USD: University of Sleepy Dominance
NOAH HILTON | 10CONTRIBUTOR
This is the name collectively given to the student section that attends athletic events at San Diego State University.
Known for their relentless rowdiness at games, The Show has earned a reputation as one of the preeminent student sections on the West Coast. They’re loud. They’re frenzied. By every definition of the word, they are it.
Now, think about the experience of a University of San Diego game, and the mental imagery returns a far different picture. Half-empty stands, lackluster crowds, and a general disinterest in the final score are suffocatingly obvious.
While the Bull Pit has recently taken steps to revive students’ interest in the Toreros, an atmosphere of overwhelming boredom continues to be the norm.
Why is this the case? Why is it that, in spite of the tight-knit community and Division I athletics here at Alcalá Park, school spirit remains less than subpar?
It begins with the sports that are most prominent among casual sports fans: football and men’s basketball.
In the world of college sports, football reigns supreme. Compared to the Alabamas and Notre Dames of the nation, USD’s own pigskin program doesn’t appear to stack up. In a sense, that’s correct: a hypothetical Catholic rivalry between Notre Dame and USD likely wouldn’t go well for the Toreros.
But this does not at all mean that head coach Dale Lindsey’s program is mediocre. Considering the fact that USD plays in the lower rung of Division I football, direct comparisons with the top programs in the country are unfair at best.
Within their conference, the Pioneer Football League, however, the Toreros have won a share of each of the last five conference championships. Since the turn of the century, that streak of conference titles has only been matched by perennial powerhouses USC and Ohio State.
Relative to the competition they face, the success the USD football program has experienced is nearly unprecedented.
For now, due to small crowds, a lack of scholarships, and the logistically difficult Title XI implications of adding said scholarships, Torero football appears likely to remain in the PFL for the foreseeable future.
This means a dominant run that’s been building since the Jim Harbaugh days (yes, that Jim Harbaugh) should continue for years to come.
On the hardcourt, unfortunately, the Toreros’ men’s basketball program has not been quite as successful. Since 2000, the program has had just one 20-win season in 2007-08, a run of less-than-spectacular play that ultimately led to the hiring of new head coach Lamont Smith.
Again, while the successes are less obvious, they are without a doubt still present.
Between this year and last year, Jenny Craig Pavilion has played host to the program’s all-time leaders in points (Johnny Dee, ’14), assists (Chris Anderson, ’14), steals (Anderson), and blocks (current center Jito Kok). Additionally, Coach Smith has garnered recognition for his ability to build championship contenders from scratch after helping turn West Coast Conference rival St. Mary’s into a tournament threat.
Given the Toreros’ young roster entering this year, a roster which showcased its potential in an upset win over the Aztecs last Sunday, there could be something in the works here that students won’t want to miss.
However, the unfortunate consequence of playing in the PFL and WCC is that even the success of mainstream Torero athletics often flies under the radar from a media standpoint. Students should be wary of confusing this invisibility with irrelevance. The department’s vision statement, “Win conference championships while developing exceptional USD graduates,” has been carried out admirably by the school’s athletic director, Ky Snyder, and his staff.
Football coach Dale Lindsey speaks very highly of the leadership at the top of USD’s athletic department.
“Ky is a tremendous A.D.,” Lindsey said. “I’m personally shocked that another school hasn’t come along and snatched him up.”
This success is especially evident relative to the rest of the West Coast Conference. Just last year, the Toreros won WCC titles in men’s tennis, men’s soccer, and baseball. These performances ultimately left the Toreros in second place for the WCC’s Commissioner’s Cup, awarded annually to the conference’s top overall athletic program.
Having won the trophy five times in the last eight years, USD missed out on a sixth victory only after being narrowly edged by BYU, a program which receives a significant financial boost from their top-25 football team.
Men’s soccer made a trip to the NCAA playoffs last year, led by WCC Player of the Year Connor Brandt and head coach Seamus McFadden, who ranks 8th all-time in wins among active coaches.
As recently as 2013, the women’s volleyball team reached the second overall spot in national rankings.
The baseball team often advances to regionals while graduating MLB stars such as Chicago Cubs savior Kris Bryant and Baltimore Orioles reliever Brian Matusz.
Additionally, the women’s basketball team has won 20-plus games in four straight years and looks well on their way to adding to that streak this season. There are tremendously successful programs building their legacies in every corner of Alcalá Park.
Unfortunately, this winning tradition has not translated into much recognition from either students or local media.
The lack of significant media coverage is easy to explain as a consequence of the market the Toreros play in. Lindsey is cognizant of the fact that his team is not on the radar of most San Diegans. When asked about the place of Torero athletics in the world of San Diego sports, Lindsey was brutally honest.
“List five teams, and we’re probably fifth,” Lindsey said.
When it comes to college sports in America’s Finest City, the Aztecs are the media darlings. SDSU football and men’s basketball have both managed to rise to national prominence, and the school itself has an unrivaled alumni base locally.
To put it in perspective, USD has approximately 40,000 alumni living in San Diego County. San Diego State can almost match that number with their current enrollment alone.
Whether it’s the Union-Tribune or local sports radio, the media is going to cater to bigger markets, meaning more attention for SDSU and less for the exploits of the Toreros.
The reaction from USD students, however, is a little more troubling. When asked about the issue of getting students to games, Ky Snyder admits that the school experiences difficulties.
“It’s definitely been a challenge for us,” Snyder said. “A lot depends on the opponent and relevance of the game.”
Former hardwood hero Johnny Dee agrees, noting the contrast between crowds depending on the opponent.
“I think there was a noticeable difference between a Gonzaga crowd and a Portland crowd,” Dee said. “I also think that we would’ve won a lot more of those Portland-type games if there’s a Gonzaga-sized crowd behind us.”
Advances in the availability of game broadcasts, as well as the potential for following games via social media, have made things especially difficult at a school as academically focused as USD. Snyder and his staff are working tirelessly to figure out ways to get students in the seats.
“It’s something that schools across the country are struggling with: how do we get kids away from textbooks or parties for a couple of hours to fill the stands at games?” Snyder said.
“We’re trying different things, whether it’s in-game promotions, crowd themes, whatever we think might draw more kids into the stands. Chargers and Padres games have already proven that selling sports in San Diego is a tough thing to do, just because of the variety of other activities that are available for fans, but it’s definitely something the marketing team here has been focused on.”
This is not to say that the sports here at USD comprise an ideal athletic program. There are obvious shortcomings in performance, especially against big-time West Coast programs such as USC and UCLA, that continue to hold the Toreros back as a whole.
Similarly small-market hoops teams at Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have managed to reach far greater heights than USD squads of years past.
Questions have even been raised about the viability of the football program. Despite its recent stretch of titles, some wonder whether the money the team absorbs traveling to conference games in Indiana, Ohio, and Florida every year would be better suited being used to improve more visible sports on campus.
Provided the unprecedented ability of athletics to market an entire university to the masses and the already-limited budget the department operates under, one could see the argument for efficiency that this suggested strategy of redistribution through elimination is built around. However, that is a debate better left for another day.
What is indisputable is the fact that, for how accomplished Torero teams tend to be, they are criminally underrated around campus. As demonstrated by The Show at SDSU, the effect a rambunctious student section can have on games is unparalleled.
That environment should be brought to the JCP, Fowler Park, and Torero Stadium. Dozens of victories should be backed by a sea of blue and white. As Ky Snyder notes, this will be a process that needs trusting.
“Success is not a point in time,” Snyder said. “But an arc of a journey.” Luckily for Torero fans, it would appear the journey to the top is only just beginning.