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The Case for California State Spartan Football.
Another college football bowl game season is upon us and once again San Jose State is nowhere to be seen among the post-season contenders.
Although the Spartans managed to win two games this year against Division 1A opponents, SJSU still suffered its 11th losing season in 12 years, posting a 3-8 overall record. And although attendance improved over last year, the school still rates 111th out of 119 D1A schools in that measure of a football program's popularity and success.
Year after year the SJSU faithful pin their hopes for more wins and better attendance on a new coach, better recruits or a new marketing initiative, but they overlook the real problem: the San Jose State identity itself.
Simply put, it is just too narrow and geographically restrictive to ever engender the kind of interest and support Spartan football needs to prosper. The San Jose State identity puts Spartan football on the same level as D1AA programs like Portland State or Sacramento State, instead of on the level of big-time schools with equivalent histories like Washington State and Arizona State.
Look at the top schools in college football, USC, Texas, Penn State, Ohio State, Oregon. Most them have state identities, not city identities. This is no coincidence. The state identity is more prestigious and has much broader appeal than a city identity. It allows these schools to appeal to a much wider area than just one city, and capitalize on state and regional resources and pride.
Why would the best students, athletes and coaches come to a relatively obscure city-named state school, when they can have the prestige of playing for a major state university, like California, Oregon State, or Arizona State? How can we expect people in Mountain View, Gilroy, Santa Cruz or elsewhere around the Bay Area to identify with and support "San Jose State" branded college football? Most of them don't live in San Jose and have no reason to identify with or support San Jose State-branded anything.
Part of the problem is the "City" of San Jose itself. It claims to be the 10th largest city in America, but is it really? Its urbanized area is relatively compact, making it a small town in disguise. Most of San Jose's residents live in its sprawling 147-square mile hinterlands, far removed both physically and spiritually from downtown and the campus area. Actually, San Jose's relatively small urban area would make it an ideal college town for a major California State University football school, drawing interest and support from the entire region.
To address these problems, www.gostate.org and a group called the CSU Spartans (see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CSU_Spartans ) want to expand the base of interest and support from Spartan athletics by restoring the "California State" part of the school's original name: the "California State Normal School" (1862-1921). The State of California did this itself in 1972, but the school's alumni association went directly to the Legislature to downgrade the identity to "San Jose State University" without allowing students to vote on the matter.
Some San Jose students and alumni justify the "San Jose State" name change by pointing out that it is different from the name used by some other CSU campuses. But is unique always good? The Edsel's name was unique, but was it a good car? The problem with the San Jose State identity is that it severely restricts the geographic scope and appeal of the school to one sprawling "city" with a well-documented inferiority complex vis-vis San Francisco, instead of engendering statewide interest and support by capitalizing on the school's status as the founding campus of the CSU system.
Some alumni say they don't want the school to have a "generic" identity similar to other CSUs, but fail to understand San Jose's unique identity as the original and oldest California State institution of higher learning. And even as the California State University, San Jose, how would the school be generic? Is the University of California, Berkeley, generic, just because it shares the UC part of its name with nine other campuses? Also, is there a CSU campus in another town called San Jose? If not, then how would the school's identity be generic if a strong "San Jose" (not "San Jose State") identity were maintained?
These alumni say there are "too many CSUs". But, in truth, there aren't enough CSUs. There is one very important one missing. The "invisible giant" called the California State University needs one or more "flagship" campuses, a CSU Superpower if you will, to give the system a higher national profile, both athletically and academically.
Eventually, a CSU campus will do this. Fresno State has toyed with the idea for years, but lacks the historical credentials to pull it off. CSU Sacramento's president was talking about making that school the CSU flagship just last year. Cal Poly currently plays the role of the system's academic flagship, but it doesn't have the history, size, geographic location or D1A athletics necessary to become a full-fledged CSU flagship.
What all of these schools lack is San Jose's pedigree as the founding campus of the California State University system. San Jose is also better situated geographically than any of these schools to leverage the potentially awesome power of its original "California State" (1862) identity.
So how would restoring San Jose's original identity really change things? It's quite simple really, use the state's name and suddenly the whole state is interested in Spartan athletics. The www.gostate.org and www.spartanthunder.com websites recently got a taste of this power, as college sports enthusiasts from all over the state flocked to those sites to read about the possible re-emergence of California State football in San Jose.
To dismiss this proposal as a mere "name change" doesn't do it justice. What the CSU Spartans propose is more like a paradigm shift in the way San Jose perceives and markets itself, both academically and athletically.
