It took more than a little digging to come up with the full history of San Diego State football. Fortunately, the Aztecs found the perfect man for the job.
Seth Mallios is a professor of anthropology at SDSU who cut his teeth three decades ago in Jamestown, Virginia, where he oversaw the 1607 James Fort archaeological site, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
Malios is the author of “100 Seasons of Aztec Football,” a 490-page book documenting the history of the program. The book will be discussed during the signing on Tuesdays at 7:30pm at Warwick’s in La Jolla.
“I am an archaeologist by training,” said Mallios, who came to SDSU in 2000 and became the university’s curator of history shortly thereafter. “I met the president (who was) Steven Weber at the time, and he said, ‘This place has no stories and no traditions, but I know it does have a history. ‘ … He assigned me to help him find the history.”
“That’s what was so interesting to me. It started (by) looking for artifacts, but then turned me into live, folk music.”
What he discovered about the local music scene in the school’s various on-campus venues could fill five volumes. And in fact, I did.
“Then I was drawn to the world of athletics,” Mallius said.
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Author Seth Mallios has a book signing on Tuesdays at 7:30pm at Warwick’s in La Jolla. He will be joined at the event by SDSU Director of Athletics John David Wicker.
Seating is limited at Warwick Restaurant on a first-come, first-served basis. Those planning to attend are advised to pre-order a copy of the book, which will guarantee a reserved seat at the event. Reservations can be made online at warwicks.com or by calling (858) 454-0347.
The book cost $129, plus tax.
It is available for purchase at Warwick’s as well as the SDSU Bookstore and Team Store at Snapdragon Stadium, or online at shopaztecs.com.
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A football fan, Mallios is a regular at matches for the Aztecs. He knew some of the history of the program and the history of legendary football coach Don Coryell.
“But not the depths,” Mallius said during an interview this week in his basement office in Hardy Tower. “I didn’t know that in 1960 the homecoming team lost 60-0 to Fresno State here.
“And then they took a chance on a new 37-year-old coach. You can see how Don Coryell manages it.”
Have you ever.
Inheriting a team that went 1-6-1 in 1960, Coryell went 104-19-2 over the next 12 seasons. He was an offensive innovator who put SDSU on the map before leaving for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
Coeyell’s return in 1978 as head coach of the Chargers—running the “Air Coryell” offense— cemented his legend in these parts.
Mallios has been a recent witness to what Corel still means to the Aztec players.
“This year we had dinners with football alumni from every decade before home games,” Mallius said. “He was great. Since the ’50s, there’s only been two guys, the ’90s, who were so cool. Sharp as a nail.”
“But the guys from the ’60s, to see all these grown-up guys in tears talking about how much Coryell means to them as a mentor, as a father figure. It was even more special because Don’s daughter Mindy was there. She was just a little girl, and to hear her stories.”
Mindy told a story about wide receiver Tim Delaney, whose defining moment came in a 1969 game against New Mexico State. He finished the game with 16 receptions for 275 yards and an NCAA record six touchdowns.
“She said she named her guinea pig Timmy Delaney because she had such a big crush on Tim,” Mallius said. “To talk to Tim about it, he didn’t know anything about a guinea pig. Those kinds of stories are just precious.”
Mallios’ book is full of stories behind the wins and losses.
He trawled through hundreds of newspaper stories as well as yearbooks and university archives to gather historical information and photos. It also weaves in the stories shared in interviews with dozens of longtime players, coaches, and fans.
What makes the book stand out is the library of photos from the estate of SDSU sports photographer Ernie Anderson, who captured images of the Aztecs over a period of more than half a century until his death in 2020.
“Anderson always wanted the players to have the pictures, and if they called him, he would provide them,” Mallius said.
Likewise, Anderson’s wife Cathy wanted them both involved in this project. Malios were equipped with thumb drives that contained over 75,000 images.
“The players felt he had a sixth sense, that he would know the plays in advance, because he would slide on the sideline into the corner of the end zone just when they were going to punt there,” Mallius said.
“The players knew about Ernie. He was so generous to them, and they also knew how important it was for him to be able to capture that moment.”
SDSU’s first varsity season has been identified as 1921—starting with a 6-0 win over the Army-Navy Academy on October 1 of that year—although Mallius touches on the game’s loose origins on campus that trace back to the San Diego Union story from December 17, 1899.
And like that first team of the Aztecs—the team was originally called the Masters or Wampus Cats—the Malios were in action.
“Every decade you see a different feel,” Mallius said. “You need to know the ups and downs, how great we were in the 20s and then there was another downturn.
