by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Around the very urban campus of San Jose State University, Cinco de Mayo is usually a very colorful celebration. Going forward, however, it could become a two-day festival on the Spartan campus.

That’s because Cuatro de Mayo is now a landmark day at SJSU, too.

You see, that was the day (May 4) this past spring that Spartan athletics escaped the crumbling wreckage of the Western Athletic Conference and was finally accepted into the Mountain West. San Jose football, on and off an endangered species list for the past two decades, now finally appears to be on some firmer footing.

It was nip-and-tuck, however, for the Spartans, who were quickly running out of options for their sports teams (especially football) as the WAC continued to disintegrate. Lobbying feverishly to get accepted into the only viable option to keep the gridiron program alive, San Jose’s quest for Mountain West membership had more setbacks than the flight of Apollo 13. Playing the Jim Lovell role for most of the Spartans’ ride was AD Tom Bowen, under whose leadership the SJSU athletic department had stabilized over the past seven years. Bowen, however, left for a similar job at Memphis in mid-April, before the Spartans knew their fate regarding Mountain membership, which was hardly a guarantee.

Stepping into the breach at the last second, however, was Deputy AD Marie Tuite, appointed by school prexy Mohammad Qayoumi, to see the San Jose bid to its conclusion. And just as the late Jack Swigert did 42 years ago when steering the command module Odyssey back to earth, so did Tuite see the Spartans land safely in the Mountain West (along with equally giddy Utah State) in early May.

Although the Mountain West isn’t the Pac-12 or Big Ten, it represents a big step up the college football food chain for San Jose, which had been sustaining on crumbs for the past 15 years in the WAC. Which will house Spartan sports for one more season before all of San Jose’s sports teams make the move to the Mountain for the 2013-14 school year.

Immediately upon membership in the MW, the Spartans will realize a nice revenue bump in the form of TV money, which figures to rise significantly higher as the Mountain works on new contracts (perhaps in conjunction with Conference USA) that are likely to boost each school’s take into the $4-5 million range annually. For San Jose’s long cash-strapped programs, that’s akin to winning the Powerball lottery.

The Spartans’ invitation to the Mountain West, however, was expected in many quarters of the college sports world. San Jose’s location in the Bay Area, which originally helped to attract the WAC back in 1996, provides a new and logical frontier for the Mountain West to explore. Although absent the sort of clout and influence of nearby Pac-12 members Stanford and Cal, SJSU nonetheless has a massive enrollment and alumni base in the South Bay which, properly mobilized and with plenty of Silicon Valley connections, could turn the Spartan athletic program into a force. Facilities are adequate, including historic Spartan Stadium, about a mile south of the main campus but a delightful place to watch a football game and due to become an even more charming venue with some expected upgrades now that SJSU has enlisted with the Mountain.

Although the Spartan football program has navigated some choppy waters over the past fifteen years, the San Jose gridiron alumni chapter nonetheless boasts of some big names in the sport. Alumni include Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil, and Spartans have dotted many NFL football rosters for the past sixty years, including Pro Bowlers such as DBs Louis Wright (Broncos, shown at right) and Gil Byrd (Chargers) and QB Jeff Garcia (49ers & Eagles), plus a variety of other familiar pro football names from recent decades that include WR Art Powell, QB Steve DeBerg, RB Gerald Willhite, DE Kim Bokamper, PK Joe Nedney, OG David Diaz-Infante, DB Dwight Lowery, and countless others. In other words, San Jose State is no football novice.

Still, the program has had some close calls ever since it moved into the WAC in 1996 after mostly dominating in the old PCAA and Big West under coaches Jack Elway, Claude Gilbert, Terry Shea, and Ron Turner during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The 1993 hiring of veteran HC John Ralston, out of coaching for nearly 20 years, boomeranged on the Spartans, and while the program made a mild recovery under Dave Baldwin in the late ‘90s, it was nearly sunk for good by the awful hire of Dr. Fitz Hill, who brought the program to its knees over a four-season span between 2001-04 that prompted a movement on campus to drop the sport entirely. But AD Bowen and new, but veteran, HC Dick Tomey helped forge a turnaround in 2005, with Tomey steering his second Spartan team in 2006 into the New Mexico Bowl, where SJSU upset host New Mexico. Although the football program eventually receded on Tomey’s watch, he had at least revitalized the fan base enough to where the Spartans could sustain themselves, while Bowen’s adroit leadership further solidified the athletic department.

