Al Luginbill looks into the eyes of the men assembled in front of him. Most are too young to legally drink. Some have yet to shave. They’re actually just overgrown kids, Luginbill tells himself, but for 60 minutes, one final football game, he’s imploring them to believe in their abilities.
In a season that Luginbill concedes has been the most trying and frustrating of his 18-year coaching career, he is aspiring to pull off the biggest victory in San Diego State history Saturday afternoon, knocking off the third-ranked Miami Hurricanes.
This is a school, after all, that never has defeated a team ranked in the top 10. This is a school that has one lone football trophy sitting in its football offices. This is a team that has gone to one bowl game in the past 21 years.
Luginbill slowly scrutinizes his players, not saying a word, ensuring that he has everyone’s attention, when he finally begins speaking:
“Offense, you’ve seen every defense known to man. Defense, you’ve certainly seen their type of offense plenty. This is our opportunity. This is our one opportunity.
“Gentlemen, work hard for 60 minutes, and I guarantee you good things will happen. We’ll shock the . . . out of these people.
“We’ll shock the . . . out of everybody.”
The players listen intently, then are dismissed for the day. They quickly shower, dress, eat the heaping portions of spaghetti that await them and are gone for the evening.
Luginbill retreats slowly to his office. His desk is a mess, with papers strewn everywhere. The walls, for the most part, are barren. A bag of golf clubs sits in the corner, but for the past few months, it has collected dust.
It’s still 4:45 in the afternoon, but Luginbill figures to be here until at least 10 p.m., maybe 11. When he arrives home, his wife and kids will be asleep, as usual. He’ll read the mail, maybe catch the news and head to bed.
The alarm is set for 5:30 a.m. Really, he doesn’t know why he bothers. He’s up by then, anyway. His body might rest during the night, but his mind refuses to take a breather. Fortunately, Sue, his wife of 21 years, has gotten used to him arising at all hours of the night, jotting down notes on a pad lying on the night stand.
Every time Luginbill has an idea, or remembers a forgotten detail, it goes down on paper. While driving, he simply dictates into a tape recorder. The last time he and the family went out to dinner, he had to stop the waitress from taking away his napkin. It had X’s and O’s all over it.
“There’s a lot of times when his body’s there, but his mind is off somewhere else,” Sue said. “I’ve had to say, ‘Earth to Al, earth to Al, come in Al.’ ”
This is the life of being married to a football coach. Sue’s never complained. Before they got married, Al wanted Sue to know what lay ahead, making her endure a full football season with him. Sue already knew this guy was a little on the impulsive side, anyway, when Al asked her to marry him three weeks after meeting on a blind date set up by Al’s sister.
The children, 16-year-old twins Kerry and Tom, also understand what the old man’s job is all about. Tom is a quarterback at San Dieguito High School, but dad’s never seen him practice, seeing maybe three games all year, if you add up all of the quarters. Kerry’s a cheerleader, and her dad has seen her perform once in two years.
It’s the sacrifice Luginbill, 44, made when he decided to return to coaching two years ago. He had been out of the coaching business for four seasons after he was turned down for the head football job at Arizona State and told by new Coach John Cooper that he wanted to hire his own people.
It was the first time Luginbill actually felt bitter about the business. It just didn’t seem fair. He had survived all of the scandals and NCAA sanctions at Arizona State under Frank Kush and Darryl Rogers. He made national news when he testified in court that Kush asked him to commit perjury, a request he refused. And he was the lone holdover from the Kush era, spending six years on the staff--the last three as defensive coordinator--when ASU went looking for a head coach nine days before the national-letter-of-intent day in 1985.
Players petitioned in Luginbill’s behalf. Alumni provided rave reviews to the administration. Instead, Dick Tamburo, athletic director, wanted someone with head coaching experience. He went after Terry Donahue of UCLA and LaVell Edwards of BYU, then settled for John Cooper of Tulsa.
“That was very, very painful,” Sue Luginbill said. “Al waited so long for that job, and then not to get it, it was like a grieving process. Our whole lives were turned upside down.”
For the first time in 18 years, Luginbill was not a coach. Oh, he was offered some head coaching jobs at small colleges, and an assistant’s jobs at others, but he didn’t want to uproot his family. Maybe it was really time to get out. Maybe the commercial real-estate gig he was offered after he left ASU wouldn’t be too bad, after all.
He lasted a year on the job. Luginbill hated it. He despised the cut-throat antics of the business, and everyone it seemed, was after only money. Heck, being the son of a rancher, money’s never had been that important to Luginbill, and he’d be damned if it was going to run his life now.
