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Friday, March 24, 2023

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SDSU running back Donnel Pumphrey evades pursuing defenders during a home game against Utah State. (SDSU) SDSU running back Donnel Pumphrey evades pursuing defenders during a home game against Utah State. (SDSU)

Aztec Icon Comes Home

Donnel Pumphrey takes on new challenges as a graduate student and graduate assistant coach.
By Aaron Burgin

Six years ago, Donnel Pumphrey was racing up and down the field at Qualcomm Stadium, smashing San Diego State and NCAA records as the most productive running back in collegiate football history. 

Today, he is back at SDSU, but instead of breaking records, he is breaking down X’s and O’s for the next generation of Aztec football players while working toward his master’s degree.

Meet Donnel Pumphrey, graduate assistant coach for the San Diego State Aztecs. 

“Being a student and a graduate assistant is totally different from my time here as an undergrad, but it’s been a pretty smooth transition,” Pumphrey said. 

Pumphrey returned to school after ending his professional football career at the start of the pandemic, when the XFL — which he saw as his last good opportunity to make a return to the National Football League — was shut down by COVID-19 in 2020. (It returns with a new ownership group in spring 2023.) He finished his bachelor’s degree in social science this past spring, and he also helped coach football last season at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla.

“I knew I would eventually come back when I wanted to hang up my cleats and focus on coming back to school,” said Pumphrey, who attended high school in Las Vegas before his record-setting career at SDSU. “Once COVID hit and the XFL shut down, I knew that time was coming sooner rather than later.”

Pumphrey enrolled in the master’s program in Homeland Security.“A lot of my friends are in law enforcement, so it was something that caught my attention, and I’ve talked about it for many years,” he said. 

Pumphrey said that the student side of being a grad assistant has been an interesting experience —  like attending class with some of the very same players you coach, he said with a laugh. 

But Pumphrey has also been able to concentrate more on his studies than during his frenetic undergraduate years. 

“I wasn’t as focused on that part during my football career; I was more focused on the football side and the social aspects of college,” Pumphrey freely acknowledged. “This time around, I was already buckled down and ready to start that next chapter of my life.”

That next chapter, he said, includes his family - including his girlfriend, a daughter and son in elementary school, a third child on the way — and, of course, coaching. 

“It really hasn’t hit my kids, though they kind of laugh about it because they are in school too, and now dad is back in school,” Pumphrey said. “But I couldn’t tell them to get a college degree if I hadn’t gotten my B.A. (which he did this spring in social science). That was the most important thing: setting a good example for them.”

As a graduate assistant, Pumphrey works with the Aztecs’ defensive backfield under assistant coaches Demetrius Sumler and Kyle Hoke. Learning to coach defense will help him learn how to attack those defenses as an offensive coach, where he sees his coaching future. 

His ultimate coaching goal? To become SDSU’s next running backs coach, he said. 

“I love the game, and I want to continue to be around it,” Pumphrey said. “I still feel I have something to give to the game.

“I don’t have any NFL (coaching) aspirations,” Pumphrey said. “When I was in the NFL, I saw how things went about at that level. I want to be around college guys; there’s less ego and players are more receptive to coaching. Ideally, I want to stay in San Diego.”

Members of the coaching staff said bringing Pumphrey aboard was an easy call. 

“DJ did some amazing things at San Diego State and helped elevate the program, so when he expressed interest in coaching it was a no-brainer,” Sumler said. “He was a leader on the field so I always thought coaching would be a natural transition for him. He’s done a good job so far. The players respect him because of all he has accomplished and he’s done things they all aspire to do.”

In the meantime, Pumphrey said he’s enjoying this new chapter on campus, where people still recognize him as the Aztecs legend who shattered records. He hopes to continue to add to the Aztecs football legacy that he was a part of building. 

“I was just at the bookstore and a guy turned around and asked me ‘Are you DJ Pumphrey?’” he said. “And he dropped his book — he was that excited. I’m still getting that sort of love. And to be honest, all the accolades I accomplished here still haven’t quite sunk in. 

“This campus and this team are special. When I came in, the coaches had already established this culture of excellence, and we continued to build that; I was part of two (Mountain West Conference) championships. Every time I’m on campus, people show that love back, and that is the biggest thing,” Pumphrey said. “I’m just happy to be back.”

By the Numbers

Donnel Pumphrey shattered NCAA and SDSU records as a player:

  • 6,405 career rushing yards — first in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision and SDSU history

  • 7,515 all-purpose yards — first in SDSU history, fifth in FBS history

  • 100-yard rushing games — first in SDSU history (33)

  • Overall touchdowns — first in SDSU history (67)

  • First-team All-America selection by Walter Camp and Sports Illustrated;  second-team All-America pick by Associated Press, AFCA, USA Today and The Sporting News.