The Bobcats vs. Johnny Football
Brad Rollins | On 10, Dec 2012
Despite what you may have heard, Texas State’s football team did just fine on the field in their inaugural FBS season. Home game attendance wasn’t dismal, either. But to break into the state’s crowded football consciousness, the Bobcats will have to break into major metro media. That means a fight for airtime and column inches against powerful narratives like that of Johnny Manziel.
Running back Terrence Frank notched one of only two Bobcat touchdowns in the home opener against Texas Tech. Don’t get too hung up on the heartbreaking losses to Tech and Texas-San Antonio. Overall, Texas State did better than expected for their first dip in FBS waters. PHOTO by DON ANDERS/DON ANDERS PHOTOGRAPHY
COMMENTARY by BILL PETERSON
There are two halves to Texas State’s ascent into big-time college football.
The more visible half, to the extent that it is visible, is the fun half, maybe even the easy half. It’s mastering the competition, succeeding on the field and accumulating victories. Finishing the season at 4-8, the Bobcats were more successful and competitive than a lot of people expected. Many predicted that they would win one or two games in this first season of bowl-level football.
There were certainly embarrassments — the drummings by Texas Tech and UT-San Antonio come to mind — but there were gleaming moments, as well, including one that started the season and one that ended it. A 30-13 upset of Houston in the season opener was made for TV, if only it had been televised. Three months later, in the Dec. 1 season finale, the Bobcats set three school records en route to a 66-28 win over New Mexico State. Along the way, the team picked up two other wins. Not bad for Year One.
With that, the Bobcats have been representative at the gate, everything considered. In six home games, their average crowd of 18,944 is fourth in the seven-team WAC, behind Texas-San Antonio (29,225), Louisiana Tech (25,841) and Utah State (20,054). And that’s with terrible weather killing the Texas State walk-up crowd twice, including a turnout of 14,210 for a Sept. 29 meeting with Nevada that stands as the smallest home crowd of the season. Despite the rains, Texas State has put up its four best home attendance marks of all time this year. All but one of them, a gathering of 33,006 for the home opener against Texas Tech, are just a little bigger than the crowds that came out to watch Southwest Texas State win back-to-back Division II national titles 30 years ago.
The other half of Texas State’s ascent into big-time college football, the less visible half, is visibility itself, and that one, at an early glance, looks … well, it hasn’t begun to appear. Among the university’s major goals for implementing major college football was to increase its profile. But the college football publicity ether in Texas is so thick with its traditions and myth makers that the Bobcats will have to fight to get a word in edgewise. Just look at the websites for the state’s major newspapers on a Sunday morning to see what Texas State is up against as it attempts to leverage football for greater overall visibility.
The Bobcats played a real football game at Bobcat Stadium on Nov. 10. The visitor, Louisiana Tech, came to San Marcos leading the WAC and holding a No. 20 ranking from the Bowl Championship Series. The Bulldogs were fielding the most productive offense in the country at 576.5 yards per game. They were 9-1, scoring 50 or more in eight games.
Texas State and Louisiana Tech put on a good show in front of 17,184 at Bobcat Stadium, moving up and down the field against each other until the No. 20 team escaped the first-year bowl-level program, 62-55. Neither team could stop anything. Texas State rang up 577 yards, while Louisiana Tech stopped at 627. Pretty good news-making ball game.
But it’s still pretty thin porridge compared with the national championship theater involving the state’s major football powers.
On the morning of a Cowboys game, college football dominated the front sports page of the Dallas Morning News website. But no mention of Texas State’s wild game was to be found.
The big story, of course, was Texas A&M, behind redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel from Kerrville Tivy, going into Tuscaloosa and knocking off top-rated Alabama, 29-24. The game, perhaps, signaled A&M’s return to national football prominence. More deeply, though, the Aggie victory and Manziel’s exploits struck a blow for Texas football. Going to the Southeastern Conference this year, the Aggies were warned that now they faced worthy adversaries, the football factories of the Deep South. But the Texas team with the Texas players went deep into the belly of the beast and vanquished the invincible Crimson Tide. The story dominated sports coverage across Texas.
The Texas Longhorns always figure prominently in each big newspaper’s statewide coverage of college football. Like every other big paper on Sunday morning, the DMN sports site placed the Longhorns’ 33-7 win against Iowa State on the front page. In their first game after the death of program patriarch Darrell Royal, the Longhorns lined up for their first play in a wishbone, then broke into a pitch back reverse pass that gained 47 yards to open the party.
Over at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, it was more Manziel, and more Longhorns, along with heavy coverage of a more local concern. Texas Christian, taking its first voyage in the Big 12, took on No. 2 Kansas State, losing, 23-10. No mention of Texas State.
The Houston Chronicle is the closest major newspaper to College Station, and it has always treated the Aggies and Longhorns as its most important college beats. Again, Manziel was the lead story. The Chronicle also has to account for its local teams, Rice and Houston. No mention of Texas State.
