McGrane: For Aztecs, a Rarity has Become Routine
Dec. 17, 2016
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: For Aztecs, a Rarity has Become Routine
There was no ticker tape, no blaring of horns, no barriers needed for purposes of crowd control.
Rather, there was a humble gathering of the faithful, fans so forgiving that 11 straight losing seasons somehow seemed long forgotten.
It was Oct. 30, 2010, exactly 4,333 days since San Diego State's football team last participated in a bowl game. A drought which, given the preceding decade, appeared fast encroaching on infinity.
The Aztecs, who had suffered through six straight sub-.500 seasons, had won five of their first seven games for the first time in 14 years. In a scrum at Wyoming that saw SDSU score 21 fourth-quarter points to outlast the host Cowboys, 48-38, the Aztecs pocketed their sixth win of the season to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1998.
It was evening when the team's buses unloaded in front of Fowler Athletic Center. And if there wasn't delirium, there was clearly devotion.
"It wasn't like we (got off the bus) thinking, 'OK, now we've arrived,' " said Ryan Lindley, who had thrown for 365 yards and three touchdowns that day in his third season as the team's starting quarterback. "It was only our sixth win of the season. But you had that feeling like, hey, people here still respect us and we've taken the next step. Maybe not the next step out of mediocrity, but at least the next step out of the cellar. To just become somewhat relevant in San Diego was a big deal to us."
And hasn't stopped being a big deal since.
SDSU, which earned a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl that season and convincingly beat Navy, 35-14, will make its seventh straight appearance in a postseason game when it meets Houston on Saturday. Ironically, it will come in the Las Vegas Bowl, which in 1998 marked the beginning of 12 consecutive seasons without a bowl appearance for the Aztecs.
In 2010, however, in head coach Brady Hoke's second season, SDSU came within six points of opening the season 7-0. A pair of three-point losses at Missouri and BYU was all that stood between SDSU winning its first seven games for the first time since 1975. It was as though everything disastrous you'd come to expect from Aztec football was vaporizing, vanishing without a trace of the 3-9 in 2006 and the 2-10 in 2008.
Suddenly, almost alarmingly, SDSU was bowl eligible after its eighth game of the season. When they posted their seventh victory a week later against Colorado State, the Aztecs surpassed their highest season win total in 12 years.
Lindley, who would be taken in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, knew the team's entire world was about to be turned upside down the day Hoke the day walked into the building. Hoke's staff, fortified by the hiring of current head coach Rocky Long as defensive coordinator and the addition of strength and conditioning guru Aaron Wellman, made siphoning off the poison of perpetual losing Job One.
As Long recently surmised: "I saw a bunch of guys on that team who looked like they had been beat up."
"We were beat up, especially the older guys on the team who had been through it," said Lindley, a free agent whose last NFL appearance came with the Indianapolis Colts in December of last year. "You became accustomed to losing, and that's not a healthy mindset to have as a football team, much less individually. I think what you saw were a lot of guys who were just playing to improve their draft status and didn't have much else to play for.
"The biggest thing that Coach Hoke and Coach Long brought in was that we were going to play with bigger things in mind. With fatigue and pain, if you're only playing for yourself, you can call it quits or shut it down. It makes it easy to stop. But for us, it became making it about other people and making it about your teammates. I think that's what really took it to the next level for us."
And to a bowl game, where the first of seven straight such achievements included current Chargers running back Ronnie Hillman rushing for 223 yards and four touchdowns. Against a Navy team that had won seven of eight entering the contest, the Aztecs finished with 555 total yards and never trailed.
"It was a huge achievement for us at that time," said former defensive tackle Ernie Lawson, who now serves as the team's defensive line coach. "Going into that season, a lot of people didn't believe we could do it. It just felt kind of like this huge weight was lifted off of your shoulders.
"We needed a whole different (approach), and that coaching staff brought it. They were exactly what we needed with Coach Hoke, Coach Wellman and Coach Long as our defensive coordinator. We weren't tough. We didn't believe we could win. They came in and instilled that toughness and instilled the belief that every time we went out there we could win.
"We had to make a commitment to working hard and to winning. We didn't have that. We weren't serious about it before the new staff got there. When you're losing for a long time, and losing the way that we lost, it begins to get to you."
If not leave you desperately searching for an exit. In 2008, the season prior to Hoke's arrival, the Aztecs lost seven league games by an average of 36.2 points.
"With Coach Hoke and Coach Long, there was a level of accountability that I wouldn't even say was raised, because before that it was really non-existent," said Lindley, who works as an on-site substitute teacher at Valhalla High in El Cajon and assisted with coaching football this fall at his alma mater of El Capitan High in Lakeside. "In previous seasons, we had guys during summer conditioning who were doing their own thing because they thought that was the best thing for them and for their NFL hopes.
"Coach Hoke did a good job of weeding out the guys that weren't there for the right reasons, and that was a big part of it. It wasn't any longer a case of, "Hey, I'm a San Diego State football player and I'm here to have fun and make it to the NFL.' It became 'I'm a San Diego State football player and I'm here to win football games.' That mentality completely turned everything on its head and took advantage of the talent that was already in the program."
SDSU's seventh consecutive bowl appearance, its longest streak in school history, is coupled with the fact that the Aztecs have posted 10 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being an independent in 1976-77. SDSU will look to equal its school record with its 11th victory on Saturday, a feat also accomplished last season.
"I always felt like if we had the right coaching staff that there was enough talent to win," Lawson said. "My first three years in the program, we had a bunch of talent and we still lost. My second year (2007), we went 4-8 and had four guys (the most since 1988) drafted. A lot of the success you have comes down to fit, and those coaches who came in were a great fit for what our program needed.
"The guys we have now are a lot more loose than we were. Coach Long does a great job of letting them be themselves. We don't have robots. Our kids definitely expect to win, and that's a huge change from when I first came to San Diego State. When I was first here, I was always expecting something to go wrong because something always did go wrong. To be back here now with these coaches and these young men is just a great, great blessing."
Said Lindley: "You take baby steps toward your aspirations, and now I think the program has taken those. It's happening; it's fun to see as an alumni. The program has gotten better since I left five years ago and it's going to continue to get better.
"Personally, I think they'll continue to beat up on the Mountain West, with Boise State and Wyoming occasionally giving them a challenge. But I think now they have to raise the bar themselves. Whether that means playing a tougher non-conference schedule, I think now they've kind of reached a point where they can say, 'Hey, we've handled this, so let's start putting bigger hurdles in front of us.'
"When you hear Rocky say that people get upset now when the Aztecs lose a game, hey, I'm coming from a place during my sophomore year where we were 2-10. To look back, and then see what's happening now, it's almost like a completely different universe."