“Then the Aztec Bowl opened (in 1936) and all of a sudden we haven’t lost a game. But then there’s nothing in the ’40s because the university is committed to World War II (SDSU didn’t field teams in 1944-1945). This is a military town and it was a military university.”
The book notes that the enrollment decreased from 2,077 to 860 from 1941 to 1943.
More than 3,500 students, faculty, and staff served in the war; 135 died.
According to the book, “The school’s casualty rate was much higher than the national average because many of its soldiers were airmen.”
The headline in The Aztec on December 16, 1941 read, “War Cancels Sport.”
Somehow, the Aztecs got a team together in 1942. And they went 0-6-1. The 1943 and 1944 seasons were canceled due to the war.
One of Mallios’ favorite stories is that of Leo Calland, who coached the Aztecs from 1935 to 1941.
“He won two conference titles, in 1936 and 1937,” Mallius said, “and there’s a picture of him where he’s got a great look on his face after winning his second title.
“So Leo Calland, he’s the best at his game, winning championships, the season is over in ’41, Pearl Harbor is being bombed, and at 40 he quits as coach, joins the Navy and continues distinguished service.”
“Obviously the book is about football, but if you include the headlines you can see what’s going on in the rest of the world.
For example, the 1936 edition of the San Diego Union has a headline at the top of the front page that reads: “San Diego State Wins Net Championship” after the Aztecs beat the Whittier Poets for the title.
Below the headline is another headline that reads, “Russia Unveils Massive Submarine, Naval Air Force” as well as one that says, “Nazi-Japanese Pact Was War Move”.
As the 1950s come around, Mallius said, “You see the program grow again. You see that ebb and flow and then you realize the importance of Coryell not just as a leader but as an innovator and as a recruiter. All of those things he did differently.”
Claude Gilbert continued Coryell’s success—highlighted by a 41-16 win over Florida State in 1977 during a 10-1 season in which the Aztecs finished 16th in the country.
There have been more downs than ups over the three decades since Gilbert’s 1980 firing, though the Holiday Bowl berth under Denny Stolz in 1986 and the Marshall Faulk era from 1991-1993 certainly stand out.
Like Faulk, linebackers DJ Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny have delivered the most memorable moments in a decade-plus recent success that has included appearances for the Platters in each of the past 12 full seasons.
While the exploits of those who throw, catch, run with it – or tackle it – grab most of the headlines, Mallios is able to dig deeper for gold nuggets big and small.
• Team photos from the early 20th century where, if you look closely, you’ll notice that many of the players are holding their sports trophies. One can only imagine the Headmaster exclaiming afterwards: “Oh, horses’ feathers.”
• A pair of photos from the 1968 season, one of SDSU’s defense going after San Jose State that’s even more notable now that it featured Aztec defensemen—Carl Weathers and Fred Dreyer—who would make names for themselves in Hollywood.
• An impressive shot by midfielders Brian Seppi, Dennis Shaw and Tom Williams, all with their hands down to reach the ball from center Bill Bersin.
Speaking to Seb, Mallius said, “I asked him if he remembered it, and he said ‘Sure, I do.'” This was before the Aztec Bowl spring game and we were taking these great pictures. “
• A prized possession of former offensive lineman Reggie Blaylock is the coin used in the opening draw in SDSU’s 10-3 win over BYU in 1986 to clinch the Aztecs’ Holiday Bowl berth.
The “head” of the coin depicts the helmet and emblem of the Western Athletic Conference. The “tail” features the back end of the quarterback catching the football.
Prior to the BYU game, SDSU coach Denny Stolz told Blaylock, “We’ve done a thorough analysis of the upcoming game, and it’s all up to you. If I win a game for you, we win the game…and the title.”
Blaylock later discovered that Stolz had said the same thing to every other player on the team.
• The games against the University of the Pacific are known for capping the legendary coaching career of Amos Alonzo Slagg, whose last game was a 19-13 UOP victory over the Aztecs in 1946, and the start of his Hall of Fame career with Marshall Faulk, who rushed for a record 386 yards and seven touchdown in a 55-34 win in 1991.
• AT THE 2016 LAS VEGAS BOWL As Pumphrey became the NCAA career rushing leader in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl when SDSU rebounded to win 34-10 over Houston after being dominated in the first quarter to fall behind 10-0.
Longtime broadcaster Ted Leitner said he spoke with SDSU coach Rocky well before the game. SDSU would have a problem with the Houston team’s pacing, Long told him, “but we’re going to make amends by halftime and kick ’em ass.”
And on and on…
“I thought it was going to be a resource, a kind of calendar,” Mallius said of the comprehensive work. “I didn’t know it was going to be a book that you could open to any page and something would jump out at you.”