Big Plays by the Bay No. 3: The Spartans’ Cutting Edge Football Legacy

College football has been played in the Bay Area for 133 years with numerous great players and games – plus some remarkable stories that have been forgotten. Bay Area Blitz contributor Mark Purdy has picked the 10 best stories. He will count them down in the monthly newsletter leading up to January’s College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi’s Stadium.


[RELATED: Big Plays By The Bay:1 | Big Plays By The Bay:2 |Big Plays By The Bay: No. 4 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 5Big Plays By The Bay: No. 6Big Plays By The Bay: No. 7Big Plays By The Bay: No. 8Big Plays By The Bay: No. 9Big Plays By The Bay: No. 10]

San Jose State’s place in the Bay Area college football firmament is both secure and singular.

The Spartans have played the sport since 1893. During certain eras, they have produced better teams than Stanford or Cal. They have sent such quarterbacks as Jeff Garcia, Steve DeBerg and Roy Zimmerman to the NFL. They have played monumentally wacky games and have scored many upsets of teams ranked in the top 10. They have been ranked in the top 25 themselves, most recently in 2012. And in an unexpected historic moment, the Spartans football team found itself in Honolulu for a game with Hawaii when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred, causing several players to be enlisted as law enforcement officials on Oahu in the aftermath.

If there is one thing that links all the threads, however, it would be San Jose’s State’s status at the cutting edge of football innovation and adaptation, particularly among the coaching ranks—including some of the school’s players who became prominent coaches themselves. The trend really began in 1938. Spartans head coach Dudley DeGroot made the innovative decision to recruit retired former Stanford coach Pop Warner to serve as the Spartans’ offensive “advisor.” Warner revamped San Jose State’s single back offense into a double wing and the team began rolling up points – most prominently in a 19-6 victory over the College of the Pacific (then being coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg).

DeGroot’s move foreshadowed the future. Today, every coaching staff has an offensive coordinator. In subsequent years, San Jose State became well known for educating future coaches at all levels of the game. This led to ambitious young men joining the Spartans to soak up knowledge. Two of them, Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil, graduated into the NFL and became Super Bowl winning coaches.

And those wild games? Too numerous to mention. But one happened in 2004, when San Jose State beat Rice, 70-63, to set a NCAA Division I record for most points and most touchdowns scored in a non-overtime game to that point. The result presaged college football’s swing toward high-powered offenses in the 21st century.

In the 21st century, San Jose State continues to seek its own uniquely innovative college football niche—fittingly, right on the 50-yard line of Silicon Valley.