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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Tony Gwynn (Photo: Ernie Anderson/GoAztecs) Tony Gwynn (Photo: Ernie Anderson/GoAztecs)

120 Years of SDSU Athletics

SDSU has experienced great success in athletics dating back to the San Diego Normal School.
By Ryan Schuler

This year, San Diego State University celebrates the 120th anniversary of its founding as a teacher training school. Now a top public research university, SDSU is an economic driver of San Diego, a source of the region's workforce and a community of faculty, staff and students committed to serving the city.

Athletics have always been a core part of San Diego State University, dating back to the earliest days of the San Diego Normal School.

In 1900, the school fielded its first football team, which mixed students with faculty, and featured 25-year-old biology professor Arthur W. Greeley as the team’s first quarterback. Two years later, the school’s baseball team played its first game.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Coach Charles E. Peterson—the namesake of today’s Peterson Gym—in 1916 that San Diego Normal School enjoyed significant success in collegiate athletics, winning several conference championships in football, track and tennis under his tenure.

In his book, “Hail Montezuma!: The Hidden Treasures of San Diego State,” SDSU anthropologist and university historian Seth Mallios describes the 1920s athletics teams as so dominant that their conference partners filed a formal request for San Diego Normal School to leave the league. Some teams chose to forfeit games rather than play the Aztecs.

Home of champions

Basketball has long been one of SDSU’s premier sports. Following losses in the 1939 and 1940 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championships, San Diego State won the 1941 NAIA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Aztecs played the No. 1 seed, West Texas State, in the semi-finals. Texas had the height, but San Diego State had the speed to take them, 43-40, and go on to defeat Murray Teachers College of Kentucky, 36-34, in a tense final.

There were some discouraging years for SDSU basketball between 1941 and the arrival of Coach Steve Fisher in 1999. But during his tenure, men’s basketball reached the NCAA Tournament eight times, including six consecutive seasons between 2010 and 2015. In the record-breaking 2010-11 season, the team began the year 20-0, rose to No. 4 in the Associated Press top 25 poll and won the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Led by 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, they reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.
Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard
The women’s team also racked up an impressive record over the decades, winning the MW Tournament in 2010 and 2012, and reaching the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010. The Aztecs also raised the trophy as Western Athletic Conference Tournament champions in 1994 and 1997.

Baseball legend

The name Tony Gwynn is revered at SDSU, and for good reason. Not only was Gwynn a two-time All-American in baseball, he is also the university’s career assists leader in basketball. A San Diego icon, Gwynn was drafted by the San Diego Padres and San Diego Clippers of the NBA on the same day in 1981. Following his Hall of Fame career with the Padres that included eight batting titles and more than 3,000 hits, he returned to SDSU to coach men’s baseball in 2003. He led the Aztecs to three MW titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances, and was named MW Coach of the Year in 2004.

Other SDSU baseball standouts include Stephen Strasburg and Travis Lee, the only players in school history to win the Golden Spikes Award, which is given annually by USA Baseball to the nation’s top amateur baseball player. In his final home start, Strasburg threw a no-hitter and struck out 17 Air Force batters in a dominant performance before being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2009 MLB Draft.
Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg

Kicking it to ‘em

In 1987, the SDSU men’s soccer team reached the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, falling to Clemson. Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa are among the soccer alumni in the Aztec Hall of Fame. Both went on to play for the U.S. National Team, and Wynalda was its all-time leading goal scorer until 2008.

SDSU women’s soccer team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first-time ever in 2012, shared the best record nationally at 21-2-1 (7-0 MW) and finished the year ranked seventh nationally. They also won the regular-season and tournament titles in 2013 and 2014 en route to three consecutive NCAA berths.

World class athletes

Aztecs have also competed in several Olympic Games over the years. Willie Steele, a legendary track star, won gold representing the United States in the long jump in Wembley, England, in 1948. Marla Runyan, who is legally blind, won five gold medals at the Paralympic Games and placed eighth in the 1,500-meter race at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Whitney Ashley was the 2012 NCAA outdoor discuss champion and represented the United States at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. SDSU alumna and triple jumper Shaneika Thomas also competed in the Rio Olympics representing Jamaica.

Coryell and Co.

The football program has a long and storied history. The legendary Don Coryell coached the Aztecs with NFL Hall of Famers John Madden and Joe Gibbs as assistant coaches. The team won the 1966 NCAA Small College National Football Championship, repeated as national champions in 1967 and rose to co-national champion in 1968.

With a long list of football players and coaches that stand out at SDSU, few match the accomplishments of Marshall Faulk, who finished second in Heisman Trophy voting following his 1992 season. The three-time All-American led the nation in rushing in 1991 with 1,429 yards and 1992 with 1,630 yards. In 2000, he was named NFL MVP and won a Super Bowl as a member of the St. Louis Rams. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011, the College Football Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Aztec Hall of Fame in 1998.
Marshall Faulk
Marshall Faulk
Another three-time All-American at SDSU was running back Donnel Pumphrey. During his four years at SDSU, he finished his career ranked first all-time in NCAA FBS history in rushing yards with 6,405. He is the only player in NCAA FBS history with at least 5,000 rushing yards (or 6,000 yards) and 1,000 receiving yards. The two-time MW Offensive Player of the Year and three-time MW first-team selection holds numerous school records, including rushing yards (6,405), all-purpose yards (7,515), 100-yard rushing games (33), overall touchdowns (67), rushing touchdowns (62), overall points (402) and rushing attempts (1,059).

The Aztec football team has won 21 conference championships and are now bound for their eighth consecutive bowl game, including six straight bowl game berths under Rocky Long. Running back Rashaad Penny leads the nation in rushing yards with 2,027 and is tied for third nationally with 19 rushing touchdowns. SDSU is now the first school in FBS history to have two different players run for 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, Pumphrey in 2016 and Penny in 2017.

Aztec Hall of Fame

Since its inception in 1988, the Aztec Hall of Fame has honored 148 individuals and six teams, welcoming a new group of legends each year. Inductions encountered a two-year hiatus when the Aztec Athletics Center (now Fowler Athletics Center) underwent renovations, but inductions resumed in 2002 once construction was completed and the permanent home of the Hall of Fame was established.

In 2017, Fisher, Ashley, men’s basketball player D.J. Gay, as well as former football players Craig Penrose and Whip Walton were inducted to the Aztec Hall of Fame.