A Coach at Heart Teams Finish in Top 25

One of the great frustrations of San Diego State football fans over the years is that the great 1977 season recounted in A COACH AT HEART was the last time the Aztecs finished a year as one of the top 25 teams in college football, per the Associated Press media poll.

That ended with the final polls of the 2016 campaign, in which SDSU ranked No. 25 in both the AP and coaches polls. The other program profiled in the novel, Stanford, completed a 10-3 record with a 25-23 victory over North Carolina in the Sun Bow, and finished at No. 12 in the two polls.

But that’s nothing new. SDSU’s lofty ranking — as one of three non-power conference schools to be ranked, along with Western Michigan and South Florida — is rare.

Almost 30 years in total, 40 for the AP. That’s frustration.

Even in 1986, when the Aztecs finally made their way into a bowl game, they only snuck in at No. 25 in the coaches poll. It didn’t happen at all in the early 1990s, when Marshall Faulk’s glories were undone by a shabby defense, or the mid-1990s, when they twice won eight games. Nor did it happen over the past six seasons, each of which was capped by a bowl appearance.

This year’s bowl game might have made the difference.

San Diego State overcame an early 10-0 deficit to Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl but dominated the final three quarters to win going away, 34-10, over a team that defeated a pair of Top 5 opponents earlier in the season. The Aztecs’ own star ball-carrier, Donnel Pumphrey, became the all-time leading rusher in college football and enjoyed a heartwarming televised postgame celebration with his family.

Before downing the Cougars, the Aztecs also avenged one of the setbacks in their 11-3 season by beating Wyoming in the conference championship game. Didn’t hurt.

The trick now, of course, is to build on success. The Aztecs lose several players considered to be difference-makers in Pumphrey, G Nico Siragusa, DE Alex Barrett, LB Calvin Munson, CB Damontae Kazee and S Malik Smith. They’ve recruited well the past few years, and their youth is considered to be better overall. But the problem with youth is that it’s wasted on the young, as they say. It will take some time for them to jell, especially on the offensive line, where four starters will be new.

The history lesson from A COACH AT HEART would be sobering. A year after a brilliant senior-laden class walked away from Montezuma Mesa after 1977, a young and injury-riddled group of Aztecs went 4-8, causing some of the young assistants to ponder their futures. The book is a novel that’s based on fact. SDSU fans will hope that fall 2017 facts don’t follow fiction.

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