SDSU Aztecs: A Season for the Ages

by on January 26, 2011 · 4 comments

in Culture, San Diego, Sports

SDSU sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

“Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test and don’t ask why.
It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time.

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.”

-Green Day, “Good Riddance (Time of your Life)”

A turning point indeed.  And yes, I am having the time of my life!  That’s what sports are all about, right?  To give us a connection to our community?  To give us a tie that binds us all together in some weird but wonderful way?   Something to feel good about in bad times?  And at the college level, when the team you love represents the school you attended—your fellow Bruins, or Bears, or Trojans, or Bulldogs, Broncos, Wildcats, Ducks………….or AZTECS!— to see that team be successful is just extra special.

You’ll have to forgive us, though, us Aztecs.  We’re just not used to this kind of thing.  This just doesn’t happen in San Diego.  Certainly not at San Diego State University.  Ours is a school that’s more known for being ranked in Playboy Magazine’s top 10 party schools and the sheer quantity of shockingly beautiful coeds roaming around campus.  There have been occasions where our university was known for its football team…….albeit rarely in the last three decades.

The football team at our beloved San Diego State just completed what for us is a miraculous season at 9-4 with a Poinsettia Bowl victory over the Naval Academy.  A monumental feat, especially when you consider that the Aztecs finished the 2008 season at 2-10, and the 2009 season at 4-8.  The future of SDSU football, despite losing their coach to Michigan, looks incredibly bright.

But BASKETBALL!?!? Never.    Ours is not a basketball school.  Never has been.  Historically SDSU basketball has been a punch line, never a headline.  The notion of being a national contender in basketball is just preposterous, yet here we are, on the eve of what one Sporting News writer dubbed “the game of the year (to date) in college basketball” between the fourth ranked San Diego State Aztecs and the ninth ranked BYU Cougars.


So sayeth both major polls, the fourth best team in all of college basketball!

I know, right?  It’s just so surreal!

It’s all so new, to us.  This is a basketball program that has never won a game in the NCAA Tournament (a dubious distinction that ends this March!).  This is a program that prior to the 2010-2011 season had NEVER in the 90 year history of the program been ranked in the top 25 in either of the major national polls.

I must confess something, though:  While attending SDSU, I went to just about EVERY football game, but never any basketball games.  Hell, we hardly knew that we even HAD a basketball team.  They just weren’t any good, and they played all the way down at the Sports Arena.  It just wasn’t worth the trip.

In 1997, though, SDSU opened its brand new, state-of-the-art on-campus arena, built with student fees that we as students voted to raise for that specific purpose.  A group of us decided that since we paid for the darn thing, we were sure as hell going to use it, so we became regulars at Aztec basketball games.  In 1999, with the arrival of head coach Steve Fisher—he of Michigan fame, the “Fab Five” recruiting class, and the 1989 national championship– we decided to take our commitment to the program to the next level, and purchased season tickets.

It’s been a rough road for us Aztecs.  That first year of Cox Arena in 1997 saw a record of 13 wins and 15 losses.  The next year saw 4 wins and 22 losses.  But it was our school and our arena, so we kept going, and kept having fun anyway.  In Fisher’s first year, the team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West Conference.  Rarely was there more than 2,000 butts in the arena’s seats.

Twelve long, sometimes encouraging, sometimes frustrating, occasionally downright maddening years later, and here we are.  The Aztecs are 20-0, one of only two undefeated teams left in all of Division I college basketball (Ohio St. is the other), and are heading into the biggest game in Mountain West Conference history, with that impossibly small number attached to the front of the school’s name.


The transformation is almost unimaginable!  In the first 13 years of Cox/Viejas Arena, the men’s basketball team had only played in front of eight sellout crowds (the arena seats 12,414 for basketball).  Through the first nine home games of this, the 2010-11 season, seven have been played before a packed house, with the remaining six home games already sold out.

Step into Viejas Arena on game night and you’re left wondering if you’re in San Diego or one of the more traditional bastions of college basketball’s royalty.  The atmosphere and energy generated inside the building is enough to power an entire naval carrier group.  Led by The Show–the student section whose off the wall costumes, creative chants and signs, and their pioneering use of “big heads” to distract an opponent at the free throw line—Viejas Arena has become one of the most formidable college basketball venues in the entire country, and that’s a fact!

Win or lose in Provo, what this team has accomplished to this point is absolutely astonishing.  The national media is completely abuzz about them.  There’s a hysteria on campus that has rarely been seen.  The San Diego community has firmly embraced its namesake university, the SDSU men’s basketball team is the toast of the town, and the long suffering denizens of Aztec Nation are savoring every last second of it!

This is our university, our community, OUR basketball team!  And the entire country is talking about us!


This group of college kids has given us all cause to puff our chests out a little.  Led by captain DJ Gay and fellow seniors Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas; sophomores Chase Tapley and future NBA star Kawhi Leonard, this team has brought a joy and sense of unity and excitement to San Diego that has rarely been seen before.  Every time they step onto the court they show us the true definition of team play and perseverance.  They are relentless on defense and totally unselfish on offense; every last team member willing to fill whatever role is needed to help the team.  When one player has an off night, someone else is always there to pick up their slack, and every night it’s someone different.

They are the complete antithesis to the spotlight loving, glory seeking, “Me!  Me!  Me!” athletes of today’s NBA.  They represent everything that’s right with big time college athletics today.

The job’s not done yet, though, and the mission is far from accomplished.  The real test comes in March:  In the NCAA Tournament!


Hey, it could happen!

Learn more about our Aztecs and this game

Coach Fisher on ESPN

CBS Sports Preview

See the game Wednesday, January 26, 7pm on the CBS College Sports network.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar RB January 26, 2011 at 10:20 am

Thank you Steve Fisher. Thanks for coming and thanks for staying.

The on-campus arena is great, but the Sports Arena in the old days was not so bad for students living in OB. Gee, I miss the cheap beer and food at Foggy’s Notion before and after the games.


avatar Andy Cohen January 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Might have been great for you O’Becians back then, but there’s no way the games have anything close to the kind of atmosphere Viejas does these days, and it all starts with the student section, aka “The Show.” Even if you’re not a huge sports fan, it’s still a REALLY fun place to be on game nights largely because of what the student section brings to the arena, all 2,000 strong of them.

Didn’t have that at the Sports Aroma.


avatar dave rice January 29, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I caught my first-ever college basketball game last week, against Air Force. Wow – what an awesome atmosphere…and I know virtually nothing about the sport, being raised in a baseball/football town where the last basketball team left town before I was old enough to care about sports.


avatar Andy Cohen January 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I’ve been asked to identify the player in the photo. That’s 6’7 sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard (pronounced ka-WHY), a guy who could very likely be plying his trade in the NBA next season………much to the chagrin of Aztec faithful everywhere.


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