But Luginbill never griped or whined about the job. He wasn’t going to let his kids know how he ached to return to football. The way he looked at it, he was learning to be a father again.
This was life’s real joy, anyway, and he still gives thanks every day for the gift of his children. He and Sue had seen doctors and specialists for years trying to have a baby, and after three miscarriages, they thought maybe it was hopeless. But in 1973, only one year after Luginbill left Pasadena City College for his dream job--assistant coach at Arizona State--Sue became pregnant with twins. Her doctor was back in Pasadena.
Knowing that he perhaps was throwing away his future of making the big-time again, but taking no chances of jeopardizing the pregnancy, Luginbill quit his job at Arizona State. He returned to Pasadena, taking his old job as an assistant where he had spent the previous four seasons.
“Really, it was an easy decision,” Luginbill said. “Only those who ever have gone through the difficulty of having children can understand what it feels like. That was more important to us than anything else, believe me.”
Then, in 1986, when his coaching career appeared over, Luginbill was telephoned by Fred Miller, San Diego State athletic director. The two had known each other since their days at Arizona State before Miller was fired in midst of the Kush scandal. Since Doug Scovil had just been fired as head football coach at San Diego State, Luginbill figured he was being offered the vacancy.
Uh-uh. Instead, Miller was offering him an administrative job in the athletic department, something called, associate athletic director for student-athlete services and internal affairs.
“I think Fred felt sorry for us,” Sue Luginbill said. “I think he thought he was doing Al a favor.”
Said Miller: “I know Al wanted the football job, and he pleaded with me, but I just couldn’t do it. It would have been pseudo-nepotism if I hired him as football coach. It would have looked like we were a package deal.”
Luginbill decided to come to San Diego State, anyway. At least this way he’d back in collegiate athletics, and it’d be better than the real estate racket.
Luginbill then sat back and watched the hiring of Denny Stolz. And after Stolz led the Aztecs to their first WAC championship in 1986, Luginbill figured he’d be watching from the stands for a long time.
But quickly, Miller said, the football program began unraveling. It wasn’t just the 15 losses in the next 22 games, Miller said, that alarmed him. But the graduation rate among football players began hovering around the prime interest rate. Mug shots were showing up at police stations as well as the media guide.
“I don’t want my name to be used because I’m still close to Denny,” said one Aztec assistant coach, who was on both staffs, “but things were falling apart under Denny. He was extremely egotistical. Denny was just in it for Denny. He probably was close to only three players, and I know he didn’t know the names of all the players on the team.
“And as far as academics, the bottom line to Denny was that they stay eligible. If they were eligible, that was fine by him. He could care less if they graduated.”
After the Aztecs suffered a 58-7 defeat to UTEP, the worst loss in 11 years, Miller made a coaching change. He brought in Stolz the morning of Nov. 14, 1988 and informed him that he was being fired. He also made another call.
“I told Al that I was having a 2 o’clock press conference announcing that I was firing Denny Stolz.” Miller said. “I said at 2:15, I’m announcing that you’re replacing him.”
Hello football world, it’s Al Luginbill again.
Luginbill rubs his hand through his hair and sighs. He can finally admit it. He can reveal the pain and pressure that has tormented him these past six weeks now that it has passed.
Yes, Luginbill was scared. Petrified, really. He had thought this team would be good enough for a bowl bid back in August, but once the season started, and they lost four of the first six games, he wondered whether the football program was on the verge of collapsing.
“These past six weeks have been as trying a time as I’ve ever had in coaching,” Luginbill said. “I thought we were further along, but I was wrong.”
The last two games before the Aztecs’ two-week break left Luginbill panicked. They had a 27-14 lead over Wyoming, only to allow 38 second-half points and lose, 52-51. The following week they were out of the game by halftime, giving up 35 points to UCLA, and losing 45-31.
“Those four quarters were as bad as any I’ve ever been associated with,” Luginbill said. “And the Wyoming game, I’ll never forget as long as I live. Never. To be up like that, and lose, that’ll haunt me forever.
“When we lost to UCLA, I brought our coaches in, and we completely evaluated every phase of the program. We evaluated every athlete, every play, everything we did.
“I knew it was time to go forward right way or we’d be going a huge step back. And I did not feel this program could afford to go backwards.”
Luginbill made personnel changes in the defense, and in some cases, demoted upperclassmen. He spent virtually all of his time in practice with the defense. The nights were spent watching film and making daily notes to himself. The only time reserved for himself were those 5:30 a.m. jogs along the railroad tracks by his Del Mar home.
