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San Diego State becomes a destination point

With the football team set to play in a bowl game and the men's basketball team unbeaten and ranked seventh nationally, Aztecs get a lot more attention from fans and recruits.

December 20, 2010|By Gary Klein

Reporting from San Diego — The weather, save for the odd rainstorm, is consistently sunny and mild.

The daily comings and goings of students, faculty and administrators remain largely unchanged.

But D.J. Gay, a senior guard on the San Diego State basketball team, senses a shift on and off campus, especially in regard to the Aztecs athletics program. "There's definitely something different in the air," he said.

That's what happens when the university's football team qualifies for a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade, and the men's basketball team is unbeaten and ranked seventh nationally.

San Diego State, long considered a sleeping giant in college sports, is stirring.

Second-year football Coach Brady Hoke is preparing his team for Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against Navy, a matchup in this Navy town that is on pace to draw the largest crowd ever for the Qualcomm Stadium event.

Meantime, Coach Steve Fisher oversees a basketball team that is 12-0 and drawing sellout crowds at the on-campus Viejas Arena.

"The giant has been awake for a while, but no one saw it because football hadn't turned," first-year Athletic Director Jim Sterk said. "This year is changing that."

With its inviting climate, a vast and talent-laden recruiting base, reasonable academic standards and excellent playing facilities, San Diego State has all the ingredients for perennial athletic success.

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the school's baseball coach, and former All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk are among the dozens of distinguished alumni honored in the lobby of the Aztecs Athletics Center.

But in the eyes of some, San Diego State's athletic program has underperformed.

Before this season, for example, the football team had not finished with a winning record since 1998. Enter Hoke, hired two years ago by former athletic director Jeff Schemmel after turning Ball State into a winner.

Sitting in his spacious, well-appointed office last week, Hoke said he was drawn to San Diego State, in part, because of the rich Southern California recruiting base that he had mined during eight seasons as an assistant at Michigan.

Hoke also had a connection to the Aztecs, his brother Jon having served as an assistant football coach for two seasons in the late 1980s. "But he was more interested in telling me where to get the best fish tacos," Hoke said, laughing.

No one was chuckling last year when Hoke held his first meeting with a team that finished 2-10 in 2008 under former coach Chuck Long. "He was super-commanding," linebacker Miles Burris said of Hoke. "You could see it was going to be tough, but it's what we needed."

Hoke assembled a staff that includes Al Borges, a former UCLA and Auburn offensive coordinator; Rocky Long, a former UCLA defensive coordinator and New Mexico coach; and Brian Sipe, a former Aztecs quarterback who played 12 seasons in the NFL.

The Aztecs finished 4-8 in 2009 before taking a major step this season.

Running back Ronnie Hillman, the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and infused an offense that also features quarterback Ryan Lindley. Burris led the defense, compiling a conference-best 9½ sacks.

The Aztecs finished 8-4, but even the defeats were impressive. San Diego State lost by five points at No. 3 Texas Christian and by three at Missouri and Brigham Young. A ranked Utah team beat the Aztecs by one point at Qualcomm Stadium.

The turnaround has made Hoke one of the hottest commodities in college coaching. After being courted by Minnesota, he recently agreed to a contract extension that, with incentives, could reportedly pay him close to $1 million annually. Hoke, however, is thought to be among the candidates to possibly succeed Rich Rodriguez at Michigan if the school makes a change after the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl.

"It's really uncomfortable," Hoke said of the speculation regarding Michigan and other possible openings. "I haven't been contacted by anybody besides Minnesota and I'm not interested in being contacted by anyone."

Neither, apparently, is Fisher, who won a national championship at Michigan and is in his 12th season with the Aztecs.

In 1999, Fisher inherited a program that had posted losing records in 13 of its previous 14 seasons.

The Aztecs reached the NCAA tournament in Fisher's third season and have returned twice since, most recently last spring. They are on pace to win more than 20 games for the sixth consecutive season.

"There was, at best, apathy," Fisher said, recalling the state of the program when he arrived, and "now there's genuine excitement and expectations."

Last season, the Aztecs finished 25-9 with a solid core of upperclassmen and forward Kawhi Leonard, a former Riverside King High star who was the Mountain West freshman of the year.

Leonard is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game for the Aztecs, who play San Francisco in Las Vegas on Tuesday night.

Fisher is not surprised by the Aztecs' start. "If we played a top 10 team every night we would not win every game, but we wouldn't be shocked if we beat anybody," he said.

Hoke, Fisher and Sterk say that the enthusiasm generated by football and basketball success will fuel recruiting and fundraising and also create a spillover effect.

Gay, who played at Sun Valley Poly High, said change in the air is already causing others to do as he did when he chose San Diego State over USC and Pepperdine four years ago.

"It went from people saying, 'Why would you want to go there?' to 'How can I get down there?' " he said. "Instead of questioning it, people have jumped on the bandwagon."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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