SAN DIEGO — The picture is everywhere. On posters. On pamphlets. On television. Denny Stolz, the first-year San Diego State football coach, hoisted atop the shoulders of his players, fists thrust into the air. The first Western Athletic Conference football title in school history was his and theirs.
That was last season. Now they will try for No. 2.
The school's promotional campaign for this season is "Return to Glory." Maybe it should be "The Season of Great Anticipation." For that is the feeling around SDSU as the Aztecs get ready to kick off their 1987 season against UCLA Saturday night in the Rose Bowl.
"Everyone can't wait to get started," said Clarence Nunn, a fifth-year senior cornerback from Gardena. "We've been waiting for this all summer."
Once the Aztecs were just another team Brigham Young used to beat on its way to its annual WAC championship. Now, they are a team on the verge of establishing themselves on the national level.
"BYU and Air Force have already made that jump," Stolz said. "We want to be next."
A victory Saturday against the Bruins, rated third in the Associated Press preseason poll, would go a long way toward accomplishing that, but the real work starts Sept. 12, when the Aztecs begin defense of the conference title in their home opener against Utah.
The WAC championship, with its accompanying automatic berth in the Holiday Bowl, is what the Aztecs truly covet. Last year they finished 7-1 in the conference, losing only to Air Force, and their overall record of 8-4 included a last-second 39-38 loss to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.
Their goal is to win another WAC title, but the Aztecs are approaching it differently this time.
"Last year, we thought we could do it; we knew we could do it, but we didn't know how to win," said Brett Faryniarz, a fifth-year senior defensive end from Rancho Cordova. "It took us some time to learn to win. This year, we know how to win."
Or at least the nine returning starters and 32 returning lettermen do. The remainder of the team will have to learn what last year's squad grew to understand in a season in which 9 of 12 games, including seven victories, were decided by seven points or less.
The Aztecs have been infused with one of the best group of junior college and high school recruits in school history, led by two Parade high school All-Americans, running back Tommy Booker from Vista and Patrick Rowe from Lincoln.
"The new guys know what they're getting into," Nunn said. "They come from successful programs; they know what it means to win. They understand what we accomplished last year and what we want to do this year. I don't think they'll have any problem fitting right in."
Several will be required to fit in right away as starters, while the others will be counted on to provide the depth Stolz said he believes is necessary to make another run at the championship.
The newcomers could make their biggest impact on offense. Stolz has said he plans to use a variety of players at wide receiver and running back, including some of his best recruits.
With the opener two days away, tailback remains the most unsettled position. Ron Slack, a third-year sophomore from Pasadena, had been the projected starter until he injured his hamstring last week. Slack is making a steady recovery, but his injury has left an opening for two newcomers. Paul Hewitt, a junior transfer from Citrus College in Glendora, has been working with the first team since Saturday, while Booker has moved into the backup spot.
"Whatever we do, we're going to play a lot of people there," Stolz said. "It's the one spot where we're still looking for the right combination."
The starting wide receivers will be Alfred Jackson and Monty Gilbreath, the only returning receivers who caught a pass last season, but the backup positions have been won by two transfers--Robert Claiborne from Southwestern College and Randy Peterson of Santa Monica College. Rowe, whom Stolz had been expecting to make an immediate impact, broke his left collarbone in an all-star game Aug. 1 and will not play against UCLA. But if his recovery remains on schedule, Rowe could be ready to play against Utah.
At the start of practice three weeks ago, the position of tight end was wide open, but Kerry Reed-Martin, whose five catches for 36 yards and 2 touchdowns made him the most experienced returner, established himself as a solid choice to take over for All-WAC selection Rob Awalt.
"Speed was a problem for us last season," Stolz said. "But we've really improved ourselves. We're a much faster team than a year ago. There's a lot of speed at receiver."
That is encouraging for the Aztecs, especially Todd Santos, who will be throwing the passes. Santos is the school's all-time passing yardage leader with 7,493 yards and needs to average 261 yards per game to surpass Kevin Sweeney as the NCAA's all-time passing yardage leader. Sweeney finished his career at Fresno State last season with 10,623 yards.