Anthropology professor unearths untold stories, priceless photos in a new book about SDSU football program

It took more than a little digging to come up with the complete 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, Va., where he supervised the 1607 James Fort archaeological site, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

Mallios is the author of “100 Seasons of Aztec Football,” a 490-page book documenting the program’s history. He’ll discuss the book during a signing Tuesday at 7:30 pm at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

“I’m an archaeologist by training,” said Mallios, who came to SDSU in 2000 and became the university’s history curator soon thereafter. “I met with the president, (who was) Stephen Weber at the time, and he said, ‘This place has no stories, no traditions, but I know it has history.’ … He charged me with helping him find the history.

That’s what was so fun for me. I started (by) looking for artifacts, but then it turned me onto live, popular music.”

What he discovered about the local music scene at the school’s various on-campus venues could fill five volumes. And, in fact, it did.

“Then I got pulled into the world of athletics,” said Mallios.

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Author Seth Mallios has a book signing Tuesday at 7:30 pm at Warwick’s in La Jolla. He will be joined at the event by John David Wicker, SDSU’s director of athletics.

Seating is limited at Warwick’s on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who plan on attending are advised to pre-order a copy of the book, which ensures a reserved seat at the event. Reservations can be made online at warwicks.com or by calling (858) 454-0347.

Cost of the book is $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 Aztecs games. He knew some about the program’s history and that of legendary SDSU football coach Don Coryell.

“But not the depths,” Mallios said during an interview this week in his basement office at Hardy Tower. “I didn’t know that in 1960 the team lost homecoming 60-0 to Fresno State here.

And so then they took a chance on a brand new 37-year-old coach. You get to see how Don Coryell turns it around.”

Did he ever.

Steve Duich (76) and his Aztecs teammates carry coach Don Coryell off the field after capping an 11-0 season in 1966.

(Courtesy San Diego State University)

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. Louis Cardinals.

Coeyell’s return in 1978 as head coach of the Chargers — where he famously ran the “Air Coryell” offense — cemented his legend in these parts.

Mallios was witness recently to what Coryell still means to his Aztecs players.

“This year we did dinners with football alumni from each decade before home games,” Mallios said. “It was great. From the 1950s, there were only two guys there, in their 90s, and they were absolutely fantastic. Sharp as a tag.

But the guys from the 1960s, to see all of these grown men in tears talking about how much Coryell meant 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 kid, and to hear her stories.”

Mindy told a story about wide receiver Tim Delaney, whose signature moment came in a 1969 game against New Mexico State. He finished the game with 16 receptions for 275 yards and a then-NCAA record six touchdowns.

“She said she named her guinea pig Timmy Delaney because she had a big crush on Tim,” Mallios said. “To talk to Tim about that, he didn’t know about the guinea pig. Those sorts of stories are just precious.”

Mallios’ book is full of stories that go behind the wins and losses.

He pored through hundreds of newspaper stories as well as yearbook and university archives to gather information and historical photos. He also weaves in stories shared in interviews with dozens of former players, coaches and longtime fans.

What sets the book apart is the photo library from the estate of SDSU sports photographer Ernie Anderson, who took Aztecs photos over more than half a century until his death in 2020.

Anderson “always wanted the players to have the photos, and if they contacted him, he would provide them,” Mallios said.

Similarly, Anderson’s wife Cathy wanted them shared for this project. Mallios was provided with thumb drives that included more than 75,000 photos.

“Players felt he had a sixth sense,” Mallios said, “that he would know the plays in advance, because he would slide down the sidelines to the corner of the end zone right when they were going to be throwing there.

Players were aware of Ernie. He was so gracious to them, and they also knew how important it was that he could capture that moment.”

In 2017, Rashaad Penny finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

In 2017, Rashaad Penny finished fifth in the Heisman voting, was a consensus First-Team All-American, the MWC Offensive Player of the Year, the MWC Special Teams Player of the Year, and the team MVP; he also led the nation in all-purpose yards.

(ERNIE ANDERSON)

SDSU’s first varsity season is recognized as 1921 — beginning with a 6-0 win over Army-Navy Academy on Oct. 1 that year — though Mallios touches on the loose origins of the game on campus that date back to a San Diego Union story from Dec. 17, 1899.

And like that first Aztecs team — the team was originally called both the Professors or Wampus Cats — Mallios was off and running.

“Each decade you see a different feel,” Mallios said. “You need to know the ups and downs, how great we were in the 20s, and then there was another dip.

And then the Aztec Bowl opens (in 1936) and suddenly we don’t lose any games. But then there’s nothing in the 40s because the university is committed to World War II (SDSU didn’t field teams in 1944-45). This is a military town and this was a military university.”

The book notes that enrollment dropped from 2,077 to 860 from 1941 to 1943.

More than 3,500 students, faculty and staff members served in the war; 135 died.

According to the book, the school’s “casualty rate was far higher than the national average because so many of its soldiers were pilots.”

