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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006 | San Jose State inducts San Diego State’s second most successful football coach into its Ring of Honor today when the Aztecs play at Spartan Stadium, and SJSU fans should take a moment to thank former SDSU president Thomas Day for firing Claude Gilbert in 1980.

Thanks to Day foolishly dumping Gilbert – a man who served on Don Coryell’s SDSU staffs and then succeeded Coryell with a 61-26-2 record (.697) in eight seasons – Gilbert returned to his Bay Area alma mater and posted back-to-back 10-2 seasons in 1986 and 1987 for the Spartans.

Are you kidding me – 10-win seasons at San Jose State? Imagine what San Diego State fans would do for a single 10-win season.

Well, think back to 1976 and 1977. That’s when Gilbert coached the Aztecs to back-to-back 10-1 seasons. The 1977 team won at Arizona, 21-14, and routed Bobby Bowden’s visiting 13th-ranked Florida State team, 41-16.

But three years later, with Gilbert undertaking the difficult task of converting SDSU from a junior college-oriented program to one based on recruiting high school talent, Day decided Gilbert wasn’t the man to lift the program to big-time football status.

But instead of moving forward, the program reversed field under coaches who didn’t know as much football as Gilbert both in terms of X’s and O’s or what it takes to win at a school like San Diego State.

The late Doug Scovil was a bore, Denny Stolz retired on the job and Al Luginbill lost control of the program to the point that, after brawls between SDSU and Miami players, former Miami coach Dennis Erickson labeled SDSU’s players thugs. Imagine a football team’s image slipping to the depths that Erickson was the pot calling the kettle black.

Gilbert, now retired from coaching and enjoying life as a gentleman’s rancher in Grass Valley, will travel to San Jose State for the game between the 0-3 Aztecs and 2-1 Spartans.

We know SJSU fans should thank Thomas Day for firing Gilbert, but Aztecs fans could debate whether new SDSU coach Chuck Long – a coach with a winning pedigree who will turn things around if given time – should thank Day or chastise him.

Chastising Day would be appropriate since he disregarded Gilbert’s history with SDSU and what he had built as an assistant to Coryell for six years and as a head coach for eight years. Maybe, without Day’s interference, Long would now be the Aztecs’ head coach with the job of carrying the baton of a successful program instead undertaking a rebuilding effort.

But thanking Day might be appropriate since the SDSU job that Long coveted might not have become available to someone from the Midwest if Day hadn’t sent the program into a quarter-century of disarray.

The turning point in SDSU’s history was the Aztecs’ season-ending loss to BYU in 1979. Despite an 8-3 record, including a 24-17 win over Wisconsin in the third week, the season ended on a sour note with a 63-14 loss to BYU on national television.

Marc Wilson, a future NFL first-round draft pick, picked apart an injury-ravaged defense that gambled with blitzes. Gilbert was forced to plan, without six of his eight linebackers, for an offense that featured Wilson throwing to future NFL receivers.

“We sat up late at night deciding how we were going to defend Marc Wilson and some great receivers,” Gilbert recalled. “We decided our only chance was to jury-rig a defense. It was an all-or-nothing gamble. We thought we could win or get the dickens beaten out of us.”

Can you imagine the ranting and raving if an Internet fan message board existed back then? They might have prompted Day to act quicker than he did. Day wasn’t smart enough to understand the program was in good hands as long as Gilbert was burning the midnight oil on game plans, despite the result of one game influenced by injuries.

“I guess some people at the university were embarrassed by that loss,” Gilbert said. “We opened at BYU the next year, and I knew at the time if we didn’t beat them, it was lights out for us.”

SDSU opened 1980 with a 35-11 loss at BYU and finished 4-8 overall, although the Aztecs were 4-4 in the Western Athletic Conference.

Gilbert didn’t look long for a job, though. He was the defensive coordinator at San Jose State from 1981 to 1984 before he was promoted to head coach from 1985-89.

Oddly enough – and Long can take solace in this – Gilbert tells a story of a difficult first season in 1985 when his Spartans lost both their talented tight ends on the same day at practice. Gilbert said the offense never recovered.

Sound familiar? The Aztecs’ offense has been devastated by the lack of a tight end with the loss of Lance Louis and Eric Miclot both in spring football.

But the back-to-back 10-2 seasons in 1986 and 1987 – including sweeping Cal and Stanford in 1987 – became a triumphant return home. Today, SJSU properly honors Gilbert with the Aztecs looking on.

“It’s the school that gave me an education and a chance to coach,” Gilbert said. “I’m flattered with the honor, and it’s a bit embarrassing to get all this attention. But I’m not going to turn it down.”

No, you shouldn’t, Claude. And it’s too bad Thomas Day turned you down 26 years ago as SDSU’s coach for 1981 and beyond. The Aztecs haven’t recovered yet.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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