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Eyes on the Prize

Led by veteran talent and gifted new recruits, Aztec football returns to the national stage.
Aztec running back Adam Muema will see action this season.
Aztec running back Adam Muema will see action this season.

This story is featured in the fall 2013 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

Just a few years ago, the scene would have been improbable.

Christian Cumberlander, a standout wide receiver from Georgia, was about to announce at a February 2013 news conference where he would play college football in the fall.

On the table in front of him were three caps representing the football programs of Oregon, Auburn and San Diego State University.

Aztec football player
Aztec quarterback Adam Dingwell
After a short introduction, Cumberlander smiled, unzipped his jacket to reveal an Aztecs shirt and then put on the SDSU cap.

“I will be coming to San Diego State University,” he said.

A well-regarded player three time zones from San Diego had chosen the Aztecs over a pair of powerhouse programs that competed for the BCS National Championship in 2011.
 
Yet Cumberlander wasn’t alone. SDSU picked up recruits from 11 states as part of its incoming class in 2013, including players from Florida, Illinois, Texas, Missouri and Louisiana.

The influx of talent from regions that had been untapped by SDSU is part of a dramatic transformation of the Aztecs football program that began with the hiring of head coach Brady Hoke in December 2008 and has continued under his successor Rocky Long.

Part of something special
“Whenever you start winning, you’re going to start getting people who want to be a part of something special. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?”

After an 11-year stretch in which the Aztecs didn’t have a single bowl appearance or a winning season, the program is charging into a new era where success is breeding more success. Consider:

  • The team has earned a place in an unprecedented three straight bowl games.
  • SDSU has three consecutive winning seasons under its belt for the first time since 1989-91 and is 26-13 since 2010 (after going 38-80 from 2000-09).
  • The Aztecs’ co-Mountain West championship in 2012 was the first conference title for the program since 1986—before anyone on last season’s team was born.
  • SDSU’s victory over No. 19 Boise State last season was its first on the road over a ranked opponent ever. And its impressive road victories over Boise State and Nevada in 2012 were part of a seven-game winning streak that was the team’s longest in a season since 1977.
  • The bowl games and national TV exposure have opened the eyes of athletes around the country to the opportunities at San Diego State, where football was one of 12 Aztecs teams to win a championship in 2012-2013.

Senior safety Nat Berhe, who came to SDSU as a freshman in 2009 and has been a part of the transformation, says he can feel the energy and momentum.

“Whenever you start winning, you’re going to start getting people who want to be a part of something special,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?”

Adds junior running back Adam Muema, who rushed for 1,458 yards and scored 16 touchdowns for the 9-4 Aztecs in 2012: “When you win games, people come.”

Iron sharpens iron


Head coach Rocky Long will tell you the Aztecs turnaround has nothing to do with him.

“There hasn’t been a coach who ever won a game, even though some coaches think they do,” he says, smiling. He gives all the credit to the players, who compiled a 17-9 record his first two seasons as head coach.

Yet those players have thrived in a football culture much different from seasons past. When Long arrived in 2009 as defensive coordinator under Hoke, they both came in with eyes wide-open, hoping to “get a feel for what the deficiencies were and why the team wasn’t winning.”
 
Their goal was to institute a tough, competitive, team-first environment in which players would be as dedicated in the classroom as on the football field. Taking over a team that was 2-10, Hoke and Long coached SDSU to 4-8 that first season. The next year, their record was 9-4, and SDSU went to the Poinsettia Bowl.
 
“Coach Hoke and I have the same personality on how to run a program, and it was completely different from how the program was run before,” said Long. “We had several young men in the program didn’t like the new way of doing things and left.

“Then we started recruiting to our particular way of doing things. Slowly, the student-athletes that were here bought in or believed in that way of doing things all along, and the ones we recruit obviously believe in it or they won’t come here.”

Now, said Berhe and Muema, the level of competition in practice is more intense. Iron sharpens iron.

“Nobody has a secure spot,” says Berhe. “The best player is going to play.” Adds Muema: “There’s no easy day. We’ve got to go at it every day.”

A legitimate chance

Even during its lean years, the Aztecs produced NFL-caliber players. Long hopes to see that continue. He and his staff certainly want top-notch athletes with aspirations to play pro football, but he’s more concerned with building a program that’s better “from top to bottom.”

His formula: recruit student-athletes serious about school who have good character and know how to work.

For Tony White, the Aztecs football recruiting coordinator, the task is to continue to bring in talented players with the right attitude. SDSU is determined to compete with bigger programs and travel thousands of miles if it must to get players that fit its mold.

“Coach Long always says this: It all starts with the players in the locker room,” White observed. “If you take care of those guys, if you develop those guys, you train them the right way and you’re honest with them, and they know what to expect, chances are they play their hearts out and you win football games.

“And when you win football games, visibility, popularity, all that stuff [follows]. The victories and bowl games make recruits ask, ‘What are you about?’ If we can get the recruit to ask that question, we have a legitimate chance,” said White, referring to the university’s academic reputation and student-centered environment.

The whole package

The Aztec football resurgence has benefited from a brief alliance with the Big East Conference.

San Diego State planned to play in the Big East until several key teams left. At that point, SDSU returned to the Mountain West. But in the meantime, doors of opportunity opened for the Aztecs to recruit players from the South, East and Midwest, who believed they’d be playing some games close to home.

Yet when SDSU announced it would return to the Mountain West, recruits stayed.

“We didn’t lose one kid, because they were coming for the whole package,” said Long. “They weren’t just coming here to play football. They were coming here because the university is what it is.”

Now that SDSU is connected to those new talent pools, it could mean a continuous flow to Montezuma Mesa. To White, that’s one more building block in a winning foundation.

“It’s like a house,” he said. “Once it’s laid, if it’s bad it’s going to crumble and if it’s good you have something solid that will last you. With this house, Brady laid it and Coach Long has been building layer upon solid layer.”

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