Instead of worrying about trying to distinguish the school from other small and distant CSU campuses, why not leverage the power of the school's identity as the original California State institution of higher learning to show our unity with them? Then we can appeal to non-football campuses like East Bay, San Francisco, Monterey Bay, Maritime, Stanislaus and others to support California State Spartan football. There must be thousands of college football fans at these schools who would love to have a CSU-branded football team to support. Indeed, students at campuses as far north as Sonoma State and as far south as CSU Fullerton have already indicated that they would be happy to support California State Spartan football in San Jose. The prestige and power of the California State name would also attract many more traditional-age, football-loving students to the San Jose campus every year, instead of commuters who care little about the school or its athletics programs.
And instead of appealing only to relatively small community that supports San Jose State football, why not appeal college sports fans in Gilroy, Mountain View, Pleasanton and elsewhere around the Bay Area by playing under the name of the state they live in? They live in the State of California, not the State of San Jose.
Why has another college football season has passed without any CSU football school standing up to represent the entire California State University system in name and in spirit? All three of the CSU's D1A football schools instead represent only their cities: San Jose State, Fresno State, and San Diego State. As far as the world of collegiate football is concerned, the CSU system barely exists. Instead it is reduced to fragmented collection of city-named state colleges.
Currently, the CSU Chancellor's office monopolizes the acroynym "CSU" while students and alumni as the original CSU in San Jose cannot even buy a CSU T-shirt. Unless the CSU Trustees intend to field a football team, this must change. The CSU Chancellor's office must share the "CSU" name with the system's oldest campus, just as the University of California system shares that name with Berkeley.
The lack of at least one strong "CSU" identity campus affects the system far beyond the world of college football. In 1971 Donald Gerth and James Haehn noted the lack of name recognition of the California State Colleges system in their book: An Invisible Giant: The California State Colleges. Sadly, even today the CSU system remains an invisible giant to some extent. Why? Because it lacks a flagship campus, the role usually played by the oldest school in a system. The flagship gives the system as sense of history, identity, tradition and meaning, which often finds its most potent expression during the football season.
But the relatively small number of alumni who actively support San Jose State have steadfastly refused to allow the University and Spartan athletics to play the noble and honor-filled role of a CSU flagship. In fact, some of these University "supporters" actually argue that other CSU campuses should be the flagship. It should be noted, however, that the SJSU Alumni Association only represents about 5 to 6% of San Jose graduates, so its mandate to continue these policies is weak.
The price paid by the University, its students and graduates for these policies has been significant. Instead of becoming a statewide power in both athletics and academics, the school has declined into a commuter-oriented city college, unable to compete the schools like California, Oregon, and Washington State. Unlike "San Jose State" these schools are able to leverage the prestige of their state identities to attract the kind of residential students, athletics, coaches and supporters that power prestigious state institutions with strong football programs.
The CSU Spartans recognize that change will be difficult, but we are hopeful. This year's home jerseys for Spartan basketball already sport the "STATE" brand we support. A major school at the University already identifies itself in marketing materials as "The California State University campus in Silicon Valley". And the school's historical establishment appears to be waking up to the potential power and prestige of the school's epic history and original identity.
We don't expect change to happen overnight. First, San Jose students and alumni must restore their rights to identify and market themselves as California State University students and graduates. This must include the right to buy CSU-oriented gear in Spartan Shops. Students can buy shirts that say "Long Beach State" or "CSU Long Beach" at that school, so why not at the oldest CSU campus? More than any other CSU school, San Jose students and alumni deserve the right to harness the power of the words "California State" to market their degrees.
Those responsible for marketing the University and its athletics programs must apply a fundamental principle of marketing and "segment" the market for school supporters. With more than 250 students and alumni in CSU-oriented groups, and tens of thousands more using the school's "California State University, San Jose" identity to market their degrees, the school must recognize that many students and alumni strongly prefer this identity. Just as UC Berkeley uses both "Berkeley" and "California" to market itself, what is now called "San Jose State" must separate its city and state identities and allow students, grads, athletics, donors and other supporters the freedom to identify with the one or both of the school's "San Jose" and "California State" identities.
Then, over time, the power of the San Jose's identity as the original California State will be allowed to emerge. The school will begin to attract more traditional-age, residential students who actually support football and other athletic programs, and will have a much easier time recruiting better student athletes and coaches.
Perhaps the first step should be to restore the kind of "alternate identity" that already exists at Fresno State and Long Beach State. That could be the initial step toward seeing the school grow, benefit and prosper from its original identity. Then we will finally be able to look forward to seeing our football team start winning again, in a perpetually sold-out Spartan stadium, as the "California State Spartans".
For more information, please see www.gostate.org and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CSU_Spartans .
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