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Old 04-18-07, 12:15 PM
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Amente Amente is offline
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Join Date: Sep 2002
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Mike Finger: We've come a long way, or have we?

Tom Benson says "the timing is right," which should make the folks at Incarnate Word a bit nervous. In matters of football, dollars and San Antonio, Benson's internal clock has malfunctioned before.

But whether he's been selling cars or racking up millions in banking, he's always been able to do the right math. And when he crunched the numbers on his longtime goal of bringing big-time football to the city he calls his second home?

He likely came to the only logical conclusion.

That this — a Division II start-up program at UIW — is as good as it's going to get.

Benson still publicly says he thinks San Antonio is ready for an NFL team, and part of him probably wishes that were true. But he knows as well as anyone it's not going to happen. His lease with the Superdome keeps the Saints in New Orleans through at least 2010, and even when that ends, San Antonio still won't have a viable stadium option.

Local leaders finally have done the same math and realized that pursuing new pro sports franchises would be pointless. Bexar County consultant Michael Sculley said as much last month when he urged commissioners to forget plans to woo the NFL and Major League Baseball, two leagues who have always seen San Antonio more as a bargaining chip than a true expansion possibility.

So only 16 months after the Saints were headquartered downtown and Benson had realistic thoughts of keeping them here for good, he came back Tuesday to offer the city a consolation prize.

It's actually a pretty good one. The people at UIW were justifiably giddy Tuesday, because they're about to fill one of the most gaping sports voids in the country.

Until Benson whipped out his checkbook for a gift he said could end up as big as $30 million, there were no scholarship football programs in the nation's seventh-largest city. In the town that produced Kyle Rote, Tommy Nobis and Priest Holmes, the Division III Trinity Tigers were the biggest team in the city limits.

UTSA had hoped to be the school to make the big gridiron leap, but that's proven to be an eternally slow struggle. No one knows if the Roadrunners ever will raise enough money to make any headway, and things are looking so bleak that when the student government called for a vote to increase fees, it was afraid to use the word "football" in the ballot language.

Turns out, UTSA should have been less worried about semantics and more concerned with finding a sugar daddy. Whereas UIW has Benson and St. Mary's has Valero CEO Bill Greehey, UTSA has no one to turn to when it comes time to erecting a multimillion-dollar sports facility.

Not that Benson has limited himself to shoulder pads and stadiums. A Roman Catholic who says he identifies with UIW's faith-based curriculum, Benson donated money to help the school's banking and finance programs, and his daughter has served on the university's board of trustees.

But this will be his biggest investment, and he pulled out all the stops to commemorate it. Many schools have announced plans to start Division II football programs, but few have done so with an NFL general manager and a Pro Bowl defensive end in attendance.

Will Smith, the standout Saints lineman who tagged along with Benson for Tuesday's ceremony and once lived just up the road from UIW when the Saints played in San Antonio, said he agreed to make an appearance because players were told they'd get credit for an offseason workout if they attended. It was only a joke, but on how many NFL teams would such an idea even have been plausible?

Think Jerry Jones would ever ask Greg Ellis to come with him to make a donation to a school in Little Rock? Or that Bob McNair would ever bring Mario Williams along for a ribbon-cutting in Saratoga Springs?

The truth is, Benson brought the players because he wanted a show, and because he wants to be a big deal here. This is the city where he made the bulk of his fortune, but it's also the place where he wanted to bring his one true sports passion.

Now, after trying and failing before, he's finally done it.

It's not as big as he once thought it'd be.

But in San Antonio, it's big enough.
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