Sac. St. through the ages

SACRAMENTO - Nearly two decades ago, one sports columnist here compared his city's college football program to a bloodied boxer. Sacramento State, he said, had admirably weathered blow after blow of tough times and survived through it all. The scribe equated the Hornets to Jake LaMotta.

That team indeed brings an ability to survive through less-than-ideal circumstances into Saturday for Stanford's home opener. From Banner Island to Isla Vista, many in-state peers of the Hornets have elected to rid themselves of the football menace.

It's an outfit with only one winning season since 1993, when it moved up from Division II to what's now called the Football Championship Subdivision. But at a school that only began offering athletic scholarships 25 years ago, Sacramento State football believes bigger strides are in order.

The students here have consistently voted to allocate funds for the sport. There's a new training facility and a new playing surface, together with a recently-arrived coach who's brought stability and increased the number of wins. Rumor has it that the Hornets, led by former Foothill College Coach Marshall Sperbeck, will be among those the WAC will invite to replace Fresno State and Nevada.

"I always knew that the students there were behind football and supportive of it," said John Volek, who coached the Hornets from 1995 to 2002 and whose son Billy is a longtime NFL backup quarterback. "That was a big reason why I went there to coach. The sky's the limit when you have a great alumni base and students who feel the need is there. And as long as there's that leadership on high from the administration, it can only keep growing."

The region around California's state capital loves its high school football. Some gridiron studs – Gerald Willhite, Tedy Bruschi, and Donte' Stallworth to name a few – from that system get famous, albeit once they leave for college elsewhere.

Sacramento State boasts first-rate criminal justice and communications programs. Hornet football, however, goes about things at a low-profile.

The most famous football player is a long-snapper, Lonie Paxton, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots. The most famous alum period once wore football uniform, but that came in the movies, in character. And Forrest Gump played for Alabama.

The constants through the years involve losing seasons, empty seats, labels as a commuter school, and shifts in conference affiliation. The Cardinal faces a program whose biggest postseason feat came not in a major bowl game but a tournament, the 1988 Division II bracket where the Hornets reached the semifinals.

But Sac State, which only opened in 1947, benefited from ambitious leadership at a most pivotal point. A lot of athletic programs nationwide hit a crossroads in 1991. As a recession loomed, the NCAA mandated that schools with Division I basketball programs could not shy away in Division II or III football. Santa Clara and UC Santa Barbara soon dropped the sport instead of beefing it up. Cal State Northridge and St. Mary's held out into the 2000's before dying out.

Those in charge at Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Pacific – struggling for years financially, each in danger of losing to Division II foes on a bad day – quickly decided football was no longer worth the trouble. Excuses ranged from Title IX compliance to the state's high real estate costs.

The little guys received a nudge toward competitive balance to go with the ultimatum.

The NCAA's directive also limited the number of football scholarships a Division I-A school could offer. The 85-scholarship rule spread talent across the landscape. The big schools could no longer stockpile talent. Thousands of more scholarships became available for formerly limited programs.

Sacramento State football embraced the chance, moving up to Division I-AA before landing in its current spot in the Big Sky by 1996. All its other varsity sports now compete in the WAC. Many of its former football foes weren't nearly as ambitious. Of the 13 opponents the Hornets faced between 1984 and 1985, eight no longer field a team.

"It's sad when you have 31 universities in the state of California eliminate football," Volek said matter-of-factly. "Do you want to make a commitment to your school? Football brings in those alumni, that attention, that corporate sponsorship. I think what Sac State has done is prove that football and Title IX in California can co-exist. They've proven you can't use [gender equity] as an excuse to not have football."

Blowout losses at Oregon State, Cal and Boise State haven't deterred a rise in the standings. Under Sperbeck, Sac State went from 3-9 in 2007 to 6-6 in 2008 and posted consecutive wins over archrival UC Davis.

Such a region, filled with Sac State alums who love football, also embraces its coaches. Bob Mattos led the program for 15 seasons until 1992, rescuing it from losing seasons and elimination threats. As he battled brain cancer last fall, the Hornets wore his name stitched on their jerseys in the win over Davis. Expect the inspiration to continue. Saturday's game marks Sac State's first game since Mattos' death in March.

The Hornets emerged in 1968, going 8-2 and nabbing a berth in the Pasadena Bowl against Grambling. Facing a powerhouse with the likes of James Harris and Charlie Joiner marked a huge step, if only it could live on inside ESPN's College Football Encyclopedia. The anthology notes the four other Pasadena Bowls in its defunct bowls chapter – but omits this game. Nobody said it was easy.

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