San Diego State’s Perfect 40th Anniversary Celebration
A look back at some Aztecs football history
An Aztec history lesson.
The San Diego State Aztecs are rolling. With their 41-10 defeat of UNLV last week (in an emotionally charged environment following the Las Vegas mass shooting tragedy) the Aztecs improved to 6-0 overall, 2-0 in the Mountain West. Victories over Stanford and Arizona State have made clear that Rocky Long’s group is for real.
As their hometown paper, the San Diego Union Tribune, pointed out, “At No. 18, Aztecs now enjoy highest ranking in 40 years.”
We could look ahead here. Might the Aztecs go undefeated? Are they the outsiders that will crash the CFP? Maybe.
But a look back is just as fun. 40 years ago the ’77 Aztecs, untethered by a conference and unrewarded with a bowl game, had a remarkable season—a season, one could argue, that has been unmatched by any subsequent SDSU team.
“SDSU Wants to Join ‘Super Conference”
The headline could be from 2013. Or for that matter, 2017. But the above was splashed across a newspaper in 1975, as San Diego State left the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA) in order to pursue better conference digs. “Division I in football is changing,” Aztec AD Ken Karr explained at the time, “and we want to be part of the top group.” The thought was that a new 75 or 80-school conference was on the horizon. SDSU, fresh off the glorious Don Coryell years, wanted in.
As a result, SDSU left its PCAA state-mates (Cal States LA & Fullerton, Fresno State, SJSU, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara, and Long Beach State) and played as an independent in 1976 and 1977.
Both independent seasons yielded 10-1 records. 1977 in particular though seemed to position SDSU as a rising football power.
Claude Gilbert, then in his 5th year as head coach, led the Aztecs through a cobbled-together ’77 schedule. Five PCAA schools remained on the docket. The Aztecs roster was composed almost entirely of junior college transfers. Just a handful of the letterwinners on the ’77 team, in fact, would play at Montezuma Mesa for more than two seasons.
Regardless of the turnover, the Aztecs fired on all cylinders. Quarterback Joe Davis (2360 yards and 24 TDs) and running back David “Deacon” Turner (1252 yards and 14 TDs) lead an offense that averaged more than 31 points per contest. Receivers Ronnie Smith and Dennis Pearson tallied more than 20 TDs as a pair. The stingy Aztec defense held opposing squads to 15 points per game.
The season started with three victories—over Cal State Fullerton, Arizona, and Utah State. Then the Aztecs traveled to the Central Valley to face Fresno State. The Aztecs were riding a 10-game winning streak, the longest of any major college football team in the nation.
The Bulldogs didn’t seem to care. Using a ball-control running attack, Fresno rolled to a 34-14 victory. “Fresno Stuns Aztecs,” read the following day’s AP report.
Stunned or not, the Aztecs got right back to their winning ways, cranking out five successive victories. The wins were blowouts, and strangely patterned ones at that. The Aztecs allowed opposing teams a touchdown—just one (the scores 49-7, 31-7, 41-7, 29-7)—as some sort of consolation. After dispatching UTEP, UNLV, Tulsa, and Pacific in near-shutout fashion, the Aztecs defeated Long Beach State 33-22. The stage had been set for the season’s marque contest.
The Night SDSU Gave Florida State its Flaming Spear
Florida State University (8-1) traveled to San Diego to meet SDSU (also 8-1) on November 19, 1977. FSU, guided by second year head coach and future football legend Bobby Bowden, was ranked No. 13 in the polls. With victories over Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Auburn to its credit, the Seminoles were a heavy favorite.
The game was never close.
SDSU scored on six of its first nine possessions. By the halftime, which mercifully coincided with the press deadline back in Florida, SDSU held a commanding 38-10 lead. The second half changed little in the story. “The Seminoles were humiliated 41-16 by San Diego State Saturday night and the game was every bit as one-sided as the final margin,” reported the Miami News.
The passionate San Diego fans left nearly as big an impression on FSU as SDSU’s team. “”Not only were the Aztecs ready,” the Tallahassee Democrat explained, “but also the crowd of 50,453. There might have been an element of ‘crowd intimidation’ from that aroused turnout.” Imagine that: the football team from FSU being taken aback by the football environment at SDSU.
As the Aztecs Sports Report has detailed, the SDSU contest triggered an idea in young Bobby Bowden’s head. While prone to “dadgummits” and other folksy behavior, Bowden was a shrewd program builder. He wanted what the Aztecs had. “I remember we came out of our dressing room and saw (the Aztec Warrior mascot) in a sarong with a flaming spear. It was very inspirational.”
“We decided we needed to do something like that. That’s where we got the idea to get the crowd riled up.”
So in 1978, Florida State introduced its now iconic Chief Asceola flaming spear ceremony. Out of the ashes of the SDSU defeat, arose the Seminoles’ flame-filled and raucous pre-game tradition.
No Bowl for You
SDSU ended the 1977 season with a hard-fought victory over San Jose State. “Almost!” the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported of the SDSU-SJSU tilt. “The Spartans almost did it as they had the Aztecs on the ropes—only to let them get away.” The final score: 37-34, SDSU.
Despite their 10-1 record and No. 16 ranking, the Aztecs received no bowl bid. The team watched as Florida State defeated Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl. For the players of SDSU’s two-season (1976 and 77) independent era, the satisfaction of achieving an overall 20-2 record and setting a high bar of excellence had to be enough. That and the fact that FSU and Bobby Bowden thought so highly of their program that they stole elements of the Aztecs’ pre-game show to take back to Tallahassee.