Tuesday, April 14, 2009 | Whoever took Alexander Pope’s 18th century essay that stated “hope springs eternal” and applied it to baseball must not have been a college football fan.
The Padres, of course, have good reason for spring optimism after a 5-2 start to the season in their first two series at Petco Park. Despite being picked to repeat as a last-place finisher in the National League West — indeed, one of the worst teams in baseball, which they were last year — they opened the season with a split against with the NL West-favorite Los Angeles Dodgers and a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants.
But spring football also is a unique time in the college game, especially at school like San Diego State where a new coach has taken over in the quest to turn around a losing program.
Imagine our town in the spring and summer without the Padres if former president Larry Lucchino didn’t manage to get Petco Park built. The Padres might have become a serious part of contraction talk started by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig (has the guy ever made a visionary move?)
Imagine our town in the fall, not to mention a little spring football talk, if San Diego State president Stephen Weber hadn’t stood up to the vocal minority on campus that wanted to abolish football. Weber understands the Division I college football adds to a school’s overall profile.
Spring football talk began circulating anew Saturday when Aztecs fans turned out for the first practice in full pads, although you can bet it will be tempered by fall when the Aztecs are picked to again land at the bottom of the Mountain West Conference.
This time a year ago there was a darkening cloud of doubt around SDSU football that Chuck Long could turn the program around in his third season. The Aztecs, devastated by injuries that started in summer conditioning with a broken pelvis suffered by promising safety Martell Fantroy, finished 2-10.
But this spring feels different. New head coach Brady Hoke arrives with a proven track record as a head coach at turning around a program. Ball State went from the bottom of the Mid-American Conference to 12-2 and nationally ranked in his five seasons.
“There are a lot of experiences (at Ball State) that are similar to this program as far looking at how we can do things better in the weight room and conditioning and the mental aspect of the game,” Hoke said. “We’ve got to keep pushing as coaches and keep the enthusiasm among the players to get better.”
So far the players are buying into it. Luke Laolagi, a junior linebacker that has impressed Hoke, says the team is coming off a far more intense off-season weight-lifting and conditioning program than past years. Now it’s extending to the pace of practice.
“The (practice) schedule is quicker than last year,” Laolagi said. “We run from drill to drill and we’re getting after it. He’s keeping practice at the pace of a game. If we practice like we play, the games will be easier.”
Hoke, whose voice has already turned raspy, keeps the pace up with an eye that doesn’t miss anything and a bark that prods players.
“Teaching,” Hoke said, correcting the use of the word yelling. “This is pretty much my voice during the season. We’ll keep teaching and working hard.”
Another reason for the optimism is the staff Hoke put together. Most notable are defensive coordinator Rocky Long — the former New Mexico head coach that the beat the Aztecs the last eight years — and quarterbacks coach Brian Sipe — the Don Coryell All-American quarterback for the Aztecs that was the 1980 NFL MVP with the Cleveland Browns.
But college football fans know that offensive coordinator Al Borges also is a key hire. Borges is installing a pro-style offense that will strive to improve the running game so the Aztecs develop balance that has been lacking.
Spring football, unlike spring training in baseball, gives the fans a welcome reprieve from the long off-season before the team assembles for fall camp. The Aztecs open the season Sept. 5 season opener at UCLA.
In baseball, there was no break from the Padres’ discouraging spring training to the start of the regular season. But this is the time of year when we’re reminded a season is a marathon, not a sprint.
After all, the Padres’ 5-2 start is only one comeback win better than the encouraging start last year. But within two weeks, the Padres tumbled under .500 for good with an 11-17 record at the end of April and 23-34 by the end of May.
This season won’t take a turn for the worse if starting pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Young can avoid the injuries that nagged them. They also need young hitters such as third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and outfielder Chase Headley continue to improve, especially at not leaving so many runners on base.
After Peavy picked up his first win Saturday that included a save by new closer Heath Bell, Young followed Sunday with a win to improve to 2-0.
“It’s a long season, but we’re off to a good start as a team,” Young said. “I think this was a good homestand for us. I think the guys had a lot of confidence. I think we realize if we play the right way and go out and play hard night in and night out for nine innings, we can compete with good teams.”
Hope springs eternal now that Petco Park provides the Padres with a home that erases doubt about their future.
And hope will spring into the fall if Hoke can finally find what San Diego State football has been missing to capture the city as it once did under Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.