The meek have risen

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As the 2020 college football season limps to the finish line, a few heartwarming stories have emerged.

There’s Indiana, which has staged a renaissance year in the Big Ten. There’s Coastal Carolina, which only started playing a FBS schedule four years ago and has dominated the Sun Belt Conference at 11-0.

Then there’s San Jose State.

The Spartans have been one of the more ignominious programs for the last 40 years, usually buried at the bottom of the standings and plagued with apathy, both on campus and in their own community. After all, they are competing with Stanford and Cal, not to mention the 49ers and, prior to their relocating to Las Vegas, the Raiders, along with the Bay Area’s other pro sports teams.

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But people are taking notice. The students and alumni are excited. Corporate sponsors, which wouldn’t give the school the time of day, are suddenly opening up their checkbooks.

That’s what winning does. And not just winning. But going undefeated and doing it during a pandemic fraught with uncertainties on a daily basis.

The Spartans are 6-0, one of just seven teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision who are still undefeated. No matter what happens this week when San Jose State plays Boise State in Las Vegas for the Mountain West championship, this has been a season to remember. Especially when you consider it was looking like there wasn’t going to be a season back in September.

“It’s been incredible,” said Marie Tuite, the school’s athletic director. “We’ve had so much exposure in the Bay Area. I know a lot of people are cheering for us.”

The Spartans’ journey has been unique. Once they knew they would have a football season, the team relocated five hours to the north at Humboldt State and prepared there because Santa Clara County, where San Jose State is located, forbade the team from gathering and practicing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ve had two of their eight games canceled, one when they were already in Boise. They had to play at Hawaii instead of at home, then flew to Las Vegas and set up camp in Henderson at Lake Las Vegas to play Nevada, which was also originally scheduled for home.

Instead of complaining, the team embraced the hand they were dealt. Head coach Brent Brennan made sure they blocked out the negativity, reinforced the positivity and never looked beyond the next play.

It’s what allowed them to rally from a 20-7 halftime deficit last Saturday to defeat the Wolf Pack, 30-20, at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium and earn their spot in the Mountain West title game. where they are 6.5-point underdogs to Boise. They adjusted, got a couple of breaks, made some big plays and shut Nevada down in the final 30 minutes.

It’s one of the best feel-good stories this year, one that is just starting to find its way into the public’s consciousness.

“This team is amazing,” Brennan said. “The way they fight and overcome everything thrown at them. They just keep showing up.

“We’ve told them to worry about what they can control. It was just so much — COVID. Classes. The travel. The changes. But to keep moving forward and be on this journey together, it’s incredible.”

The Spartans appear to genuinely enjoy being together and playing football. Brennan’s energy is infectious. They believe in each other and no obstacle has been too large to overcome.

San Jose State has had success on the gridiron the past. The school has won bowl games and sent its share of players to the NFL. Its problem is sustaining that success. A coach wins, he leaves for greener pastures. Then you’re rebuilding, not reloading.

But it looks like there’s stability at Washington Square. Mary Papizan has been president since 2016. Tuite has been AD since 2017 and has been with the school since 2010. Brennan signed a five-year extension last year and has indicated he has no intention of leaving.

The school is successfully raising money to upgrade its athletic facilities, including CEFCU Stadium, better known to us old-time alumni as Spartan Stadium. That’s impressive, especially during a pandemic when businesses are hurting.

And while it has been tough to be away from campus, from family and friends, Brennan and his Spartans have grown closer from the experience. And no matter what happens Saturday against Boise State at Sam Boyd Stadium, there’s reason to believe San Jose State may finally have found its footing when it comes to football.

You started seeing signs of it last year when San Jose State went on the road and won at Arkansas and at Army. They won five games overall and were competitive in conference play, losing three games by a combined total of eight points.

Now, it appears the Spartans have turned the corner with Brennan. This is their first winning season since 2012 when they went 11-2, were ranked in the top-25 by the Associated Press and won the Military Bowl in Washington D.C. They are hoping to be competing New Year’s Eve in the Arizona Bowl at Tucson, assuming the bowl decides to play. At least 10 bowl games have already opted out due to the pandemic. But the Spartans will be playing somewhere beyond Saturday. Any bowl that gets them will have a great story on their hands.

When asked what the success of 2020 means for the university and its football program, Tuite paused, then said: “It would mean that for so many years, people didn’t believe in us. It would prove that it can work here.”

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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