By Mark S. McDonald Sr.
Editor & Unauthorized, Undocumented Railbird
Back in the days of sock hops, four-hole Buicks and letter sweaters, eating ice cream from a local dairy, while in game uniform, was harmless fun. But since the leather helmet days, the NCAA regarded any commercial activity — or anything fun — as spitting on the sidewalk, a veiled attempt to overthrow the government.
It follows that the student-athlete was banned from profiting if a business used his/her presence to sell tires, donuts or pantyhose. Only the school could benefit. The athlete could receive nothing tangible.
No cash, no car, no haircut at the local barber, no extra starch on his shirts at the dry cleaners. Oh, but let there be light … In just these past few months, there has been enough tide shift to flood the Galveston Seawall. New rules reveal the NCAA as a toothless tiger, as college sports will never be the same.
In summary, here are the highlights, and what they might mean to UTEP:
(1) As state legislatures marched forward with laws allowing athletes to benefit from the use of their own name-image-likeness (NIL), the NCAA dropped to its knees, then wallowed and followed. One volleyball player at a small school in Kansas has teamed with her father to create an online meet-and-greet forum where corporations connect with athletes eager to get paid.
Expect El Paso businesses explore the sales and promotion value in the NIL of UTEP athletes. And why not? This is not so much a question as a prediction.
Generations ago, the go-to downtown department store called The Popular advertised $6 shoes in Texas Western campus publications. Today, Helen of Troy might already be considering women on the UTEP rifle and volleyball teams to promote health and beauty products. Too bad H&H recently closed.
The brilliantly weird business just north of downtown built by legendary Miners fan Maynard Haddad and his bro, would have been perfect for local promos. Where else could a college golfer stump for a joint where you could order an enchilada plate to go with your car wash?
(2) An athlete may transfer to another school, almost at will. Now that the NCAA has lost its will to dictate movement from school to school, the Note Dames are free to recruit off the active rosters of programs with lower budgets. It has already begun, and will only intensify.
The likes of UTEP and Tulane, even Purdue and Vanderbilt, will become farm clubs to the Michigans and Penn States.
(3) Athletes who competed in football and basketball last season retain that extra year of eligibility. The NCAA had no real answer for the pandemic playing havoc on the eligibility calendars, so the governing body just threw open the gates. Olly, olly oxen free.
Enter the so-called Super Senior, back for his/her sixth season of college ball. Texas A&M has six such starters on defense. As for the Miners, we thought former center Derron Gatewood was an oddity when he received a sixth year after losing a season to a knee injury. By the time he finished his eligibility, he was applying for Social Security.
This season, take QB Gavin Hardison. Coming out of Hobbs (N.M.) High, he red-shirted at New Mexico Military before the past two years at UTEP. Now, riding the wave of new opportunity, Hardison and many others are raising three questions: (3.) Can UTEP afford six-year athletes on scholarship? (2.) Rocking chairs in the locker room? (1.) Team dining hall to serve prunes?
(4) Even as Oklahoma and Texas announced they are bolting from the Big 12, three other conferences — Big 10, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 — scrambled to form what they call an “alliance.” Not even the three conference commissioners know exactly what it means, but this much we know … the NCAA sun is setting.
Meantime, UTEP Athletic Director Jim Senter appears to have prospered through all this. A year after coaches and staff had their salaries cut, Senter just signed a contract extension through 2026. The deal pays him a reported $350k a year and elevates him to university vice-president, and perhaps Grand Poobah.
While navigating the straits of the virus pandemic, you can bet Senter is looking to cut travel expenses, if for no other reason than to pay his own salary. This could mean reaching for more logical regional connections (New Mexico, N.M. State, Colorado State, Tulsa, SMU, Houston et al). Meanwhile, Senter hopes not to lose footing in Conference USA, which grumpy old duffers in the bleachers would consider no big loss.
Stadium scoreboards have a way of forcing us to accept certain truths. In 2018 UTEP brought in Northern Arizona to pad the W-L record against a school that gives fewer scholarships. Ahem. The visitors left the Sun Bowl with a 30-10 victory. Worse, it felt like the better team won.
So, given the current free-for-all in college athletics, UTEP football needs to build on its 1-0 start, play meaningful games in November and carry momentum in basketball for both men and women. Why now, maybe more than ever?
As a Tier 1 research institution, UTEP academics — especially among Hispanics — may line up with some of the top schools in America. Bu for athletics, do the Miners have the gumption and the quickdraw to aspir align with Texas Tech and TCU? Or do we play in the same neighborhood of Angelo State, Houston Baptist and West Texas A&M?
If you ever noodled on donating or buying season tix, whip out your checkbook. It’s show time. Never has a 3- to 4-year period been more pivotal to the future orbit of the UTEP Miners.