA Roadrunners on the sidelines during the game against the Army Black Knights at Michie Stadium on September 10, 2022 in West Point, New York. (Photo by Edward Diller/Getty Images)

Longhorns are big favorites this week. UTSA isn’t afraid.

   “Look, I’m a Texas high-school football coach with seven Texas high school assistants and a bunch of Texas high school players. There are plenty of kids in Texas. These high school coaches are the best in the country. We’ve just got to go find the players and develop them. Player development is just as important as player recruitment. As coaches, that’s our job.”

   —UTSA’s Jeff Traylor.

Traylor’s coaching peers approach him in waves at coaching clinics and conferences around Texas, sometimes lining up five deep for a chat or a selfie. Even with some of college football’s biggest names in the house, Traylor gets rock star treatment.

Coaches shake his hand and tell him they’re proud of the program he has built during three seasons as the head coach at UTSA. Lots of them see his success as their success because his is the gospel of the greatness of Texas high school football.

“It’s almost like a sense of responsibility just because you want to do so well,” Traylor told ESPN this summer. “Because they’re your buddies and you don’t want to disappoint ’em. You want to make ’em proud. We’re proud of… what that fraternity means to us and the way we want our teams to look and the way we want to treat our players and our coaches. It just means a lot to us.”

Traylor, 54, hasn’t disappointed much of anyone in going 28-7 at UTSA, including 12-2 in 2021 in which the Road Runners got as high as 15th in the Associated Press Top 25 and won Conference USA.

Now this: UTSA vs. Texas at 7 p.m. Saturday in Austin. 

All righty.

Games like this can define an upstart program, if not a coach’s career. Or serve as a kick-in-the-teeth dose of reality.

One of Traylor’s gifts has been his ability to convince his players they’re good enough to win any game, that they actually should be favored.

This is the intangible something that only the really good coaches have, and weeks like this one, when the Texas players are being challenged to prove a one-point loss to Alabama wasn’t a fluke and 105,000 are expected at Royal-Memorial Stadium, is a challenge on all sorts of levels.

When the Longhorns opened as a 14-point favorite, Traylor shot back: “That’s it? They just played Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country. Nick Saban invented football.”

Meanwhile, UT coach Steve Sarkisian has warned his players about the danger of overlooking UTSA.

“A week ago, everyone told us how bad we were,” Sarkisian said. “Now this week, everyone wants to tells us how good we are. We have to be careful to quiet the noise outside of our building.”

He praised UTSA, saying: “Coach Traylor has done a heck of job. He has really good players. Well coached. As I told the team, these guys play really hard. They’ve got a dynamic quarterback (Frank Harris) that makes plays with his arm and his legs. Big challenge.”

Just a few years ago, Traylor, 54, could envision himself finishing his career at Gilmer High School in his hometown. Of his quarter of a century coaching high school football in Texas, 15 of those were in Gilmer, where he went 175-26 and played in five state championship games, winning three. Jeff Traylor Stadium is now the home of Gilmer High School.

He estimates he’d turned down “seven or eight” college jobs through the years but finally being lured away in 2015 by then-University of Texas coach Charlie Strong, who asked Traylor to help strengthen relationships with high school coaches.

Traylor did that and has the receipts to prove it. He delivered back-to-back recruiting classes ranked seventh in the country and was twice named Big 12 Recruiter of the Year by Scout.com. Nevertheless, Strong’s successor, Tom Herman, didn’t retain him.

From there, Traylor went to SMU for a season and Arkansas for two. And then in 2020, UTSA asked him to lead a football program that had been in existence for just nine seasons.

Traylor jumped at the opportunity to build a program of his own, and he has done that. Traylor said the job appealed to him because he knows the depth and quality of Texas high school talent and because he believed a winning team could tap into the school’s 35,000 students and support from Texas’ second-largest city.

“I always thought this job could be something really special,” Traylor told me last year. “It’s the seventh-largest city in the country. It’s a very multicultural city. The university is fantastic. We’ve got a great Alamodome to play in. We’re the greatest state in the country to play football in, and I know the coaches. I thought we could do really well here.”

He acknowledged he might never be able to beat out Texas and Texas A&M for most of the elite recruits, but he was going to make up for that by getting kids with potential, kids that were willing to work, and, oh yes, Traylor was going to assemble a staff of mostly Texans that would coach ‘em up.

He said the foundation of any coaching job—teaching, organizing, communicating—isn’t that much different than the things he did at Gilmer.

“Just love God and love people,” he said. “Now, you’ve got to be a good coach. You’ve got to know X’s and O’s. There’s a lot of other stuff. But it starts with loving God and loving people.”

When UTSA went into the heart of Big Ten country last season and upset Illinois, Traylor received more than 500 text messages, the majority from coaching buddies, congratulating him.

In Harris, the veteran quarterback, the Road Runners have a difference maker of a player. UTSA is averaging 348 passing yards after going for 337 in a season-opening overtime loss to Houston and 359 in an overtime victory over Army.

Texas Tech was one of the schools that showed interest in him. Instead, the Red Raiders hired Baylor assistant Joey McGuire, and there’s some irony in there.

McGuire is one of Traylor’s closest friends and has had an almost identical career arc in winning three state championships at Cedar Hill before joining Matt Rhule’s staff after the 2016 season. He was retrained when Dave Aranda became head coach in 2020.

“They represent us because they’re one of us,” Longview coach John King told ESPN. “They’re two guys that people took a chance on that did it the right way. They love kids, coach kids and got a golden opportunity to go to the college ranks and made the most of it.”

Traylor and McGuire graced the cover of this fall’s Texas Football magazine above the headline: “Forged on Friday.”

UTSA had won seven games in the two seasons before he arrived, but Traylor brought that certain something that only the best coaches have, which is the gift of convincing his players that they’re the better team and that no victory is an upset.

When the Texas High School Coaches Association held its annual convention in San Antonio last year, Traylor hosted a social gathering at Pinkerton’s Barbecue. He planned for about a hundred people to show up. Instead, 788 lined up to talk ball.

“Those relationships are special,” he said.

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