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San Jose State ascends MW mountaintop with win over Boise State

Updated December 21, 2020 - 10:27 am

Remember in high school when two bad football teams would schedule each other for homecoming because that was the only chance they had to win?

That was San Jose State for most of the past 20 years. In fact, that was San Jose State on Nov. 23, 2019, when it lost to UNLV in the first of the last games to be played at Sam Boyd Stadium — before the little stadium on the outskirts of Las Vegas became a sanctuary for San Jose State, New Mexico and the Mountain West championship game amid a deadly pandemic.

“Climb the mountain,” reiterated Spartans coach Brent Brennan of the expression that would become the team’s battle cry during the most challenging of seasons.

It is a season during which San Jose won each of the seven games it played by double digits, including Saturday’s 34-20 statement win over a Boise State team that has been the Mountain West’s most dominant for even longer than the Spartans have been downtrodden.

Climb the mountain? After losing to the Rebels last season and rebounding to win its first Mountain West title, it was as if San Jose State conquered Everest.

“Wow, what a night for San Jose State University, what a night for our players and fans,” said Brennan, the youthful-looking and talking 47-year-old coach who could pass for a Silicon Valley executive if he swapped his hoodie for a flannel shirt and horn-rimmed glasses.

“It’s just been a beautiful journey, it’s been magical, it’s been incredibly challenging. People finding ways to give us a chance to keep playing, to keep practicing, is what gave us a chance to do something very special.”

Still unbeaten

San Jose State began Saturday as the only undefeated major college football team west of the Mississippi. How’s that for social distance? Heading into Championship Saturday, the Spartans were one of six unbeaten teams still putting on shoulder pads.

Repeat: This is a team that lost to UNLV in 2019.

Perhaps playing in an NFL stadium and lifting weights in a football complex that cost $34 million and contains a barber shop is more overrated than Johnny Manziel.

San Jose plays its games (at least when Gov. Gavin Newsom says it is OK) at CEFCU Stadium. It was known as Spartan Stadium when it opened it 1933. After multiple face-lifts, it now accommodates 30,456 spectators. If 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium is the Taj Mahal of football stadiums, then 87-year-old CEFCU Stadium is the Texaco station on the interstate.

As for a football complex with a barber shop, San Jose State does not have one of those. It only has an artist’s rendering of one.

If it gets built — ground only has been leveled, not broken, said Lawrence Fan, the school’s longtime sports information director — it will not have a barbershop. And the football team will have to share the building with men’s and women’s soccer.

Until then, the football team will continue sneaking in reps when the softball team hasn’t called dibs on the bench press.

Worst to first

San Jose State sent almost 50 players to the NFL during its halcyon days beginning in the 1970s, but more recently has become a place where head coaches are transformed into Power Five assistants. Usually after being fired.

The last Spartans coach who compiled a winning record over more than two seasons was Claude Gilbert more than 30 years ago. After his final two teams went 10-13, Don Coryell’s former right-hand man at San Diego State bailed to become defensive coordinator of the NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy.

There are lateral moves, and then there are distant ones.

Enter Brennan, who this year guided San Jose to its second winning season in 14 and first victory over Boise State in 15 all-time tries. The growing pains were considerable. He went 2-11 in 2017, 1-11 in 2018 and 5-7 in 2019, when progress finally was made.

Despite losing to UNLV.

“These players that have been with us the last two, three, four years have been through this really incredible ride,” Brennan said during his postgame Zoom conference. “I think it’s an awesome lesson that if you can just work hard and stick together, incredible things can happen.”

Already being mentioned in conjunction with the head coaching vacancy at Arizona of the Pac-12, Brennan is sure to become an even hotter commodity after playing Mid-American Conference champion Ball State in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson. But it might be difficult to reach him to discuss moving up the college football coaching ladder.

I’m told cellphone reception on top of Mount Everest can be a little dicey.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.