One day before the 1990 football season started, San Diego State Coach Al Luginbill stood outside of the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.
The Aztecs were scheduled to open their season that Saturday. A short walk-through had just ended, and Luginbill was chatting with a few members of the media.
Next thing he knew, the team buses had left him behind.
Nearly three months later, the Aztecs closed their season two points short of what would have been the greatest upset in school history. The Aztecs outscored No. 3 Miami in the fourth quarter, 8-0, but ran out of time and lost, 30-28.
In between, SDSU was at times impressive and at times dismal, experiencing a few things new--offensive records--and a few blue--mostly the defense.
It was a season of arriving at the corner just a few minutes after the bus had pulled out.
Less than an hour after it finished, while players were still peeling off their uniforms for the last time and coming down from Miami, Luginbill and several assistant coaches scattered toward the recruiting trails. Luginbill watched a game Saturday night, and he had a home visit scheduled with a prospect Sunday night.
“Can’t let up if you want to get good players,” he said.
He will have plenty to tell these recruits. He will tell them all about how the Aztecs came this close to beating Miami in a game destined to become a classic in SDSU lore. He will tell that the Aztecs finished 6-5 and had their second consecutive winning season for the first time since 1981-82.
Maybe 6-5 is nothing great, he will tell them, but it was so close to 7-4, or even 8-3. The close loss to Miami, the disaster at Wyoming, the . . . well, it really doesn’t matter. The buses have gone.
“It’s been a year of trying times,” Luginbill said. “There’s been some tears, there’s been some laughter. That’s what life is all about.”
Where did this season go left instead of right? Flip back to the Oct. 6 Wyoming game. The Aztecs lost that day, 52-51, when they missed a two-point conversion with 2:10 left. Cowboy Coach Paul Roach told Luginbill on the field afterward that he didn’t think there was enough Maalox in Laramie to comfort him.
The whole scene was surreal. SDSU quarterback Dan McGwire came out of the locker room and said: “We just didn’t score enough points.” Didn’t score enough points?
The next week, UCLA jumped on SDSU and won, 45-31. The Bruins took a 35-21 halftime lead. In the last two quarters at Wyoming and the first two at UCLA, the Aztecs allowed 73 points. Now, basketball teams might be satisfied with that, but . . .
“That was the downpoint of the season,” Luginbill said. “The last 1 1/2 quarters at Wyoming and the first two at UCLA. From that point on, we steadily went upward. That’s a tremendous tribute to the kids in our program.”
Four of five teams that defeated SDSU will play in bowl games--including Wyoming. The Aztecs finished third in the Western Athletic Conference--ahead of Wyoming--their highest finish since the Holiday Bowl year of 1986.
There was even talk of SDSU going to the Independence Bowl this season. If only they had defeated Wyoming. . . .
“I will never forget that football game,” Luginbill said.
“But also, we had such (thorough personnel) evaluations afterward, evaluations that may not have been done as thoroughly if we would have won.”
SDSU’s defense spent four weeks ranked 106th--last--in the nation among Division I teams. After the UCLA game, SDSU had a two-week break in its schedule, and the coaching staff re-evaluated. Luginbill moved Johnny Walker out of the free safety spot and replaced him with sophomore Damon Pieri. Ramondo Stallings was moved to back-up defensive end instead of nose tackle. Redshirt freshman John Louis got a chance at cornerback, and junior Derrick Williams found himself out at nickel back.
The Aztecs won four of their final five games and, although the defense still broke down at times, it showed signs of improvement.
“I was extremely pleased with the last two games,” Luginbill said. “We were able to come to the sidelines and make adjustments between series and go out and execute. . . .
“It was crucial we improved our defense the last half of the season. Our defense made a lot of plays, and we got better each week. The statistics weren’t there, but starting next year, we’ll have a mindset.”
Defensively, eight players who started in the season finale against Miami will return next year. Offensively, seven will be back. Of 44 players on the two-deep depth chart, 31 are back next year. SDSU loses just 15 seniors.
But the most difficult guy to replace will be McGwire. With his help, the Aztecs set a school-record in single season total offense with 5,795 yards. McGwire completed 270 of 449 passes--60%--for 3,833 yards and 27 touchdowns. He threw just seven interceptions, and set an NCAA Division I record for lowest percentage of pass interceptions in a season with 1.56%.
McGwire’s replacement likely will be either Cree Morris, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman this year from Orange Glen, or David Lowery, a 6-0 redshirt sophomore this season. Tim Gutierrez, a 6-3 true freshman this year from Oxnard, could sneak into the picture.
Patrick Rowe will be back, but receivers Dennis Arey and Jimmy Raye have used up their eligibility. Rowe set an NCAA record with nine consecutive games of at least 100 yards receiving.
Luginbill will evaluate his assistants today, but said he anticipates everyone will be brought back--including defensive coordinator Barry Lamb, who has taken quite a bit of heat.
And after a short break for evaluations and tonight’s team banquet, the staff will resume recruiting. National signing day is Feb. 6, and Luginbill would like to bring in community college players at tight end and cornerback, among others.
Luginbill’s ultimate goal is to get to the point where SDSU reloads, rather than rebuilds, each year.
“I think we’ll reload on offense,” he said. “I think we’re a year away from being able to do that defensively.”
And as an old defensive coordinator, it pains him to say that.
“It irks the heck out of me that San Diego State is considered a place with no defense,” he said. “I will not be satisfied until San Diego State is considered a defensive giant in college football. I’ll work until that is done, and then I’ll work to keep it there.”