Photo by Dan DeMeo, San Diego State Media Relations
The Aztecs' Xavier Thomas is introduced before a home game.
When I appeared on last week’s VOSD Radio with Andy Keatts and Scott Lewis, I made the case that our beloved hometown San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball team and my beloved hometown Seattle Seahawks have a lot in common. The Seahawks, as you may be aware, recently won a tackle football game that set off much catharsis and jubilation for our I-5 brethren city two states northward.
So with the caveat that there may be no literal, direct connection between the SDSU amateur hoops program and the Seattle NFL club, here are a few of the similarities — coincidental, metaphysical or otherwise — that can be drawn between the two.
1. Both teams are led by well-known head coaches in the latter stage of their careers.
Steve Fisher and Pete Carroll may be birds of a different feather, but they certainly have flown in comparable directions. Fisher, 68, came to Montezuma Mesa in 1999 after serving as an assistant with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, which followed a storied yet checkered career at the University of Michigan. As head coach in Ann Arbor from 1989-1997, Fisher coached the Wolverines to a national championship, then two subsequent title game appearances with the “Fab Five” freshman class led by Chris Webber. Fisher would later be fired in the midst of a scandal involving Webber and a wealthy booster.
Carroll, 62, arrived in the Pacific Northwest after a highly successful but turbulent run as head coach at the University of Southern California. His USC career came on the heels of head coaching stints with the NFL’s Jets and Patriots. After being fired by New England, from 2000-2010 Carroll led the Trojans to two national championships and a third appearance in college football’s title game. He would then leave the university for Seattle under a looming cloud of sanctions that resulted in one of USC’s titles being vacated and San Diego (Spring Valley) native Reggie Bush being stripped of the Heisman Trophy.
2. Both coaches took over programs that historically had not enjoyed much success.
When Fisher came to SDSU, he inherited an Aztecs basketball program that could charitably be described as moribund. State had been absent from postseason play for 14 years, when they had been bounced from the tournament’s first round after a 23-8 season. The school had never won an NCAA tournament game.
Carroll’s 2010 arrival in Seattle came in the wake of Jim Mora (the younger)’s firing after a 5-11 record in his only season as head coach. The Seahawks had been a successful franchise by many measures, including a Super Bowl appearance in the 2005 season, but had never won an NFL championship and had suffered two losing seasons following a run of five straight postseason appearances.
3. Both teams were already playing in modern stadiums that nurtured a burgeoning fan culture.
Fisher has often spoken of how, in his first season at SDSU, he would stroll around the Mesa with a pocketful of Aztecs basketball tickets, offering them to any student who showed interest. Though the students may not have been familiar with the wizened coach or cared about Aztecs hoops, they would at least gain entrance to an inviting, intimate new venue then known as Cox Arena. Built in 1997 inside the shell of historic Aztec Bowl, the now-Viejas Arena would eventually became one of the loudest and most intimidating home courts in college basketball. The Show, SDSU’s bawdy and boisterous student section, lifts the culture of Aztecs basketball and campus life with their every synchronized cheer and opposing-team putdown.
Pete Carroll took over coaching and partial administration of a Seahawks franchise playing in a state-of-the-art downtown stadium, the-then Seahawks Stadium, née Qwest Field and now CenturyLink Field. Opened in 2002 on the footprint of the iconic, imploded Kingdome, the CLink and its rabid fanbase known as the 12th Man were ripe to embrace the new energy brought by the indefatigable Carroll.
5. They’re West Coast powers.
San Diego and Seattle, situated on deep ports at opposite ends of the Best Coast, share commonalities in abundance. In their earlier histories, both cities were known mostly as distant outpost way-stations to somewhere else. Wyatt Earp moved on from San Diego, allegedly, after the primary transcontinental rail route was diverted to Los Angeles, leaving the canyons and muddy flats to transient seamen and salty characters that gave rise to a neighborhood of vice known as the Stingaree.
Birthplace of the term “Skid Row,” a roadway upon that felled timber was dragged to the waterfront, Seattle’s national image was primarily as a backwater town somewhere up by Alaska. A sagging economy in the 1970s led to an exodus for destinations elsewhere, and to a billboard asking, “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights.”
Today, both are major cities lying at or near the north-south ends of Interstate 5, with downtown cores just west of the freeway. San Diego and Seattle serve as gateways to the Pacific and their respective international borders — an afternoon’s drive to Canada for one, and vistas from which to view neighboring Mexico in the other. Even their very names historically coincide: San Diego’s moniker reflecting the Spanish Mission history of California (and colonial subjugation of the native population), and Seattle taking its name from Chief Sealth, the Duwamish leader who worked to accommodate a flood of white settlers invading his ancestral land.
6. West Coast II, Represent: California Aztecs and Pac-12 Seahawks.
A review of San Diego State’s roster of student-athlete cagers (archaic term for “basketball player”) reveals a squad with deep California roots. Of the 17 basket-balling Aztecs, just two — Houstonian Winston Shepard and Raleigh, N.C., native Josh Davis — hail from outside the Golden State. College recruiters like to refer to “building a fence” around their institution’s home state, an especially difficult task in populous, talent-rich California. Fisher and his staff have done an excellent job of mining the rich basketball veins of la República de California.
