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Monday, July 18, 2005 | The Mountain West Conference football media meetings take place today and tomorrow at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort, so I thought I’d share some facts with visiting media members about San Diego as a college football town.

This will be especially enlightening if you don’t know Don Coryell is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame for his time at San Diego State – before he moved on to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chargers (he belongs in the NFL Hall, too) – or you never heard of his SDSU successor, Claude Gilbert.

1) We still love college football here.

2) Not all of San Diego’s blue-chip talent is foolishly seduced by recruiters from Bowl Championship Series conferences into believing life is better in Lincoln, Neb., Norman, Okla., Pullman, Wash., or Tucson, Ariz.

3) San Diego State’s 2005 roster features the Aztecs’ best depth since head coach Tom Craft took over a program woefully thin on talent in 2002.

Yes, I know the SDSU crowds are sometimes embarrassing, but don’t confuse small crowds with apathy. San Diego sports fans turn their attention other ways when their teams aren’t winning.

That’s why when the folks who created the clever ESPN commercials to promote the ESPY Awards went looking for a dopey sports geek, they found what they wanted in Boston – a goof wearing a Bruins hockey sweater. If they had come to San Diego, they would have found people walking, running, biking and swimming instead of griping about a losing college football team.

In San Diego, you might remember, Padres fans stayed in their seats and cheered the Padres for their 1998 season despite being swept in the fourth game of the World Series by the New York Yankees.

But that doesn’t mean San Diego is exempt from some fans with misguided passion. They can be found trying to undermine Craft’s rebuilding efforts because a) Craft’s personality rubs them the wrong way; b) Craft didn’t retain coaches they liked from Ted Tollner’s staff.

When all was right with SDSU football in the 1970s, you should know that the Aztecs gained national rankings under Coryell and Gilbert. They sometimes outdrew the Chargers, a point New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards, an SDSU alum, is fond of pointing out.

In 1977, the Aztecs routed Florida State, at the time ranked No. 13 in the nation, 41-16. A crowd of 50,453 filled what was then called San Diego Stadium, but is now the site of enlarged and renamed 72,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium. Bowden said he had never heard such a loud crowd at a school playing home games off campus.

But in the last three decades the Aztecs made the mistake of firing Gilbert and Doug Scovil too soon and subsequently hiring Denny Stolz and Al Luginbill.

Stolz won with Scovil’s players, a 1986 Holiday Bowl trip before 59,473 at Qualcomm Stadium, and then retired on the job. Luginbill lost the respect of his roster and the high school football coaching community (important in the recruiting game). Then, Tollner’s rebuilding efforts faded after the Aztecs weren’t invited to bowl games following seasons of 8-4 in 1995 and 8-3 in 1996.

In the process, the Aztecs lost a generation of young fans growing up in San Diego, but that hasn’t prevented Craft from turning the tide by convincing local talent to stay home instead of playing for BCS schools.

Guys like SDSU sophomore quarterback Kevin O’Connell (La Costa Canyon), junior safety Reggie Grigsby (El Camino), sophomore running back Brandon Bornes (Rancho Buena Vista), sophomore wide receiver Brett Swain (Carlsbad), sophomore tight end Eric Miclot (Vista), redshirt freshman linebacker Russell Allen (Vista), redshirt freshman wide receiver Marcus Montgomery (Oceanside), incoming freshman wide receiver DeMarco Sampson (Castle Park) and incoming freshman wide receiver Jon Toledo (La Costa Canyon) aren’t dopes.

The turnaround under Craft has been slow, but his recruits sense San Diego can be a college football town again.

Since Craft played quarterback on San Diego State’s 10-1 team in 1976, San Diego has become a bigger and different city. The Aztecs haven’t connected with San Diego’s new denizens, whose first passion remains their favorite Pac-10, Big 10 and Big 12 schools.

The Aztecs have to win for them to buy a ticket. Then you’ll see San Diego is a good college football town.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.

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