When San Diego State broke out of the gate in 1998 at 0-3, few would have guessed that the Aztecs would finish the regular season as Western Athletic Conference Pacific Division co-champions. After winning seven of their last eight games the Aztecs were invited to square off against the University of North Carolina in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was SDSU's first post-season bowl in seven years and even though the result was a 20-13 loss to the Tar Heels, San Diego State was finally back on the college football map.
The fact that SDSU players did not call it quits and accomplished all of the above is directly attributable to Head Coach Ted Tollner and his staff. It was little wonder then that Tollner, at the conclusion of his fifth year leading grid fortunes on Montezuma Mesa, was named Western Athletic Conference Pacific Division "Coach of the Year" by his league peers.
Although Tollner had garnered Regional Coach of the Year honors in 1995 and directed the Aztecs to two eight-win seasons, the squad tumbled to 5-7 in 1997 playing a tough schedule and trying to mesh 20 players who were sophomores or younger into the lineup. San Diego State's roster for 1998 was still a sophomore-junior dominated group, but those underclassmen had already been on the firing line. Despite losses to top ten teams like Arizona and Wisconsin, and bowl-bound USC and Brigham Young, Tollner kept the squad on track to put the Aztecs on the post-season screen. 1998 served to underscore the faith SDSU had in awarding Tollner a 10-year contract in '97 and Tollner's faith that the program could achieve goals that he had set.
"I would like nothing better than to finish my career here at the level we all want things to be - a highly respected Division I football program. That is what we are after. We feel proud to be the ones to meet the challenges ahead. This is what we want to do. I've been saying that since I've been here."
That aspiration is also derived from 30 years of coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels, eight of which came as an assistant on the Aztec staff in the 1970's.
Ted Tollner actually returned to his Division I coaching roots when he was named San Diego State's 14th head football coach on December 3, 1993. He had previously served on Montezuma Mesa from 1973-80 as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, a time span in which SDSU was one of the top offensive teams in the country, compiling a record of 61-26-2. That was the foundation for a resume that would go on to include a Pac-10 and Rose Bowl title in four years as head coach at USC and seven years as an assistant coach in the National Football League with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams.
In 1981, Tollner moved to Brigham Young University as quarterback coach. His star pupil was All-American and future NFL qb Jim McMahon. McMahon led the nation in passing in '81 with Tollner as his mentor.
During the 1982 season, Tollner served as offensive coordinator and running back coach at USC and in November of '82, was named as John Robinson's successor as Trojan head coach. From 1983-86 at Southern Cal., Tollner compiled a 26-20-1 record and directed the team to a Pac-10 title and three bowl berths. His 1984 USC squad posted a 9-3 record, finished 10th in the AP poll and upset fifth-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, 20-17. The Trojans finished 7-1 in the conference that year and earned their first trip to the Rose Bowl as conference champs since 1979. Tollner was named the Pac-10's Coach-of-the-Year that season. Among the victories that year was a 16-7 win over a Washington squad ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time. His two other bowl appearances with the Trojans include the 1985 Aloha Bowl (a 24-3 loss to Alabama) and the 1987 Citrus Bowl (a 16-7 loss to Auburn).
Among the members of Tollner's staff at USC were then-unheralded coaches like Dave Wannstedt (Miami Dolphins assistant coach), Norv Turner (Washington Redskins head coach) and Steve Mariucci (San Francisco 49ers head coach).
After leaving USC, Tollner began a seven-year sojourn as a coach in the National Football League. He joined the Buffalo Bills in the 1987 season where he tutored the club's receivers for two years under Head Coach Marv Levy. He made his first career return to San Diego in 1989 as offensive coordinator for the Chargers before moving up the freeway to handle quarterbacks for the Los Angeles Rams for the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
Born May 29, 1940, Tollner earned a bachelor's degree in 1962 and later a master's in physical education at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo). He was a starting quarterback at Cal Poly for two years and pitched for the baseball team for four. He was one of 26 survivors of the tragic Cal Poly plane crash on October 29, 1960, which killed 22 people, 16 of them players.
In 1989, Tollner was inducted into the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame.
Ted and his wife, Barbara, have two daughters, Linda and Tammy; one son, Bruce; and nine grandchildren.
