San Diego State’s Bowl Breakthrough

Dec. 30, 1986 seemed like a day that would never arrive for everyone associated with the San Diego State football program — yes, the day of the Division 1 bowl breakthrough. Tuesday represents the 28th anniversary of that locally historic Holiday Bowl, in which the Aztecs took on Iowa of the Big Ten.

The frustration of not making a postseason contest throughout the 1970s despite having some really good teams served as a background for the final third of A COACH AT HEART. As explained by fictional offensive coordinator Rudy Riley, the Aztecs found themselves in the position of having to win its game or two a year against a major conference opponent, or stay home for the holidays. In 1976 and 1977, records of 10-1 meant nothing in the eyes of bowl organizers.

The anguish would continue well after A COACH AT HEART. While the book ends following an uncharacteristically bad 1978 season, in 1979, SDSU rebounded to finish with an 8-3 record that included wins over Miami (Fla.) and Wisconsin and a rout of former nemesis Arizona. Because an injury-weakened group of Aztecs were routed in their finale vs. BYU, they lost a shot at a Fiesta Bowl bid.

The early 1980s brought a mix of mediocre and downright bad seasons to “Montezuma Mesa.” Coach Claude Gilbert and his assistants were let go in what is considered by longtime fans to be the dumbest move in the athletic department’s dubious history. The highlight was going 7-5 in a 1982 season that ended with a 35-6 rout of Oklahoma State, but not even the most ardent supporter would have suggested that squad was bowl-worthy, considering the smaller supply of the day.

Things began to come together, however, in 1984. Despite a 4-7-1 mark, they found a dynamic freshman QB in Todd Santos, quality young running backs in Chris Hardy and Corey Gilmore, and the start of construction of an offensive line that would be senior-dominated in 1986.

The big year started with a coaching change. Doug Scovil, who had made his name coaching up BYU passers like Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson before taking the reins at State, was fired and replaced by Denny Stolz, who’d earned a reputation for himself at Michigan State and Bowling Green.

Here’s the funny part. Absolutely nothing happened in September to make fans think something special was coming. The Aztecs got by Long Beach State by a field goal and survived a shootout at Utah. They were crushed at home by UCLA, barely survived New Mexico and lost by a touchdown at Stanford at the beginning of October. They beat UTEP with a score of just 15-10.

At 4-2, SDSU hosted Air Force in what was considered a crossroads kind of game. Win it and they were legit. They lost 22-10 and it didn’t seem that close. With hopes for a WAC title and bowl bid all but finished, they somehow eked out a win at Colorado State, beat Wyoming and routed Hawaii when Hardy went the distance on the first offensive play of the game. In the season-ending showdown vs BYU, the Aztecs produced perhaps the best defensive performance since the great 70s teams and took down the Cougars 10-3. As you can imagine, when Holiday Bowl officials extended the long-awaited bowl invitation after the game, it touched-off one big celebration in San Diego.

The Iowa team that would be the opponent won its first five games of the year and were also 8-3, but against much stronger league competition. The QBs were future Charger Mark Vlasic and, ironically, eventual SDSU great Dan McGwire, 1100-yard rusher Rick Bayless and WR Quinn Early, another future Charger, and CB Merton Hanks. The Hawkeyes were in their coach Hayden Fry heyday, in the midst of eight straight bowl appearances, including two New Year’s Days in Pasadena. They’d return to the Rose Bowl a couple of years later. The Holiday Bowl was going to be a huge challenge for little San Diego State, making its first Division 1 bowl appearance.

What transpired was one of the great bowl games of all time, one that even 28 years later is shown on ESPN Classic.

There wasn’t an Aztecs fan who had any idea of how their team would perform. They’d beaten lower-level major conference schools in the past, but Iowa was on a level that might equate to Wisconsin these days — always strong, usually a league title threat. Big time.

Cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd at what was then known as Jack Murphy Stadium, they did just fine. Santos threw for three first-half touchdowns, and SDSU led 21-13 at the break. Hardy ran six yards for a score early in the fourth quarter for a 35-21 advantage as the crowd went wild.

Iowa came back, though, scoring on a 29-yard touchdown pass on fourth down, followed by a two-point conversion. The Hawkeyes went ahead 36-35 on a short TD pass with about four minutes left in the game. SDSU hit a field goal with 47 seconds remaining on the clock, but allowed a long return to Kevin Harmon. The Hawkeyes won 39-38 on a field goal as time ran out.

Here’s a link to Iowa-centric video highlights.

Close, yet so far for SDSU. It would be five years before the Aztecs would go bowling again, led by Hall of Fame RB Marshall Faulk. Then came a seven-year wait. After that was a drought of a dozen forgettable years despite the ESPN-driven explosion in the number of bowl games. Frustration at having good teams shut out by a limited number of postseason slots was replaced by anger or, worse, apathy caused by many years that were mediocre at best.

So what’s happened to San Diego State’s football team lately is amazing, with five straight bowl appearances and two victories. The big picture takes some of the sting out of this year’s 17-16 loss to Navy in the hometown Poinsettia Bowl. No one could have imagined in 1977, 1986 or even a few years ago that SDSU would become a future bowl mainstay. That Holiday Bowl in 1986 was the breakthrough.

A personal note on that Holiday Bowl: my wife and I regularly attended SDSU games, including that year. However, I accepted an out-of-town job offer and started my new position in early December. My wife stayed behind to prepare for us to move during the holidays.

About a week before the game, my wife informed me that some church friends and fellow fans suddenly weren’t able to make it and offered us their tickets. Well, here I was new to the job and it was kind of hard to go to my new boss and say, “Hey, do you mind if I take a couple of days off right before New Year’s?” I made sure to be as diplomatic about it as possible — okay, I asked but tried not to sound like a jerk.

So I ended up watching the back-and-forth, gut-wrenching contest on TV in a studio apartment I was renting for the month. By myself. And when Iowa kicked the game-winning field goal, there was no one to turn to who could either share my sorrow or make me feel better. But that’s sports, and life.

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