If it can happen in San Jose, out of the blue, Steve Addazio figures, why the heck can’t it happen in FoCo? Like right now?
“Our goal is to hit this thing running this season and have a remarkable season,” Addazio, the CSU Rams’ second-year football coach, told The Post during a recent telephone interview. “I mean, that’s well within our reach. Will that happen? Well, that remains to be seen.
“So I think, (if we) stay healthy, stay together, I think those things are very possible this season. Obviously, San Jose State had just a remarkable (2020).”
Remarkable and unexpected. In a pandemic-shortened, choppy season, the plucky Spartans emerged from the autumn chaos as one of college football’s biggest surprises. San Jose State won the Mountain West with a 7-0 conference mark (7-1 overall) after being picked to finish fifth in the West division last July.
Over the previous four seasons, the Spartans had posted a combined record of 12-37. During that same stretch, the Rams went 21-29 and smoked San Jose twice, in two tries, by an average score of 42-22.
So, yeah, the Daz told his team as they wrapped up their 15 spring practices in late March: Why not us?
“I’ve been at places before where you say to yourself, ‘OK, I mean, is it really realistic to stand in front of the team and say, we’re going to win a conference championship?’” Addazio said of the Rams, whose 2020 slate featured only four actual games and one win. “I mean, I don’t like to say things that are really far-fetched sometimes.
“But in the same breath, I can tell you that I really feel like we need to have the goal of competing for this conference championship this year. Will that happen? I guess we’re going to find out.”
“Karl’s just a tremendous guy”
The last eight months of 2020 were a roller coaster Addazio wouldn’t ride again, given the choice.
Last April, he was stuck in Cape Cod, preparing to sell the family home and move into a new one along the Front Range. COVID-19 effectively shut down athletic departments nationwide from mid-March to mid-June, forcing the Rams to prepare, coach, teach and recruit remotely.
July and August brought allegations and, eventually, a formal investigation into the program before CSU had played its first game of the Daz Era. The Mountain West slate got chopped up, then delayed to spring, then moved up to the fall again.
It would get weirder. COVID-19 restrictions forced the only contest the Rams played at Canvas Stadium, a rivalry win over Wyoming, to be held without spectators. The Rams lost three tilts on the field and another three to the coronavirus, as the pandemic forced the cancellation of a trio of contests. A fourth — the Dec. 12 home finale vs. Utah State — got called off the night before the game when the Aggies’ players voted en masse to boycott in protest of their university’s administration.
“It didn’t age me,” Addazio said of his first year on the job. “I would say it frustrated me. I think, quite frankly, that my experience was very valuable. I think if you don’t have a lot of experience, that it’s hard to get on those roller-coaster rides and come out the other end OK.
“I feel like it challenged all my experiences as a sitting head coach for nine years or so, 10 years … I feel like, without that experience, that would’ve been difficult. Because this was quite an undertaking.”
Advances in testing and contract tracing made the games possible, but it also made them speculative. Cancellations had schools sometimes scrambling for opponents by November and December. And it’s one of the Daz’s regrets that despite the neighboring programs sharing at least three matching open weekends, including Dec. 18-19, CSU couldn’t set up a game, home or away, with the CU Buffs.
“That (game) should have happened, and it didn’t,” Addazio said of the 2020 Rocky Mountain Showdown, which was CSU’s original home opener before COVID re-wrote schedules across the board. “And that’s unfortunate, because we did everything in our power to make that happen.
“So that’s not on us. We were fighting like crazy all the way to the very last week of the season, at the end, trying to put something together.”
Did that fight change your opinion of Buffs coach Karl Dorrell? Or of athletic director Rick George?
“Noooo, noooo,” Addazio replied. “Listen, everybody’s got their reasons for doing what they do … absolutely not. I just think it’s something that could’ve and should’ve happened. But that’s my opinion. I’ve got a lot of respect (for), I’ve heard a lot about Rick George, I know he’s a fabulous athletic director. And Karl’s just a tremendous guy. And no, no, I have nothing but respect.
“It’s just — like a lot of things last year, I just think that it got funky. And things got agendified. A lot of things got agendified.”
“This is a job in this conference that is a ‘have’”
The primary agenda for the spring? Normalcy.
COVID restrictions on campus kept recruits and media physically away from the Rams’ practices and took the possibility of a spring game off the table. Liberalized transfer rules and pandemic-related eligibility extensions should leave rosters in flux until at least June, setting the stage for more post-spring roster swaps.
“Guys from other programs will come out of spring ball and feel like they want to move on,” Addazio said. “Maybe that could happen here, too. That’s just what’s going on right now — that (the) grass is greener (somewhere else), you know?”
The Rams continue to keep one eye on the transfer portal, especially where experienced quarterbacks are concerned. Going into the weekend, the only backups on-hand for starter Todd Centeio — whom Addazio has praised for improved consistency, leadership and playmaking — were freshmen.
After all, San Jose State’s formula last fall wasn’t rocket science: A savvy, veteran quarterback (grad student Nick Starkel) on one side of the ball, and a salty defensive front on the other. CSU wound up 12th in the country in fewest rushing yards given up (108.5 per game) and is slated to return at least four senior defensive linemen.
“Here’s what I know: We haven’t competed for a conference championship in a lot of years,” Addazio said. “And I really believe in my heart that this is a job in this conference that is a ‘have.’
“And then you’ve got to learn how to win, you’ve got to learn (to win) those games that get close. And next year, there’ll probably be three or four games that can go either way and you’ve got to learn how to win those.
“Now, where are we with that? That really remains to be seen, right? We haven’t done that. So we’ve got to figure that out. But from a talent standpoint, we’ve got a talented football team. And we’ve got high goals for the year.”