“He was under tremendous, tremendous, stress,” said Dave Ohton, Aztec strength and conditioning coach. “I’ve known him for 10 years, but I’ve never seen him like that. He was panicking, but he didn’t want to show it.
“We had talks, long talks, where he’d look at me and say, ‘We’ve got to do things right. We’ve got to be patient. Everything will turn out all right.’
“Then he’d look at me, and say, ‘God, I hope I’m . . . right.’ ”
Said Miller: “The guy was so intense, I think people thought he was going to have a stroke on the sideline.”
Said Barry Lamb, defensive coordinator: “We knew the only thing that was going to calm Al down was four wins in a row.”
Once the layoff ended, the Aztecs begin playing like Luginbill hoped all along. They routed Utah, 66-14, and outscored the opposition by an average score of 52-29 during their four games. OK, so maybe the four opponents had combined to win only 15 games this season, but at this point, it was no time to be fastidious.
The ledger will show that this is the first time since 1981-1982 that the Aztecs have had back-to-back winning seasons. Never before had the Aztecs posted successive winning records within the WAC. They placed seven players on the WAC all-academic team this season, the most in anyone’s recollection. And not once have they run afoul off the field.
“It’s amazing what he’s done here,” senior defensive end Pio Sagapolutele said. “We were so undisciplined before he got here, and now, we’re finally a team. Before, it was like all we had to do was stay eligible. Now, he’s got grade reports on you each week, and they’ve got coaches who randomly come to class to see if you’re there.”
Said Nick Subis, senior offensive tackle: “I remember when he first came here, he said, ‘You either fit into my system, or else. If you want to quit now, and transfer, go ahead, I’ll let you out. If you want to quit football, and stay here and go to school, I’ll still pay for your scholarship.’ It got guys’ attention right away.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but when I first came here, I came here only for football. I didn’t come here to get an education. But he made me change my mind. I learned there’s life after football.”
Certainly, Luginbill’s style hasn’t fit everybody. Since his arrival two years ago, 23 scholarship players quit the program. There are others, particularly upperclassmen who have been demoted, who’d strangle Luginbill if they could get away with it. And Stolz, still bitter, said that he hasn’t attended an Aztec game since his firing.
But Luginbill has been a winner wherever he’s gone, and for those who don’t believe, the man dares you to watch.
“The hardest part I’ve got to learn,” Luginbill said, “is patience. I’m not very patient at all. I know we have young kids, 65 of our 79 kids are returning next year. But there’s no excuse for us not being successful.
“I still think we’re two years away, but I also think we’re a sleeping giant starting to bark a bit.”
It’s a perception that perhaps the San Diego community has yet to believe, but certainly, the Aztec boosters and alumni are picking up the faith.
“I think there’s an element of stability that’s finally being felt,” said Bob Payne, one of the Aztecs’ most influential boosters. “I think San Diego State is on the verge of being a very, very successful program. My guess is that by 1992 when USC comes to town, we’ll be ready for them.”
This is why, alumni will tell you, that Luginbill is the most popular Aztec football coach since Claude Gilbert left in 1980. He’s candid. He’s sincere. He’s articulate.
It’s also why Luginbill himself could be a sleeping giant in the collegiate coaching profession. He already has begun to receive phone calls as rumors mount that Arizona State will make a coaching change and fire Larry Marmie.
Would he consider returning?
“You never say never,” Luginbill said, “but I made a commitment here, and to these kids, and I’m not about to leave now for another rebuilding situation. When I recruit these kids, I tell them that they’ll be playing in a bowl game before they’re through, and I want to guarantee that.
“In fact, I won’t relax until we do.”
When the Aztecs defeated UTEP a week ago, clinching a winning season, there was a party at a booster’s home. Luginbill attended with his wife, but after a few hours, he was nudging her, saying it was time to leave.
They arrive home, but what does Luginbill do?
“I can’t believe it, we’re sitting there at 2 in the morning watching the Hawaii-Colorado State Game on TV,” Sue Luginbill said. “I said, ‘Al, what are you doing?’ I finally just went to bed.
“But that’s Al, he just has a hard time relaxing. He knows he’s responsible for keeping college football going in this town. That’s why he refuses to let up.
“I know we’re not going to see much of him this winter, but the way I look at it, I’ll take a little bit of Al rather than a lot of other people.
“Of course, I don’t really have a choice, either.”