The eventful offseason in Silicon Valley continued into later May when the school announced the hiring of former Boise State AD Gene Bleymaier to the same post with the Spartans. Bleymaier, once upon a time a tight end at UCLA who had the misfortune of arriving in Westwood as a pass receiver just as Pepper Rodgers was junking the Bruins’ multiple offense for the wishbone, was an accomplished administrator at Boise who oversaw the Broncos’ emergence as a football powerhouse over the past decade. Despite that success, and being a top-notch fundraiser, Bleymaier (who wasn’t helped by a series of minor department infractions that had caught the notice of the NCAA) nonetheless lost a political tug-of-war with Boise’s president Bob Kustra last year.

Still, college sports insiders in the region believe the Spartans hit another homerun with the Bleymaier hire, as many believe Bowen did two years ago when enlisting Mike MacIntyre as SJSU’s football coach.

Indeed, several West Coast observers have raved about the quick turnaround MacIntyre (right) has authored after inheriting a 2-10 team from Tomey’s last season in 2009. “Coach Mac’s” first season in 2010 was a 1-12 struggle, but the Spartans were competitve in many of those losses, and were one of the most-improved teams in the nation last season as they upped their mark to 5-7. They also greatly impressed this writer, who attended a late November, 27-24 home win over a competent Navy side that eventually would deny the Midshipmen a chance to qualify for their ninth straight bowl appearance.

MacIntyre, whose father George coached at Vanderbilt in the early ‘80s and steered the Commodores to a rare bowl game (their first in 27 years!) in 1982 and also authored the school’s last win over Alabama in 1984, was a surprise hire by Bowen after the 2009 season in which Coach Mac had been working on David Cutcliffe’s Duke staff. MacIntyre had little experience west of the Mississippi River, but had a varied gridiron background including stints on NFL staffs of the Cowboys and Jets. What we always liked about MacIntyre, however, was the fact he spent one year working for Shoney’s Restaurants (among our favorites!) after finishing his college days at Georgia Tech before getting into the coaching thing on Ray Goff’s Georgia staff in 1990.

In fact, Coach Mac has impressed the San Jose brass so much, including new boss Bleymaier, that he was recently rewarded with a contract extension thtough 2017.

With Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State all having escaped the burning building of the WAC this year and finding refuge in the Mountain West a year earlier than the Spartans, there might be a chance for SJSU to make its last trip around the WAC track a memorable one, as what is left of the league promises a wide-open race. It’s worth noting, however, that a win over new league member UTSA (which also won’t be sticking around the WAC very long, either, headed off to Conference USA next year) on October 20 at the Alamodome won’t count toward bowl eligibility. To qualify for the postseason, San Jose needs to get to seven wins, which it hasn’t accomplished since Dick Tomey’s bowl season of 2006.

And that task seemed to get a little harder in the offseason when Michigan transfer QB Tate Forcier, who had started for the Wolverines while Rich Rodriguez was still in charge at Ann Arbor and was expected to be SJSU’s QB in 2012, abruptly decided to leave San Jose in the winter, trading Spartan Stadium for Ivor Wynne Stadium and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Although WAC observers were hardly convinced the flighty Forcier was going to be any better than the graduated Matt Faulkner (left), who passed for over 3100 yards last fall.

MacIntyre and new o.c. Brian Lindgren (via Northern Arizona; last year’s shrewd o.c. John DeFilippo took a job on Dennis Allen’s new Oakland Raiders staff) thus went back to the drawing board in spring as they went about finding another QB from among three available alternatives in holdovers Dasmen Stewart (right) and Blake Jurich, plus former Nevada recruit and juco gunslinger David Fales. Another candidate, RS frosh Joe Gray, sat out spring to work on academics but is expected to be available in fall camp to make it a four-man race.

Although Coach Mac will wait until August before announcing his starter for the September 1 opener at Stanford, Bay Area sources report it would be a shocker if the strong-armed Fales weren’t in the lineup at Palo Alto. Fales, most recently at Monterey Peninsula College, was whipping the ball all across the lot in scrimmaging and the spring game, where he clearly outshined Stewart and Jurich.

