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A Down and Up Season : Aztecs Start Slowly, but Earn Bowl Bid and New Contract for Coach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before rumors of his departure to Arizona State--or anywhere else--could travel further, Coach Al Luginbill agreed Monday night to a three-year contract extension with San Diego State University.

The extension, which runs through the 1996 season, was an expected ending to an unexpected regular season.

“We’re not there yet on the field, but we’re getting there,” SDSU Athletic Director Fred Miller said Tuesday. “If someone said in August that we’d go 8-3-1 and get a bowl bid, we would have run to the bank.”

Luginbill was his usual optimistic self in August and, as usual, set a goal of winning a conference championship and a bowl game. The Aztecs were second in the Western Athletic Conference, but will play No. 23 Tulsa in the Freedom Bowl Dec. 30--San Diego State’s first bowl appearance since 1986.

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It was SDSU’s best regular-season finish since 1979. Luginbill, who made a base salary of $70,266 this year with extras such as radio and television shows bringing the total package to more than $100,000 annually, said the contract was negotiated Sunday and Monday after the team returned from a 39-12 loss to No. 1 Miami.

The contract specifies that at the end of each season, the deal will be reviewed by Luginbill and university officials and another year will be added, keeping the length of the contract at five years. Salary figures are not yet final, but both sides said they will be agreed upon by the time Luginbill’s current contract runs out in February.

“There were a lot of universities saying (to recruits) ‘Al Luginbill is not going to be there next year’ who are eating crow today,” said Luginbill, the 1991 WAC coach of the year. “My goal right now, until something changes, is to be here as long as the university wants me.”

Miller said that he was never contacted by Arizona State or any other university about Luginbill’s availability, but that he thought signing Luginbill, 45, for five years would be a good idea.

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“Universities get nervous about long-term contracts,” Miller said. “But we’d be more nervous if we didn’t have one. Our intent is that we want this to be his last coaching stop.

“Whether it’s Arizona State or XYZ, people are out there who will be looking for somebody in Al’s age bracket and with his abilities.”

His ability to be persistent and coax a team from a slow start to a solid groove by midseason paid off. For the first time since 1986, SDSU’s equipment people did not put away the pads after the regular-season finale. The Aztecs will hold seven practices between now and Dec. 21, when they will begin preparations in earnest for Tulsa.

Because of that, Luginbill is withholding final judgment on 1991.

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“We have an opportunity to win a bowl game,” he said. “That is within reach now. We will be successful if we achieve that goal.”

The 1991 Aztecs won six games in a row during one stretch--their longest winning streak since 1977--to remain in the WAC race until the final conference game. And that is what Luginbill will remember most about this season.

“Our tenacity to continue to play through adversity . . .” he said. “I’ve never been involved with a team this young that has had the injuries and things go totally against how you thought they would go. Their ability to work through this and be successful . . . that’s a quality that is going to pay off in the future.”

Six consecutive victories. Two defensive disasters at the end of the season and several memorable moments throughout:

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Faulk talk: The most electrifying moments of 1991 came on the night of Sept. 14, when a freshman named Marshall Faulk came off the bench in the final four minutes of the first quarter and ran right into the NCAA record book. By the time the night was finished, Faulk had 386 yards (an NCAA single-game record) on 37 carries, along with seven touchdowns and 44 points (most ever by a freshman). Kansas’ Tony Sands surpassed Faulk’s record with 396 yards last month, but it still was a heady year for the freshman from New Orleans.

By season’s end, Faulk had become the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the nation in rushing (158.8 yards a game) and scoring (15.5 points).

Turning point: Life began anew for SDSU in Honolulu on Oct. 5--the day David Lowery became the Aztec quarterback. After stumbling to a 2-2 start, the Aztecs went 6-1-1 under Lowery.

“If I had to change something, if I could go back and see a crystal ball, I would have gone with David from the start,” Luginbill said. “He’s such a competitor. For him to be a little off (against Miami) and still compete gives you an idea of how good he can really be down the line.”

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Lowery finished third in the conference’s quarterback rating and fourth in total offense (215.8 yards a game). He set an SDSU record with 568 yards passing against BYU and, at the end of the season, was named as SDSU’s most valuable player.

Top dog: Patrick Rowe, a pre-season all-American, was injured early in the season and overshadowed by Faulk. Still, Rowe became SDSU’s all-time leading receiver this season with 2,678 yards.

Musical interlude: While losing at home to UCLA in a Thursday night game, 37-12, Luginbill had to listen to the Bruin band play the fight song over . . . and over . . . and over. The next night, Luginbill went to watch his son, Tom, quarterback the Torrey Pines High team. Torrey Pines defeated Ramona, 35-12, but there was one problem. You got it--the Torrey Pines school song is the same as UCLA’s, so for the second consecutive night, Luginbill had to listen to it over . . . and over . . . and over.

Say what? Luginbill after losing to UCLA: “We played like dog meat and got what we deserved.”

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Luginbill, after defeating Hawaii the next Saturday: “To our community, to our supposed friends, we were dog meat. This group doesn’t deserve that.”

Three for the road: The Aztecs demolished Hawaii, slipped by Texas El Paso and edged Utah during their six-game winning streak. All three of these were must-win games, and all three were on the road. SDSU rallied in the Utah game from a 21-20 fourth-quarter deficit to a 24-21 victory. The Aztecs’ three road victories in 1991 were the most since 1986.

Creative writing: Regarding that victory at Utah, give assists to Steve Bartel, SDSU equipment manager, and to Dave Ohton, SDSU strength coach. They clipped a paragraph out of a Utah newspaper that began, “Virtually since joining the WAC in 1978, San Diego State has had the unenviable reputation of being the league’s biggest underachiever. . . . " Each player got a photocopy. What they didn’t get was the next paragraph, which began, “Until recently, that is.”

Fab four: Faulk, receiver Darnay Scott, running back Wayne Pittman and defensive back Eric Sutton were all supposed to redshirt this season. But there was Scott, setting an NCAA freshman record with 243 receiving yards against BYU; there was Pittman, starting three games in Faulk’s absence and rushing for 149, 153 and 147 yards; and there was Sutton, figuring into SDSU’s three-man cornerback rotation by the end of the season.

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Call them four good reasons why Luginbill is excited about SDSU’s future and wants to hang around a while longer.

Terrible two: The Aztecs were 8-2 going into their final two games. Then, in the WAC championship game, they blew a 45-17 lead over BYU and fell into a tie, 52-52. And they were soundly beaten by No. 1 Miami Saturday, 39-12. SDSU’s biggest problem in those two games was with the defensive backfield. BYU and Miami combined for 1,084 yards passing. BYU’s Ty Detmer passed for 599 yards--an SDSU record for most yards passing by an opponent--and Miami’s Gino Torretta passed for a Hurricane record 485.

“We’re still not quite there on the perimeter positions on defense for a lot of reasons,” Luginbill said. “Experience, injuries, talent . . . all three put together. We were playing well until we got into trouble with injuries at cornerback. From that point on, we were struggling. We’ve just got to get those things straightened out.”

Preferably for the Aztecs, by the time they play Tulsa. Three consecutive disasters, and folks wouldn’t remember much more.

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