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The weather has always been perfect. The city is big enough. The location — along the cliffs and beaches and mesas of Southern California — has always been desirable.
Yet across the decades San Diego State has sat outside the power structure of major college athletics, this potential gem covered up by administrative indifference, fan apathy, academic snobbery or, in its own odd way, a remote location that made only the Pac-12 conference a viable league.
How major college conferences could have programs in Starkville or Lubbock or Pullman — but not San Diego — is part of the uniqueness of the pursuit.
It also seems destined to end. And soon.
San Diego State, currently a member of the mid-major Mountain West Conference, is in the Final Four of the men’s NCAA tournament.
It shouldn’t take a great run of basketball under head coach Brian Dutcher to finally push the Aztecs into a major conference, but sometimes this is how it works. With victory comes attention and with attention comes appreciation.
For decades SDSU has wanted to join the Pac-12, but the Pac-12 has never been interested. The conference could cite poor facilities and/or meager fan support.
One theory was that UC-Berkeley and UCLA didn’t want to associate with a school from the Cal State system. Another was that USC and UCLA had no interest in sharing the vast Southern California recruiting market.
“My own personal belief is the Pac-12 would not ask us in with UCLA and USC because that would put us on equal footing and we would be too great a competitor to let in,” Dutcher said.
Well, USC and UCLA are leaving for the Big Ten in 2024, which means the Pac-12 is without a foothold in the second-most populous region of the country. San Diego may not be L.A., but SDSU is the only viable option. And if the Pac-12 doesn’t jump now and offer an invitation, then the aggressive Big 12 — eager to establish itself as a coast-to-coast conference — just might.
All of which means the Aztecs’ Final Four run comes at the perfect time.
The university has invested mightily in facilities — both on its Mission Valley campus and in the construction of a new 35,000-seat football/pro soccer stadium just a few miles away.
A group of donors and supporters — “Friends of SDSU” — helped shepherd the deal through a complicated political and public referendum process and then got construction completed ahead of schedule, which is simply unheard of in San Diego.
Everything is in place except the still lagging connection between school and city. Say what you will about, say, the aforementioned Lubbock, but it is Texas Tech country.
SDSU lacks neither for students — over 28,000 full-time undergrads — nor alumni at 400,000-plus. The challenge has been giving them a reason to show it, to wear the gear, to attend a game, to feel that pride that success in athletics can generate.
A Final Four is the kind of bandwagon that builds, often in lasting ways.
SDSU can be San Diego’s team, especially since there is no NBA or NFL franchise.
“We have the greatest environment in the world because San Diego is the ninth-largest city in the country, and we have one pro team in town … the [MLB] San Diego Padres,” Dutcher said. “So the pro basketball team of San Diego is the San Diego State Aztecs, so we get corporate seats sold. The city supports us. We are the basketball team of the city, and we are the football team of the city.”
Attendance, especially for football, still needs work, but it should be aided by the hoops team awakening the Aztec masses. So, too, would bringing in more brand-name opponents, either from the Pac-12 or Big 12.
The Pac-12 will soon have just 10 members and is working out a media rights deal for the future. Adding two teams would increase the inventory of games it could sell. SDSU may not help generate more media rights dollars, the way big flagship state universities can, but it also isn’t a net negative. There really aren’t any downsides at this point.
If nothing else, it would allow for everyone else to play, and recruit, in an important part of the country, let alone the West.
Maybe more than anything, there is the threat that if the Pac-12 doesn’t act, the Big 12 will. The Big 12 is open about its desire to get Pac-12 schools Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah to jump ship and help form a 16-team conference. So far, that hasn’t happened and those so-called “corner schools” have expressed loyalty to the Pac-12.
If that isn’t possible, would the Big 12 counter by entering California via SDSU and, perhaps, Fresno State? Saul Jimenez-Sandoval, the president of Fresno State, recently confirmed Big 12 interest in the school while lobbying for an infrastructure spending deal similar to what SDSU got done. Fresno may not be San Diego, but its metropolitan region has a million residents, many of whom connect with the school. Moreover, agricultural ethos fits well with a league that is home to many campuses on the Great Plains.
No one knows what’s coming, but that alone should be the threat to get the Pac-12 to act. SDSU has made the moves in recent years to become increasingly attractive. Now a trip to the Final Four confirms the potential of its teams while firing up alums and fans.
“I would think we would be desirable for the Pac-12, the Big 12, a lot of conferences,” Dutcher said.
He’s correct. The question now is which one offers first.