Stanford, SDSU to Battle in “A Coach at Heart” Series

Stanford and San Diego State, the college football programs that serve as the foundation for most of A COACH AT HEART, announced this week that they’ll meet in a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2018 — the first match at Qualcomm Stadium and the second in Palo Alto.

The two West Coast schools were perfect settings for the tale of the fictional player-turned-coach George Steele. When I originally came up with the concept for the story, I pictured an old man looking back on his career, so I went back and figured out when he would have attended high school, played in college and entered the coaching profession. The answer was the late-1960s and 1970s.

The time was filled with upheaval for the country as a whole and also in football as black players became more regular participants for the first time, the American and National football leagues merged and the Super Bowl was started.

Good stories abounded — but I didn’t want good stories, I wanted compelling ones. The consensus is that for a college football book or movie, you have to focus on Texas, Notre Dame or Alabama. Phooey! What Stanford and SDSU brought was underdogs striving for excellence, getting there and making a lasting impact. Players on both teams had to work extremely hard to reach great heights, and the style of offense we saw for the ensuing 30 years in football — college and pro — stemmed from what the Indians/Cardinals/Cardinal and Aztecs did back in the A COACH AT HEART time-period.

The football programs have other things in common, as well. They have an uncanny correlation between when they’re good and bad. After the two Bill Walsh-era bowl games in 1977 and 1978, Stanford didn’t go to another postseason game until 1986. That was the year San Diego State finally got over the hump to go to a bowl game for the first time in the Division 1 era.

In the 2000s, both programs performed at historically low levels until dynamic new coaches — Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Brady Hoke at SDSU — propelled them to greater heights by toughening them up and adopting power-run games behind dominant offensive lines.

So it should be an interesting series. How interesting will be determined by whether or not the Aztecs can compete in the trenches. If they hold up well there, they will likely be good enough to have a chance to win, though the Cardinal will clearly be favored in both meetings. They played four times in the 1980s, with Stanford winning three times. Fun fact: my wife and I delayed our wedding date for a week because of their first meeting in 1985! I’m lucky she didn’t cancel the plans altogether!

I dub it the A COACH AT HEART series. What better way to celebrate the novel than to have these two schools play!




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