Tomorrow, September 5, 2009, the San Jose State University Spartans embark upon their ninety-first season of football, one hundred and sixteen years after playing their first organized game.* The Spartans open against what is arguably the best collegiate football program in America, the University of Southern California Trojans, at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.
Today, Spartan fans are anxious. Will the team improve over 2008, which ended with three straight losses that cost a bowl appearance? Can the 2008 record of 6 – 6 be surpassed, despite a tougher non-conference record, and growing strength in the Western Athletic Conference?
Recent columns have reviewed every Spartan team unit. Potential starters have been evaluated, strengths and weaknesses considered. Losses due to graduation and likely replacements have been discussed, and this season's team compared with last to determine where improvement is needed, can be expected, or not. Each 2008 game was reviewed, to see how the Spartans won, or why they lost.
The idea was to put the 2009 season into better perspective. Now, this column can be written, identifying the most important Spartan in 2009.
The Spartans will be improved in 2009, but predicting wins and losses is a fool's errand. The final 2009 record could realistically be anywhere from a disappointing 4 – 8, to a satisfying 8 – 5. This team has a better chance of going 0 – 12 than it does of going 12 – 0. Of course, the Spartans won't go 0 – 12. Or 12 – 0. A finish of six or seven wins is most likely, and San Jose will have to pull a couple of upsets to get there. At the season's start, there is an outside chance the Spartans will go bowling in December.
So, after all the hype, here is the identity – without fear of error – of the Spartan most critical to the team's success in 2009.
The offensive line will have to improve to get seven wins, but none of those guys are the most important Spartan. Neither is it Kevin Jurovich, Jalal Beauchman, newcomer Marquis Avery, or any other member of a stellar receiving corps.
It's not a returning Patrick Perry, the exciting Brandon Rutley, or Lamon Muldrow, the JC transfer Spartan fans can't wait to see. Neither is it quarterback Kyle Reed, no matter how much improved, or his alternate, Jordan La Secla.
Don't look for the most important Spartan on the defense. It's not Carl Ihenacho, or linebacker Justin Cole. The Duke is not a candidate. Nor will it be placekickers Tyler Cope or Harrison Waid.
You may be guessing it's new Assistant Head Coach Terry Malley, buy you'd be guessing wrong. And no, it's not Head Coach Dick Tomey either, or any other coach.
It's not the watergirl, the towel boy, the equipment manager, Spartan Stadium play-by-play announcer Russ Call, or the guy who sells coffee on the mezzanine. It's not the band, even if they do play a great rendition of Conan. And, no, sorry, it's not Athletic Director Tom Bowen, or even SJSU President Jon Whitmore. Or the little Spartan dude who runs around the field during home games.
Want a clue? Consider the big Spartan picture. What does the team really need to be successful in 2009? In 2004, San Jose State compiled a 2 – 9 record, and was on the brink of college football oblivion. Attendance was down, interest was down, and the academic performance of student-athletes was down. Over in Fresno, SJSU was being referred to as "the JC team". Enter Head Coach Dick Tomey.
With Tom Bowen behind him, Coach Tomey resurrected the Spartans. Since his arrival, there have been tough years (3 – 8 in 2005), good years (9 – 4 and a bowl win in 2006), and frustrating or disappointing years (5 – 7 in 2007, 6 – 6 in 2008). But the win/loss record doesn't tell the whole story.
Today, as the Spartans prepare to take the field in Los Angeles, the program is receiving greater respect around the country, and within the conference. SJSU athletes are finishing school, and the critical APR score is up. Media coverage is more positive, more and better potential recruits are considering San Jose State as their preferred destination, and Spartan Stadium has been spruced up a bit. Donations to the Spartan Foundation are rising, and so is attendance.
The team is playing better. The Spartans were competitive in 10 of 12 games in 2008, including Nebraska, Stanford, Fresno State, and Boise State. Although self-destructing on offense against Louisiana Tech, the defense still played strong. The only game that San Jose was never really in was at Nevada.
The Spartans are on the rise, and all of this has been accomplished with one hand tied behind their backs, as recruiting quotas have been severely restricted by the NCAA. (That should end soon, too!)
All of which enables us, without fear of contradiction, to the identity of the Most Important Spartan in 2009. It is YOU, the Spartan fan. The unwavering support of every Spartan fan is needed now more than ever. If this season is another tough one, fans must remain resolute. If the season is a good one, fans cannot become complacent.
The most important thing fans can do is go to the home games. It means a lot to players when the stands are filled with supporters, cheering them on in victory, sharing the pain of defeat. If SJSU's football progress is to continue – no matter what the outcome on the field – attendance must continue to climb.
So, the pressure is all on you, Spartan fan. Will you wilt under the challenge? Or will you come through when the chips are down?
As always, thanks for reading, send a comment or correction, disagree if you like, and be sure to get that light on your way out. Good luck to the Spartans in 2009, and see you at Spartan Stadium.
*San Jose played its first game in 1893, against the San Jose YMCA, losing 0 – 18. It was the only formal game played that year. San Jose did not field football teams in 1894, 1897, between 1901 and 1920, and fielded no varsity teams during the 1943 – 1945 War Years.
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R. P. Cotta, Jr., is an Associate Editor for Inside Sparta. You may contact R.P with any questions, comments, or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
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