D-I transition: Incarnate Word

June 17, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

PAs you look down the list of football coaches at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, one name jumps out.

Ricky Williams, running backs coach.

Nah, couldn’t be. The former Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Texas? The guy who was considered such a can’t-miss prospect that New Orleans Saints Coach Mike Ditka made one of the most bizarre trades in NFL history, sending all eight of his picks in the 1999 draft, including two first-rounders, to Washington for the No. 5 pick and the right to select Williams?

Yep, it’s him. He was hired last year and will enter his second season at UIW in the fall. He wound up there because Larry Kennan, the head football coach, is a friend of one of Williams’ agents and just happened to hear that Williams was looking for something to do in football.

Ricky Williams

Coach Ricky Williams

But what makes Williams’ presence on the campus of a private Catholic university so surprising is not that he is one of 28 players in NFL history to rush for more than 10,000 yards. Rather, it is because his career was marked by four failed drug tests and two suspensions, including one for an entire season.

“We’ve gotten a lot of publicity out of it,” said Shane Meling, assistant athletic director of sports information. “I get way more calls about Ricky than everything else combined. When any type of NFL thing comes up, such as the Dolphins hazing last year (Williams played for Miami from 2002 to 2010), they want to talk to him.”

Mark Papich, UIW’s director of athletics, had a simple explanation for the hire: “In order for our football team to get some publicity, we have to do something sensational.”

But, from all accounts, it has gone exceptionally well. Meling said Williams is “a mentor-type figure to the kids and actually enjoys it,” and Williams told USA Today last October: “It’s funny. I always resisted (the idea of coaching) because it’s so stereotypical for a player to become a coach and I said I wasn’t going to do that. But I ended up in a good situation.”

UIW was an NAIA school before joining NCAA Division II in 1999, so a lot has happened in a relatively short time. Here’s what else is happening in San Antonio:

Location, location, location

It’s near downtown San Antonio, in an area called Alamo Heights. If you’ve ever been on the River Walk in San Antonio, you were only 10 minutes away from UIW. “It’s a really good spot, close to downtown,” Meling said. However, it also is another case of a downtown campus that needs to grow but has nowhere to go in the immediate area and has had to create several satellite campuses instead. “We’ve kind of already run out of land,” Meling said.

History lesson

Founded as an all-girls school in 1881 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. Went coed in 1970 and became a university in 1996.

Campus life

The largest Catholic-based university in Texas has an enrollment of 9,500, about 4,000 of whom live on campus.


UIW is one of the six Texas schools that form the nucleus of the Southland Conference although it will be with Grand Canyon University in the Western Athletic Conference for men’s soccer this year. The longest road trips Incarnate Word teams have to make in the Southland are to Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana — a far cry from GCU’s travels to Seattle and Chicago for WAC games.

Former students of note

Former pro basketball star David Robinson, who won two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs, earned his master’s degree from UIW. As for anyone else, you’re probably a bit of a TV junkie if you’ve heard of Ricardo Chavira from “Desperate Housewives” or Jesse Borrego from “Dexter.”

D-I effect on athletic facilities

The McDermott Center seats 2,000 for basketball is usually about one-quarter full for men’s games. The football facility, Benson Stadium, was doubled in size to 6,000 in 2011.

Newsy number

Football is king in Texas, and the UIW team had its first winning season (6-5) in 2013 after going 12-30 in the program’s first four years.

Fun fact

He’s not a big name like Ricky Williams, but UIW’s baseball coach, Danny Heep, played for five Major League Baseball teams from 1979 to 1991, including two World Series champions (the 1986 New York Mets and 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers). And it’s not as if he arrived just yesterday. He has been there for 17 years and has a record of 548-368.


Part 1: GCU came up a winner in Year 1 of D-I. Sidebar: Nebraska Omaha.

Part 2: How three veteran coaches approached and managed the first year. Sidebar: University of the Incarnate Word.

Part 3: Antelope athletes talk about what it took to move up to D-I from D-II. Sidebar: Abilene Christian University.

Part 4: GCU isn’t the only university trying to establish itself in a competitive sports market. Sidebar: University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Part 5: Changes and challenges often mark the second year of the D-I transition. Sidebar: Northern Kentucky University.

Contact Rick Vacek at 602.639.8203 or [email protected].

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