The Seahawks, led by ageless San Francisco native Peter Clay Carroll, boast a proud contingent of West Coast footballers. The all-time list of Super Bowl touchdown-scoring Seahawks — six in all — includes five players from Pac-12 schools: Washington’s Jerramy Stevens and Jermaine Kearse, Cal’s Marshawn Lynch, Stanford’s Doug Baldwin and USC pick-sixing linebacker Malcolm Smith. Eleven players on Seattle’s most recent Super Bowl first- and second-strings matriculated at Pac-12 universities, led by Stanford wide receiver-turned Best Cornerback in the World Richard Sherman, a Compton, Calif. native.
Are you yet convinced? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? There’s more.
7. Each team has overlooked prospects and castoffs at their core.
The Aztecs count some blue-chip recruits among their ranks, including Shepard, who came to San Diego from Las Vegas’ Findlay Prep as the highest-rated recruit in SDSU history. Jamaal Franklin and Kawhi Leonard before him were sought-after recruits that Fisher’s staff rated higher than others and recruited harder.
Look past Shepard, though, and you see a team populated with players other programs were content to let walk. Starting point guard Xavier Thames was an afterthought at Washington State before leaving the Palouse for the land of the living. After an injury-plagued freshman year at the University of Utah, J.J. O’Brien sat for a redshirt season at SDSU before assuming an integral place on the floor with his Aztec teammates. Rebounding machine Josh Davis is a graduate of Tulane who chose to transfer to State in his final year of eligibility. The late three-pointer hero of the Boise win, Dwayne Polee II, departed traditional East Coast power St. John’s to join Fisher’s squad in San Diego.
Carroll’s success in Seattle with unsung prospects and unsigned free agents is well documented. In addition to mid-round draft picks turned superstars like quarterback Russell Wilson and shutdown corner Sherman, the Seahawks had 21 undrafted free agents filling crucial roles on their 53-man Super Bowl roster.
8. Each team’s core of young players buy into the system and play selflessly.
After the departure of last season’s leading scorers — Franklin to the NBA and Chase Tapley to graduation — the 2013-2014 Aztecs were widely predicted to be headed for a rebuilding year. Instead, after an opening loss to subsequently top-ranked Arizona, the young ‘Tecs rattled off 20 straight wins to charge to a Mountain West conference lead and No. 5 national ranking. Thames is the unquestioned leader, but the soul of the team is in the preparation and conditioning drilled by Fisher and his coaching staff.
“Coaching is teaching,” Fisher told USA Today. “Our classroom is our (basketball) building. We’re going to help them get better, but we’re also going to look after them the way a mom and a dad would want us to look after them. They won’t like everything we do or say. But we’re going to do what we think is in their best interest.”
Carroll’s Seahawks, the second-youngest team ever to reach the Super Bowl, are similarly molded in the image of their coach. He leads his charges with mantras of “Win Forever,” “Always Compete” and “I’m In!” Carroll and Fisher follow philosophies arguably modified from the late UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, whose Pyramid of Success stressed principles like industriousness and enthusiasm, intentness, team spirit, poise and confidence and the ultimate goal of competitive greatness.
Both coaches push their teams to compete hard in all aspects of life without focusing on eventual reward, preferring constant competitiveness that leads to success on its own terms.
8. The ‘Tecs and ‘Hawks play great defense.
The hallmark of both teams is their smothering defensive play. San Diego State ranks third in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering just 56.6 points per game to their opponents. The defensive consistency in Fisher’s program has resulted in a long streak of holding leads, his team having won their last 111 games when leading with five minutes to play.
Of course, the foundation of Carroll’s Seahawks is a relentess, physical defense that forces turnovers. They were 2013′s top overall defense in the NFL. In the Super Bowl, the Legion of Boom held Peyton Manning’s No. 1-ranked Bronco offense to a mere 8 points after shutting them out through three quarters. The Seahawks defense finished its championship season in conversation as the best defensive unit in league history.
10. Both organizations are nicknamed/logo-designed after the indigenous people of the region. Sort of.
I’ll concede that this comparison is more of a stretch. Still! SDSU’s Aztecs nickname is (arguably) intended to honor the aztecatl people of central Mexico, historically remembered as fierce warriors. Setting aside that the California peninsula wasn’t actually inhabited by Aztecs per se.
The Seahawks name itself doesn’t harken to any specific heritage, other than mimicking the Osprey, a fish-hunting predator bird. But the team’s logo is based on Northwest Coast art, as popularized by the many totem poles that became a regional icon in early Seattle. Though the totems were actually stolen, er, appropriated from Alaska/northern British Columbia.
While interesting, or perhaps tedious if you’ve read this far, all these Fisher/Carroll and SoCal/Northwest correlations don’t necessarily mean the Aztecs men’s basketball team is headed for a national championship.
OR ARE THEY?
The No. 5 San Diego State men’s basketball team plays on the road versus conference rival Wyoming at 8:05 p.m. Pacific Tuesday, Feb. 11 in Laramie. The game can be seen on ESPNU or heard on 1090 AM/105.7 FM in San Diego.
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