Inexplicably, the Austin American-Statesman led its Sunday sports website with a story about the completion of a Formula One race track in town, rather than leading with football. One more sign that Austin is going to hell. Again, though, the Statesman dutifully covered the Longhorns. Apparently, the Statesman wired in the Aggies from Tuscaloosa, which doesn’t explain why it, apparently, didn’t staff the Texas State game. One looked in vain for a Texas State story on Sunday morning. None showed up on the Statesman until one snuck in via an automated wire feed.
Sadly, the Bobcats didn’t even fare that well in the San Antonio Express-News, which was well into telling the story of Johnny Manziel long before he left Kerrville, and isn’t going to stop now. The Express-News had long-time Aggie reporter Brent Zwerneman and pointed columnist Buck Harvey on the scene in Tuscaloosa for the latest on this exploits of the Maziel, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner whom Aggieland has named Johnny Football.
The Express-News might have adopted Texas State as a backyard football team, but that went away because UTSA launched big-time football at the same time. So, the Express-News Sunday front included a link to a UTSA game story, but no mention of Texas State. Put “Texas State Bobcats” into the search box and we discover that the site hadn’t run a story specifically about Texas State football in two weeks.
In short, the visibility piece of this enterprise is not going well for the Bobcats, and there are two halves to that problem. One is a matter of entering the markets, and the other is a matter of entering the story.
The bad news for the Bobcats is that they aren’t entering the markets unless, or until, they enter the story, and we mean the big story, the big tall tale of Texas football, the kind of story being told right now, and that has been told for years, about Johnny Football. When the Bobcats have that kind of story to tell, then visibility will magically appear.
But it won’t appear due to any kind of largess or entitlement involving the big media players and the major markets, because the big players in the big markets have dozens of locally interesting stories to prioritize ahead of Texas State football. Lacking a natural home in a major media market, the Bobcats will struggle for exposure.
The marketing position problem for Texas State mirrors the problem facing anyone with an infotainment business in San Marcos. Technically, San Marcos is in the Austin television market, the 45th largest in the country, according to Nielsen. But if you’re watching television in San Marcos, you’re also beaming in TV stations from San Antonio, the 36th largest market in the country. The two markets’ combined reach is 1.6 million TV homes, which would rank as the 17th largest TV market, between Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Denver. How enticing. But it doesn’t work that way. San Marcos lies on the outer edges of the Austin and San Antonio markets, and being on the edges of two somethings isn’t the same as being in the middle of anything.
Having no natural media market, the Bobcats won’t draw attention without a compelling story on the field, the kind of deeply rooted story that grows up in the folkways of Texas. Football fans in Texas love watching the high school players, tracking who is recruiting who, following them through their favorite college teams and, maybe, up into the pros. They enjoy the intimacy that comes with years of involvement. It’s a day-to-day kind of thing that takes a long time; hard to explain, but easy to illustrate.
Football fans in San Marcos may remember a night three years ago when Johnny Manziel and the Tivy Antlers came to Bobcat Stadium to meet the San Marcos Rattlers. San Marcos bottled up Manziel early and took a 30-point lead in the third quarter, holding on for a 44-32 win. Though the Rattlers mostly frustrated Manziel, he still gained 164 yards in 14 carries because he ran one touchdown for 99 yards and another for 50. An electric night for the Rattlers, probably their last high moment. They won only one of their next 14 games under Steve Van Nest, who was replaced after the 2010 season.
Just as Van Nest was being shown the door, Manziel and Tivy took on Bob Shelton’s Hays Rebels in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. The Manziel magic prevailed, as the senior quarterback totaled 390 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns to lead a 49-21 romp in Schertz. The game ended the Hays season and Shelton soon after announced his retirement, finishing his 47-year career.
The upshot is that if you’re a football fan in Hays County, Johnny Manziel has been in your life for a while, he has appeared at some pivotal moments, the legend continues and you have been touched by it. Chances are, you are more invested in Johnny Manziel than you are in the Texas State football team because you are more invested in high school football than in that satellite-level of college football where Texas State has hyperspaced all these years. It’s nobody’s fault. Just the way of the world. Johnny Manziel is in the fabric and Texas State is not, yet.
Once the Bobcats win a few more games and receive better cooperation from the weather, they might be closer to filling their 30,000-seat stadium faster than we think. But as far as increasing the university’s visibility across Texas, simply having a football team that wins its share won’t be enough. They’ll get a video clip on ESPN.com here and there, maybe a shout on SportsCenter much less often, but it will amount to a whisper. For real visibility, the Bobcats need to become a Texas football story, and that will take some time.
BILL PETERSON, the San Marcos Mercury’s former co-publisher, covered the Cincinnati Reds and University of Kentucky basketball for more than a decade as a reporter and columnist at the Cincinnati Post.