The headline in The Aztec on Dec. 16, 1941, “War Cancels Sports.”

Somehow, the Aztecs cobbled together a team in 1942. They went 0-6-1. The 1943 and 1944 seasons were canceled because of the war.

One of Mallios’ favorite stories is of Leo Calland, who coached the Aztecs from 1935-41.

“He won a couple of conference titles, in 1936 and 1937,” Mallios said, “and there’s this photo of him where he’s got a great look of satisfaction on his face right after winning his second crown.

“So Leo Calland, he’s top of his game, winning championships, the season wraps up in ’41, Pearl Harbor gets bombed, and at 40 years old he resigns as coach, enlists in the Navy and goes on to distinguished service.”

Obviously, the book is about football, but if you include the headlines, you can get what’s going on in the rest of the world.

For instance, a 1936 edition of the San Diego Union features a headline across the top of the front page that reads: “San Diego State Wins Grid Championship” after the Aztecs beat the Whittier Poets for the title.

Just below the headline is another that reads, “Russia Reveals Huge Submarine, Naval Air Force” as well as one that says, “Nazi-Japan Pact Hit as War Move.”

As the 1950s arrive, Mallios said, “You see the program grow again. You see that ebb and flow and then you recognize the significance of Coryell not only as a leader but as an innovator, as a recruiter. All those things that he did differently.”

SDSU coach Claude Gilbert meets Florida State's Bobby Bowden (lower center) following their 1977 game.

SDSU coach Claude Gilbert meets Florida State’s Bobby Bowden (lower center) and his Florida State Trooper bodyguard (far left) at midfield after the Aztecs beat the Seminoles in 1977.

(Courtesy Ernie Anderson)

Claude Gilbert carried on Coryell’s success — highlighted with a 41-16 win over Florida State in 1977 during a 10-1 season in which the Aztecs finished No. 16 in the country.

There were more downs than ups over the three decades that followed Gilbert’s 1980 firing, though a Holiday Bowl berth under Denny Stolz in 1986 and the Marshall Faulk era from 1991-93 certainly stand out.

Like Faulk, running backs DJ Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny provided the most memorable moments during a decade-plus of recent success that includes bowl appearances in each of the past 12 full seasons.

Marshall Faulk danced his way back into the Heisman discussion in 1993.

“Marshall Faulk danced his way back into the Heisman discussion with a dominating show against Hawaii in 1993.”

(Courtesy Ernie Anderson)

While the exploits of those throwing, catching or running with the football — or tackling them — grab most of the headlines, Mallios is able to dig deeper for nuggets large and small.

Like:

• Team photos from the early 1900s where, if you look closely, you notice that several players are holding their athletic cups. One can only imagine a school administrator exclaiming afterwards: “Oh, horsefeathers.”

• A pair of photos from the 1968 season, one of the SDSU defense getting after San Jose State that is more notable now because it includes two Aztecs defenders — Carl Weathers and Fred Dryer — who would make names for themselves in Hollywood.

• A staged shot of quarterbacks Brian Sipe, Dennis Shaw and Thom Williams, all with their hands down reach for the snap from center Bill Piersen.

Speaking to Sipe, Mallios said, “I asked him if he remembered it, and he said ‘Absolutely, I remember it. This was before the spring game at the Aztec Bowl and we’d do these hockey photos.’ ”

• A prized possession of former offensive lineman Reggie Blaylock is the coin used for the opening toss in SDSU’s 10-3 win over BYU in 1986 to clinch the Aztecs’ Holiday Bowl Berth.

The “head” of the coin depicts a helmet and Western Athletic Conference logo. The “tail” features the rear end of the center as it snaps the football.

Before the BYU game, SDSU coach Denny Stolz told Blaylock, “We did a thorough analysis of the upcoming game, and it all comes down to you. If you win your matchup, we win the game… and the title.”

Blaylock later found out that Stolz said the same thing to every other starter on the team.

• Games against University of the Pacific are notable 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 beginning a Hall of Fame playing career for Marshall Faulk, who rushed for a record 386 yards and seven touchdowns in a 55-34 win in 1991.

• In the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl, when Pumphrey became the NCAA’s career rushing leader in a 2016 Las Vegas Bowl when SDSU rallied for a 34-10 win over Houston after getting dominant in the first quarter to fall behind 10-0.

Longtime broadcaster Ted Leitner said he spoke with SDSU coach Rocky Long before the game. Long told him that SDSU would have a problem with Houston’s team speed, “but we’ll adjust by halftime and kick their asses.”

Emotions were high for the Aztecs' first home game after the Sept.  11, 2001 terror attacks.

Emotions were high for the Aztecs’ first home game after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Akbar Gbaja-Biamila ran onto the field with an American flag.

(Ernie Anderson)

And on and on…

“I thought it was going to be a resource, an almanac kind of thing,” Mallios said of the comprehensive work. “I didn’t know it would be a book that you could open up to any page and something would jump out at you.”

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