Post-Season Coaching Appearances Year Bowl Coaching Team 1981 Holiday Bowl Assistant Coach BYU 1984 Japan Bowl Assistant Coach USC 1985 Japan Bowl Head Coach USC 1985 Rose Bowl Head Coach USC 1985 Aloha Bowl Head Coach USC 1986 Citrus Bowl Head Coach USC 1986 East West Shrine Game Head Coach USC 1987 East West Shrine Game Head Coach USC 1988 NFL Pro Bowl Assistant Coach Buffalo 1996 Blue/Gray All-Star Classic Head Coach SDSU 1997 East/West Shrine Game Head Coach SDSU 1998 Las Vegas Bowl Head Coach SDSU
Division I Coaching Record Year Team W L T Pct. 1983 USC 4 6 1 .409 1984 USC 9 3 0 .750 1985 USC 6 6 0 .500 1986 USC 7 5 0 .583 1994 San Diego State 4 7 0 .364 1995 San Diego State 8 4 0 .667 1996 San Diego State 8 3 0 .727 1997 San Diego State 5 7 0 .416 1998 San Diego State 7 5 0 .583 Total Career 58 46 1 .557 San Diego State 32 26 0 .552
Q & A with Ted Tollner
Q:What does last year's bowl appearance mean to the program?
A: It's a significant step that we have been striving for but it's just a step. We want to make sure that it becomes a routine rather than something that happens every now and then. The most encouraging thing was the outpouring of support that we got from the community, the university and the alumni. There was an air of enthusiasm among those constituencies and throughout our team that we'd like to be a part of on a regular basis. We got a taste of it, we liked it and it increases our motivation to continue to do the things that it takes to get to a post-season bowl.
Q:What are the key areas of development that will allow the Aztecs to be a post-season participant in 1999?
A: We have got to be able to get the ball downfield on a more regular basis in our passing game and to get some consistency in our kicking game. Those are the two major improvements we need to make. Obviously, we have to keep getting better in all facets of our play but regaining our explosiveness offensively in the passing game and being able to count on converting extra points, makeable field goals and kickoff depth will get much of our attention.
Q:What has to happen to improve the passing game?
A:It starts with the quarterback. Brian Russell came in and did a fine job for us last season but he has to continue to make strides. I expect our junior college transfer Jack Hawley and redshirt freshman Lon Sheriff to compete for the position. We made progress this spring without question in our ability to get the ball downfield. We're better in our quarterback and receiver play. I feel good about all three quarterbacks. Brian's experience and leadership really showed last spring and his decision-making was consistent. Jack brings competition and some excellent abilities. He can throw the ball and has good feet. He needs practice repititions because he's not yet where he needs to be in understanding our offensive scheme. That's to be expected with his lack of experience. Lon Sheriff finished strong last spring and the three of them together, depth-wise, make that position as strong as it's been since I've been here. All three of them bring enough to the table to allow us to be productive in game situations. The depth of competition we have at receiver is already making us better. It's a good situation, especially for Sean Pierce and Lonnie Mitchell. Damon Gourdine is a proven performer but we needed to get more confidence in our depth and we feel better about that after spring workouts.
Q:What do you think the impact of the new Mountain West Conference will be?
A: I think it's going to be a great conference. I believe the top-to-bottom balance of quality teams will make it as difficult as any conference in the country to win. Look at the programs we have. Seven of the eight schools have participated in post-season play within the past two years and UNLV has made a real commitment by hiring John Robinson. Winning this conference will be something real special. The most important thing this league needs to do is develop an identity.
Q:What are the attributes of all-American candidates Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Rico Curtis?
A:Kabeer has had three excellent years and has improved each season. He has a real tenacity to his play to go along with his quickness and athleticism. He's an outstanding pass rusher with great ability to run the ball down away from him. He's worked hard on his strength to make himself a complete player. Rico has made the commitment to be the best he can be and because of that, he was more consistent last year. Having to move to free safety from his more natural strong safety spot really showcased his ability to cover receivers and make tackles in the open field. If someone else will step up to handle the free safety duties, we think Rico can be even more productive moving back to strong, getting him closer to the line of scrimmage and involving him in our blitz packages. He's a proven performer and I was disappointed he didn't get first-team all conference recognition a year ago.
Q:Another defensive lineman to receive recognition last year was Jerome Haywood, WAC Freshman of the Year.
A: "Probably of all the individual surprises last year, he was the biggest. To take a pure freshman, and a 5'9" defensive lineman at that, and line him up as a starter for 12 games is a tremendous accomplishment in itself. We thought he would contribute but to have him excel and hold his own with the Wisconsins and USCs and Arizonas of the world says a lot about Jerome's abilities. You look at his body and think there's no way he can hang in there but he has a great motor and a tremendous spirit to his play. (Arizona coach) Dick Tomey told me he's a dynamite player. He's very important to our program in more ways than his on the field play. His character and spirit rubs off on everyone. He's a classic example of not pre-judging a player by his stature."