Broncs' fingers were achy, eyes were bleary and tired, and anxious minds were on the verge of meltdown March 9, but the spirit never waned. In fact, it soared.
Although UTPA lost a hard fought battle - outvoted 52 percent to 48 percent - to mighty Brigham Young University in the Final Four round that ended at midnight March 9, Broncs won welcomed respect from the BYU Cougar fans, who now know the power of Bronc Country (and where Edinburg is). More importantly, Bronc Country gained unsurpassed pride in a shared commitment to the University and community that grew enormously through the contest's multiple rounds of competition.
The NCAA 6th Fan contest, which began Jan. 7, was initiated by the NCAA as its nearly 350 Division I schools were entering final games prior to the annual NCAA tournament. The goal: to survive five rounds of competition to receive the prize of scholarships - a tantalizing reward for UT Pan American, a public institution located in one of the poorest regions of the United States, but with many deserving students who want to pursue their dream of earning a college degree.
With the "gung ho" coaching and spirit of Dr. S.J. Sethi, executive director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, the social media savvy and 24/7 commitment of Dr. Kimberly Selber, associate vice president for Marketing and Communications, and the support of top Bronc, President Robert S. Nelsen, and top Bronc Lady Jody Nelsen, UTPA's quest to win went fever pitch after landing in the top 10 percent of 6th Fan vote-getters Feb. 16. That victory moved UTPA into the Sweet 16 round of competition, a feat that garnered each of those schools $10,000 in scholarships.
The competition went head-to-head in the Sweet 16 with UTPA up against University of Northern Iowa. Through an expanding and relentless social media campaign and the growing swell of community support, UT Pan American trounced UNI 72 percent to 28 percent. That victory landed the Broncs in the Elite 8 round, where a fierce battle took place Feb. 24-March 2 with the University of Central Florida - a conglomerate of campuses 60,000 students-plus strong. The contest was becoming more like David vs. Goliath every step of the way, but UT Pan American prevailed, establishing voter sprints and constant updates on its standings. Broncs responded faithfully to the constant barrage of Facebook pleas for voters and tweets and re-tweets to spread the message to keep the voting constant. UT Pan American won 54 percent to 46 percent.
March madness truly took hold of the campus in the contest's Final Four round, where UT Pan American was pitted up against BYU, a university that wisely implemented a captcha code script to vote in a rapid fire manner and made extensive use of their Cougar Fan Board to defeat the Broncs.
UT Pan American did not back down but took to forming voting parties and after brief use of BYU's script found in the public domain and BYU's subsequent protest of its use by Pan Am, enlisted one of its own - technology event specialist Joel Ruiz - to develop our own script. While on his day off and in a matter of hours, Ruiz's script topped BYU's in speed and ease of use. The race was not over.
During the contest's final days, memes of Bucky selfies asking for support appeared everywhere - including one made from a highly publicized photo Ellen DeGeneres took at the Oscars March 2. T-shirts sprouted calling for fans to vote and local businesses displayed quickly made posters asking for fans to vote. Local media tweeted and did on-air messages asking the community to go to the 6th Fan site. One business provided the University free billboards asking fans to vote. A Power Fan group was formed with each member pledging 2,000 votes a day. People like State Rep. Terry Canales and other local legislators, UT Austin football coach Mac Brown, and UTPA alum and Hollywood actor Valente Rodriguez tweeted and re-tweeted UTPA's call for people to vote.
More than 500 people signed up to vote at the computer labs or at home that final day. One loyal Bronc fan - Kevin Cavasos - voted 9,000 times that day. The lab had students, staff, faculty, parents, and children working alongside one another as family entering as many captcha codes as their fingers would allow. More than 2.5 million votes were cast in the 6th Fan Final Four round.
• "Whatever happens in a few minutes, it's clear that #UTPA has the greatest fans in the world;"
• "Bummed my Broncs didn't make the #6thFan final;"
• "Anyone else having Captcha withdrawls?"
• "Guys I know we lost, but this was a great way to become united. This proves that we are all a great and big family;" and
• "We all fought hard. Remember this day Broncs and friends."
Nelsen also shared his thoughts on the competition moments after midnight when he learned of the loss.
"I am so proud of the Bronc Nation," Nelsen said. "We came incredibly close, and we strengthened our family. Como digo todo el tiempo: somos familia. We are stronger today than yesterday, and we are ready to transform the Valley through education. I salute each and every one of you, and every Bronc in Bronc Country."
BYU went on to win the 6th Fan Challenge championship round, defeating Western Illinois University 62 percent to 38 percent.
However, a tweet by UTPA mascot Bucky after UTPA's final day of competition says it all in what ultimately determines a victory or a defeat.
"We went to war and showed what #BroncFamily can do. We paid our respects, we worked as family...in my eyes we won. We ARE #UTPA the #6th Fan," Bucky wrote.