Whether it be Fales, Stewart, or Steve DeBerg taking snaps, a squadron of established receiving targets will be on hand to provide help. Indeed, the top four pass catchers return from 2011 led by wideouts Noel Grigsby (left; 89 catches LY), Chandler Jones (61 catches in 2011), and Jabari Carr (33 receptions a year ago), plus sure-handed TE Ryan Otten (52 catches and a team-best 5 TDs).

The running game, however, has mostly served as a diversion for recent Spartan attacks, and graduated mini-back Brandon Rutley gained almost all of San Jose’s rushing yards (903 of the team’s 1222) a year ago as the Spartans ranked a lowly 110th in national rush stats. But one Big Ten transfer who hasn’t abandoned ship, ex-Minnesota RB DeLeon Eskridge, a Bay Area product who gained 1670 YR in three seasons with the Gophers, will battle with former Washington transfer David Freeman for carries in the Spartans’ one-back sets as Rutley's presence is not expected to be greatly missed.

WAC scouts also alert to keep an eye also on versatile and speedy soph Tyler Ervin, who is penciled in as a starting cornerback on defense, but with more moves than The Temptations could also see double-duty at RB as well. Three new starters must also be fit into the offensive line, although returning starters LT David Quessenberry and RG Nicholas Kaspar are potential honors candidates.

MacIntyre, a longtime defensive coach, and vet d.c. Kent Baer (formerly holding the same positions at Stanford, Notre Dame, and Washington, and even the interim HC for the Fighting Irish in the 2004 Insight Bowl), will need to call upon all of their scheming abilities to squeeze another representative effort out of a traditionally undermanned Spartan defense that despite improvements LY still allowed over 30 ppg. What they have to work with this fall, however, is a bit more substantial than what appears on the surface; although a mere five returning starters are on hand, almost all of the projected first-stringers have extensive game experience in the past.

The biggest concern is probably replacing the leadership of playmaker deluxe Duke Ihenacho, a big-hitting strong safety with a nose for the football who is spending this summer in the Denver Broncos camp.

Still, there are other proven impact players in the platoon, including All-WAC DE Travis Johnson, a forceful presence who recorded 9 ½ sacks and 15 ½ tackles for loss a year ago, quick-footed (despite his 286 pounds) DT Travis Raciti (right, vs. UCLA last September), and a pair of three-year starters, tackling machine LB Keith Smith (220 tackles the past two years) and FS James Orth. A newcomer to watch could be juco Eric Finefeuiaki, a first-team, all-state heat-seeking DB at nearby Diablo Valley JC but likely to be utilized at an OLB spot by MacIntyre and Baer. Solidifying a 104th-ranked rush defense (204 ypg) is a top priority.

As usual, the Spartans have another challenging schedule (though not as bad as MacIntyre's first team in 2010 that opened at Alabama, at Utah, and at Wisconsin in three of the first four games!), as SJSU still figures to be a decided underdog in non-conference treks to nearby Stanford, San Diego State, and a return match vs. revenge-minded Navy in the furthest trip we can recall for a Spartan team since a 2003 journey to Florida. Powerful BYU and a future Mountain West foe, Colorado State, visit San Jose, but the Spartans also get expected WAC contenders Utah State and La Tech at home.

Spread-wise, it’s worth noting that San Jose enters the fall as one of the nation’s hottest recent performers vs. the line, covering 10 of its last 14 on the board for MacIntyre, including 8 of its last 9 as an underdog.

Summary...San Jose provides curious subject matter for 2012, as the Spartans could reasonably be justified as one of the favorites in their last spin around the WAC if assuming the improvement displayed by Mike MacIntyre’s first two editions continues into the fall. What’s tricky is forecasting how the QB situation will evolve; the graduated Matt Faulkner emerged as an unexpected yet dynamic force last fall, and now that Michigan transfer Tate Forcier has bailed out of the program, there isn’t much track record for any of the replacements. But if one (and most regional sources assume it will be juco David Fales) emerges, the supporting cast around him is good enough to suggest the Spartans can certainly trade points with any WAC entry. If nothing else, San Jose, involved in a lot of white-knucklers over the past two years, should again be fun to watch.


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