The San Diego State University football program that once boasted of heavy horsepower from the arms of Brian Sipe and Todd Santos and the legs of Marshall Faulk has, for much of the last decade, been stuck in neutral.
Since the Western Athletic Conference’s breakaway eight schools formed the Mountain West Conference in 1999, the Aztecs have not posted a winning record or played in a bowl game.
Eight years, no bowls. That is difficult to accomplish in today’s college football environment, where six wins and 22 guys with a pulse are usually all that is needed for a postseason trip.
“It hasn’t been bad football,” SDSU athletic director Jeff Schemmel said. “I graduated from and worked at Kansas State and saw a lot of football before Bill Snyder got there. That was bad football.”
However, in a competitive southern California market — SDSU competes for attention and business with one of the NFL’s best teams and two college powers in nearby Los Angeles — slightly better than bad is not nearly good enough. As a result, the Aztecs, who visit Arizona State on Saturday, have undergone what Schemmel calls a “complete overhaul.”
The construction foreman is second-year coach Chuck Long, the former star quarterback at Iowa and 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up (to Bo Jackson).
“I believe that there is a tremendous upside here, but it is going to take time,” Long said. “We’re building from the ground up. With the facilities and location along with the recruiting base, there are a lot of resources. It has been tough, but I like where we’re going.”
A program that was 29-51 from 1999-2005 won just three games last season. A new year began last weekend, but it was the same old story, as Washington State walloped the Aztecs 45-17 in Seattle, extending SDSU’s losing streak against Pac-10 teams to 17 games.
Junior linebacker Russell Allen indicated the losing has taxed players but added he senses a new resolve to do something about it.
“Guys have been getting fed up with the way things have been going, and we are not going to settle for it anymore,” Allen said. “Now, we know what it will take to win, and we’ve done our best to get ourselves ready for that.”
SDSU’s athletic department needs a football turnaround, especially from a financial standpoint. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the program fell $1.1 million short of its revenue projection in 2006, leading to cutbacks in other areas of the department and continuing discontent among some faculty.
Add in long-term concerns — particularly regarding facilities, where the program hopes to someday have a new stadium to share with the Chargers — and on-field success becomes even more critical.
“It’s funny, because this program has always done a good job of putting players in the NFL,” said Schemmel, who in 2003-04 was senior vice president and executive director of development for the ASU Foundation, the school’s primary fund-raising arm.
“That’s been the disconnect for us here. How do we have so many talented players and not better teams? I think that was our mentality for a while, to focus on getting kids to the next level, not winning at San Diego State.”
SDSU has had 137 players drafted by the NFL, but raising the talent level of the 2007 squad is proving to be an exercise in patience. Long said 13 freshmen or sophomores suited up on defense last week, when Washington State compiled 654 total yards.
There is more experience on offense, but penalties, substitution problems and other mistakes plagued the Aztecs against WSU. The end result was a unit that spun its wheels, stuck in neutral.
For SDSU, a most familiar feeling.
“Guys who came from winning high school programs and won all their lives have come here, and four years later, we’ve kind of had bumps in the road,” senior quarterback Kevin O’Connell said. “It’s on nobody but us to go out and change the way people think about us.”
San Diego State at Arizona State
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Records: San Diego St. 0-1, Arizona State 2-0
TV: FSN Arizona