Death of a Program

"You are not going to believe this."

When UTA head football coach Chuck Curtis got the call from Athletic Director Bill Reeves that he wanted to grab lunch in late November 1985, Curtis, thought the conversation would center on Curtis' potential championship caliber 1986 team, instead Reeves had more dire news to discuss. A somber Reeves looked like he'd seen a ghost when Curtis sad down with him. Instead of talking about the prospects for 1986, Reeves told him the 1986 season wasn't going to happen, at least not at the University of Texas at Arlington. The University was shutting down the football program. 

Curtis was larger than life. He wore a Cowboy hat on the sidelines and never backed away from a challenge. He'd taken three consecutive high school teams to state titles from 1962 to 1964. He coached on Hayden Fry's SMU staff and recruited Jerry Levias who was the first African American player in the Southwest Conference. He'd played quarterback for TCU legend Abe Martin, leading the Frogs to SWC titles in 1955 and 1956. He threw two touchdown passes and ran for another in the 1957 Cotton Bowl against Syracuse and Jim Brown. He had a cup of coffee in the NFL for the New York Giants, whose staff included Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

He'd seen a lot; he'd never seen anything like this. 

Curtis' staff was meeting at the same time, preparing to go out to recruit for the 1986 class. The Mavs would return nineteen starters from the 1985 team and a slew of young talent. Defensive backs coach Gary Bartel remembers Curtis walking into the meeting fresh off his lunch with Reeves and telling his staff, "you are not going to believe this."

School president W. H. Nedderman cited a near $1 million budget shortfall as the reason the Movin' Mavs were no longer fielding a team. A million dollar shortfall doesn't come about overnight, and circumstances sewed the seeds of Texas-Arlington's demise years before.

Rangers, Junior Aggies, High School Stadiums, and Six Flags. 

In March of 1975, the Student Activities Fee Advisory Committee, all of five students, recommended scuttling the program. Instead, the University made several changes. They promoted Reeves to head up the Athletic Department, replacing UTA legend and former head coach Chena Gilstrap. Nedderman was president during this period as well. He'd gone to bat for the squad. Reeves stated that the school's football program was not in danger. He qualified his position however by adding, at least not in 1975. 

Still the overall athletic department was a shamble. The football program sat in a six-year drought without a winning season. The streak would reach ten seasons before a nine-win 1979 campaign provided light. The Maverick basketball program finished better than .5oo just once in seven seasons. Arlington, in 1975, housed a Major League Baseball team, or at least the Texas Rangers moved there in 1972. Whether they were, in fact, a Major League franchise was up for debate. Six Flags was down the road, and the Metroplex was gaga over the Cowboys. 

Reeves implemented a new marketing campaign designed to get butts in seats. Those seats, by the way, were at Turnpike Stadium, a multi-purpose wad of aluminum that was also home to the Rangers. Turnpike, later renamed Arlington Stadium, was a substandard baseball facility, let alone a football stadium. The Rangers had a "24-hour" rule that allowed them full access to the stadium 24-hours before and after any game. As a result, UTA played "home" games as far away as the Cotton Bowl and at other stadiums nearby.

Reeves also backed the NCAA's proposed cost-cutting legislation. Then he uttered words that would haunt the program until 1985, "if those measures don't help, we'll re-examine our position when the time comes."  

The Mavs endured. The Rangers announced plans to make Arlington Stadium a baseball-only facility and UTA moved to Cravens Field, a high school stadium three miles away. By 1980 the Mavericks moved into their new, on-campus stadium.

By then they were sharing a name with Dallas' new NBA franchise. Maverick wasn't synonymous with the University by any means. The athletic nickname fluctuated from the Grubbworms to Hornets to Junior Aggies (yes, holy shit, yes) to the Blue Riders, to the Rebels, which held the designation until 1971 when students voted on the Mavericks. 

Hope is a dangerous thing

Fresh off a 9-2 season in 1979, the Mavs moved into their new facility. On September 6th of that year, the Mavs made the big time. Nearly 19,000 fans crammed into the new home of UTA football to see the Mavericks take on rival North Texas State. ESPN carried the game on tape delay. The Mavs led 7-0 before North Texas asserted itself, winning 31-14. Texas-Arlington wouldn't get close to drawing that size crowd for the rest of its existence.

A year later the Mavs won the Southland title in spite of a 6-5 record. The crown was their first since 1967. Head coach Bud Elliott's team would follow that championship with a sixth and fifth place finish in consecutive seasons. Elliott gave way to former Cleburne coach Chuck Curtis in 1984. 

Chuck Curtis coaching the Mavs in 1984 (UTA Libraries)

The Movin' Mavs drew four of the ten largest crowds in Maverick Stadium's brief collegiate history in 1984, including two Saturdays of over 9,000 fans. On the season the Mavericks averaged 7,500 fans per contest. Curtis' team came within a game of the Southland Conference crown, finishing 7-4. 

A year later, attendance dropped to an average of 5,600 fans in spite of UTA's 23,000 undergrads. At the same time, Texas-Arlington's basketball team was in the midst of a 17-39 two year stretch and the athletic budget of $2 million carried the weight of a near million dollar deficit. The football program carried the largest price tag in the Maverick shopping cart, so after 66 years, the Administration shelved it.

"This is a battle I have been fighting for many years," Nedderman said, "and the escalating expenses of travel, equipment, and all aspects kept spiraling up. If there had been more students in the stands, it might have made us feel better about the amount of money we were spending."

Nedderman noted that while most of UTA's student body lived in Arlington, no more that a few hundred attended games. 

After Nedderman's announcement, the Maverick Club pledged to makeup the budget shortfall with an aggressive marketing campaign including a rally at Maverick Stadium. They couldn't resuscitate the program.

Staying or Going, you decide. 

Maverick players found out their football program was gone when everyone else did. They were given a choice, finish up their careers as college students at UTA or transfer. By December other programs were calling Maverick players to inquire about their services. To his credit, Curtis made calls and introductions for many of his players, trying to get them on with other schools. The more talented among them had their choice. 

Curtis at the Rally to Save Maverick Football. (Ed Sackett, Dallas Morning News)

Keith Arbon led the Southland in receptions in 1985 wound up at New Mexico in 1986 as did UTA's leading rusher Jarvis McKyer. Tackle George Andrie transferred to Baylor.

Kicker Scott Roper transferred to Arkansas State where he set a school record for field goals in a game and helped the then nicknamed Indians to the 1-AA National Championship game. He finished the 1986 season making All-Conference for the second year in a row for his second team. 

Maverick fans were left to wonder what might've been. The 1986 team was set to return Arbon, McKyer, three All-Conference offensive linemen, All-Southland 2nd Team quarterbackDavid Bates, and an All-Conference place kicker. Curtis, building for the long term, redshirted the majority of his freshman class. 

We'll never know how far that team could've gone or if anyone would've cared. 

Fans and students of the Mavs have tried to bring the program back. UTA played club football for several years.

In 2004, the University funded a cost analysis for the expansion of the athletics program, including bringing football back. The study determined that implementing the program, building or renovating facilities and ramping up to an FCS level would cost between $8 and $15 million over a five year period. The potential budget shortfall still loomed. 

After 66 years of football, multiple home stadiums, and multiple nicknames, and 32 years since the Mavs last played NCAA football, Nedderman's final words still ring out "Once football is dropped, I'm afraid it is dropped forever."

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