Before all of this recruiting news, you may remember an article from SBNation discussing teams that should no longer be in the FBS. One of them was in the Mountain West Conference, San Jose State. We tasked our SJSU friend and part-time contributor Vic (who covers the football team for the San Jose Mercury).
Journalistically, the easiest thing to do is rip an obvious downtrodden football and basketball program that’s not making the Mountain West look good and not meeting whatever NCAA technicalities to remain in the conference and say, “Let’s banish them!”. And while you’re at it, make it the entire Spartan athletic program.
A quick SJSU primer
Of course, the numbers and optics generally haven’t looked good for a long, long time for Spartan athletics, whether you’re looking at wins, statistics, attendance, revenue, facilities and recruiting as a whole.
The last SJSU football conference championship was in 1991 and their last P5 football win was in 2006 against rival Stanford and 2012 was an anomalous football year when the program had an 11-2 record. For basketball, its last conference championship was in 1996, when they also made the NCAA tourney and that’s about it.
The challenges San Jose State athletics faces are great, but again, it’s much easier to write and comment about the edges of human nature between the winners and losers. So on cue, my editor Mike Wittman felt we should counter SB Nation’s Matt Brown’s recent article given my experiences with SJSU.
If you dig a little bit more and go a little wider, you’ll see other dynamics to consider.
Can you really decouple the major sports?
For simplicity’s sake, let’s continue to keep things at football and basketball, because, as marquee sports, they are the only possible savior; that is, if the entirety of Spartan athletics really needs saving. And, if any winning potential is reached in these major sports, gold rolls downhill to other programs, regardless how well or not the other sports are doing.
In defense of the “smaller sports” and really, collegiate sports altogether, it’s about offering opportunity and experiences to all and all that is the spirit of Title IX; inferring that if SJSU considered the FCS, we’re also getting into a more complex argument of potentially dropping some sports and scholarships. It’s also not all about revenues when this dimension is added. Historically, the other sports aren’t significant revenue generators anyways. Football is obviously and most always number one in terms of revenue and attention.
There can be a long-term play to consider the FCS, rebuild the Spartan sports reputation and brand and some years later, find a way back to the FBS ranks. It’s a huge move and would take an immense amount of foresight to regroup and play this type of long game.
But for the foreseeable future, that’s not going to happen, so SJSU is staying put (though I’ve eaten crow before).
If it’s only about revenues...
Then, yes. If we’re looking at things in a complete vacuum, the pure numbers don’t make sense for SJSU in the Mountain West for the amount of effort and expense when, for example, total sport ticket sales were only 3% of SJSU’s $30M+ in revenues for fiscal year 2017.
If you were an entrepreneur, fantasy team owner or alpha-male running things, then you don’t need to guess that something would change very quickly.
The real question is how much longer can this be sustained before more change needs to happen and that’s a fair question. In short, the timing might hinge on head football coach Brent Brennan’s tenure, which has three years remaining on his contract.
At least until then, nothing drastic should be happening.
Challenges and Solutions
Let’s pretend we’re positive, constructive human beings and offer ideas, solutions and support.
Besides the obvious, the challenges to revitalize the football and basketball programs are cultural and demographically based. When San Jose State football was in its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, the area was vastly different. A once more blue-collar population from those times could relate to the university and vice versa. There was newspaper and TV coverage and a grittier sports style and attitude. It was easier to focus on any particular local team in an era where we weren’t inundated with so many entertainment options, championship sports teams and the internet and social media.
Today, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a double edged sword for the Spartans. What can sometimes work to attract savvy professional athletes and recruits is the entrepreneurial space, money and cutting-edge companies that Silicon Valley is known for, but what it means for SJSU is a market and audience that’s far more sophisticated and completely spoiled to be swayed by an empty Spartan brand until they start winning or by chance, some generational or transcendent talent finds their way to Sparta. If so, that’s just a start. The Spartan administration, recruiting, marketing, alumni and constituents will need to be in lock-step to fully leverage the opportunity when it arises, so it can sustain “it”. But, this is getting way ahead on things...
Ultimately, the real pressure to produce is in the hands of head football coach Brent Brennan, who’s heading into a pivotal third year of his five year tenure. All Spartan eyes are on him, because football success is the only thing that can steer the ship. It’s enough of a challenge on the field, but Brennan’s job, along with AD Marie Tuite, are intertwined to create sustained success and yes, revenue. The pressure must be great, as it’s an alway-on job from interacting with players, students and parents to administration, alumni and power brokers.
If you were to pinpoint success factors, it starts in descending order from the money people, the administration and the coaches and recruiting and lastly, the players. There’s an order to sustained success and there are no real shortcuts.
- Does the administration have the chutzpah to find more formidable donors and partners, whether they’re Spartan alumni and or one of the six dozen billionaires in the Bay Area? It really all starts here to continue trying to build more top-class facilities, unique environments and experiences that can affect everyone in the area. It’s the most tangible, foundational must.
- Can the program find, recognize and recruit more hidden, under-the-radar gems? It’s a given SJS will always be looking at two or three star recruits, but can the program also really develop players, so they get that reputation of adding value? And, of course, can the coaches coach, anticipate and adjust to the cyclic player turnover? This huge intangible is about “science and art” of assessment and development.
- Can the brand marketing machine work to convince their own student body not to favor Cal and Stanford sports teams and at least have pride for their own? It’s always been a big chore to create a normal culture for more students to want to attend games. When the team is winning year in, year out; then we can talk about garnering more of the Bay Area market. It’s a whole lot easier, when the big tangible and intangible cogs are in sync.
- Can the program leverage some notable alumni on the coaching staff? There’s a number of notable ones. Perhaps it’s a marketing ploy or experiment for some attention, but better yet, it’s real attention when that alumni coach is truly interested and passionate. This may be a bit of a reach, but any decent, realistic idea should be considered.
Overall, it’s going to take creative thinking, planning and execution on all fronts.
What’s the real story?
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Brennan and Tuite and they are certainly genuine, energetic and very approachable. At the same time, they’re also equally competitive and they’re also natural people-persons, and educators. So, it should be safe to say they have good connections and relationships with the MWC, including commissioner Thompson down to each universities’ administrations and even other MWC coaches. At most, the conference could maybe persuade SJS to depart the conference vs. any majority vote to be ousted.
In the end, it’s not going to be what the MWC wants. It’s always going to be about what San Jose State needs. And for now, Brennan’s program has to at least manage a par season in 2019 and then, depending how that goes, we can circle back and speculate where and how to go from there.