SDSU Gains Credibility in Backyard

A couple of weeks ago, after the Rams had absconded with Ernie Zampese, Charger offensive coordinator, I had occasion to chat with an excited friend from Orange County.

The gist of this conversation was that the innovative Zampese would take the cure-for-insomnia Ram offense and awaken it to the wonders of modern football.

To my friend's chagrin, I outlined my concept of the Rams' first staff meeting, with Zampese at the blackboard outlining a play.

"Wait a minute," Coach John Robinson would say. "Ernie, you have the quarterback taking the snap and backing up, right?"

"Right, Coach," Zampese would say.

"But," Robinson would frown, "he goes right past Eric Dickerson and he doesn't give him the ball?"

"Right, Coach," Zampese would say.

"Ernie," Robinson would say, "what is the quarterback going to do with it?"

"Throw it, Coach," Zampese would say.

"That's it," Robinson would conclude, slamming his playbook shut. "We don't hire any more coaches without drug tests."

Very funny, my friend sighed. He wasn't laughing.

"Listen," he said, "you take a great running back like Eric Dickerson and then give us a passing attack to go with him and . . ."

You get the idea.

This conversation was replayed in my mind Thursday as I drove to Vista High School to witness a startling event. One of the nation's most highly recruited running backs--maybe the most highly recruited running back--was to sign his letter of intent with San Diego State University.

You heard it right.

San Diego State University.

Had Denny Stolz, the Aztec coach, mistakenly heard that this kid was a quarterback . . . or a wide receiver?

Had Tommy Booker, the man of the hour, mistakenly heard that SDSU was Oklahoma at the Seashore?

Traditionally, San Diego State running backs should have uniform numbers in the 60s or 80s. They get numbers in the 60s if they are to function as glorified guards--make that body guards--for the quarterback. They get numbers in the 80s if they spend their time wandering around in the flats, serving as safety-valve receivers.

Tommy Booker's Vista Panther letterman's jacket indicated that 29 was his number.

The last guy who wore 29 for SDSU was a defensive back, and so was the guy before him, and so was the guy before him.

Is Booker going to play safety for San Diego State?

Not likely. He wore No. 29 because his hero was and is Mr. Dickerson. He undoubtedly will wear No. 29 at SDSU because the last defensive back to wear it was a senior in 1986. He will wear this number in the offensive backfield, where he will be asked to block and catch passes and also . . .

Carry the football.

I envision Aztec staff meetings being a bit like Zampese's first session with the Ram coaches. The focal point of such meetings would normally be Todd Santos, who already is SDSU's leading career passer and still has his senior season to play.

"What will we do with this fellow Booker?" a coach would wonder.

"Give him the ball," another would respond.

"You mean have Santos just hand him the football?" a third would gasp. "Do we do that sort of thing?"

They will with Tommy Booker.

Whereas the Rams have taken a solid running game and given it a new dimension, San Diego State has taken an explosive passing game and given it a new dimension.

Understand that the Aztecs have had five runners with 1,000-yard seasons in their history, and no one has done it twice. The top career rusher totaled 2,619 yards, and that was Norm Nygaard from 1952 to 1954. In 1981, the Aztecs' top runner gained 256 yards for the season.

Running with the football has not exactly been a tradition at SDSU.

That was part of the appeal to Booker, who looked at programs in which he could be the new Sims or new Allen or new Jackson.

Somehow, new dimension sounded better.

And that's not the only new dimension SDSU has under Stolz and his staff.

The Aztecs now have credibility in their own backyard. Previous coaching regimes had let it erode. Credibility is much harder to rebuild than it is to establish, and this was a rebuilding job.

The foundation for this renewed credibility was, of course, the dramatic drive to the Western Athletic Conference championship last fall. The electricity of the Holiday Bowl, despite a 38-37 loss to Iowa, also helped.

November and December were very good to the Aztecs, but February and March have been better. They signed 11 prospects from San Diego County, including quarterback Scott Barrick from Fallbrook and wide receiver Patrick Rowe from Lincoln. These were young men pursued by universities from the heartlands to the headlands.

One more remained . . . the bluest of the blue-chippers.

On an overcast Thursday afternoon on the outskirts of this sprawling North County community, the Vista High School quad was adorned with messages hailing a new alliance.

"Good luck Tommy at SDSU," said a marquee.

"Aztecs & Panthers No. 1," said a banner.

"Panther Signs w / Aztecs," said a sign.

Dave Parks, an assistant football coach at Vista, stepped to the microphone amid the cacophony of a student body at lunch, and declared: "This is a proud day for Vista football . . . and a proud day, indeed, for the San Diego State program."

Undoubtedly, it was a prouder day for SDSU's program than it was for Vista football. Tommy Booker could have gone anywhere and been a credit to Vista. It was SDSU's big day, because that was where he chose to go.

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