Viejas invests in a gem By Jamie Reno Exclusive for East County Magazine March 23, 2009 (San Diego)--As a wide-eyed young journalism student making my way across the San Diego State University campus for the first time in the Fall of 1984, I was energized by the thought that I was about to attend a top-notch J school and at the same time get the opportunity to watch some high-quality Division One college basketball. I'd previously played one unspectacular year of baseball at a city college and my competitive athletic days were pretty much done. I was ready now to just be a red-and-black-blooded fan of Aztecs sports, especially basketball. I already had a severe case of March Madness, and it was only September.
Being an Aztecs hoops fan was easy that year. Despite the fact that the team played its home games in little Peterson Gym, which was about as old and stuffy as one of my political science professors, that 1984-85 men's team won the Western Athletic Conference tournament by beating host UTEP 87-81 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Coached by Smokey Gaines in the seventh of his nine years at SDSU and led by Leonard Allen, a good-natured big man who could shoot, rebound, block shots and even dribble some, the Aztecs finished 23-8 after a hard-fought 85-80 loss to Jerry Tarkanian's ninth-ranked UNLV Running Rebels in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. Watching that game with some college buddies at Two Bit, a tiny on-campus beer and munchies dive, I was deeply disappointed by the loss but still felt good about the future of my school's basketball program. With this NCAA Tournament appearance, I thought the stage had been set for many more great years of college hoops at SDSU.
I thought wrong. Two years later, Gaines was gone and the subsequent years brought a convoy of coaches and disappointing seasons. The SDSU hoops program had sunk in the West. The team suffered a 17-year NCAA tournament drought and at its lowest managed to win just five games. It had become a test of fortitude and loyalty for an SDSU alum just to wear a college sweatshirt around town.
But then something happened on Montezuma Mesa. A new state-of-the-art campus sports arena was built. Could it be the dawn of a new and better day for SDSU basketball? We wondered. I had to smile when I first saw the glorious Cox Arena when it opened in 1997, because back when I was attending SDSU there'd been a student referendum calling for an increase in student fees to build such a basketball and athletic facility. Other than the sportswriters, most of my fellow young journalists on the Daily Aztec student newspaper opposed the idea. But I was all for it. I knew how badly the school needed a sports complex if it was ever to have a chance at long-term hoops glory. And I knew how good it would be for overall student morale to have such an arena right there on campus. But the referendum was defeated, and it took many more years of heated debate before the university finally OK'd the construction of a new on-campus sports facility, at a much, much higher cost, of course, than it would have been had it been built back in the mid-80s.
Cox Arena's debut brought with it a new optimism about basketball, and SDSU fans hoped a new era of winning would follow. I knew this dazzling new facility would at the very least be a powerful recruiting lure for the next coaching regime. Now all we had to do was find the right person for the job. Enter Steve Fisher, a gentle, even-keeled, old-school coach who arrived on campus with an impressive resume from the University of Michigan. It was anyone's guess, though, if he could turn around a basketball program that had become a national joke.
Remarkably, it took only three years for Fisher to turn the program from a laugher to a contender with his calm demeanor, recruiting prowess, integrity and genuine compassion for his players--none of which SDSU had seen for a while. Fisher is perhaps the best thing to ever happen to San Diego State athletics. He's brought respectability, accountability, and wins back to the campus. And this year he may have his best team of them all. Fisher's Aztecs deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament this year, or course, and while it would have been easy for the players on this team to dwell on that snub by a clueless and biased NCAA Committee and just give up, the Aztecs have instead resolved to play their hearts out in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
Fisher may have demonstrated his finest coaching moments of his career in preparing this team to compete so mightily in the NIT. What Fisher - as well as Aztecs women's basketball coach Beth Burns - have done this year is put SDSU sports in the national spotlight. And all this attention has also meant some nice attention on Cox Arena, which as you might have heard will be renamed Viejas Arena under a recently announced naming rights agreement with the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. The new name goes into effect July 1.
Needless to say, this change could not have been better timed for the Viejas folks, who've invested in a real gem. Viejas will pay the university about $6 million over the next 10 years to rename the arena, which is one of the nicest sports facilities on the West Coast and seats 12,414 for basketball and up to 12,845 for concerts. I've seen everyone from Van Halen to Neil Young at the arena, which also hosts SDSU's commencement ceremonies.
The arena was built on the site of the old Aztec Bowl football stadium, where I went through my commencement ceremony in 1986. It was of course named for Cox Communications, which owns the local cable television system and which paid fees to become the arena's corporate sponsor. Cox Arena hosted the men's NCAA basketball tournament first and second rounds in 2001 and 2006, and was the home of the San Diego Shockwave indoor football team for one season. But it's appropriately best known as the home of the SDSU men's and women's basketball teams.
As a longtime and long-suffering fan of these teams, I predicted when the arena opened 12 years ago that it would be the first step in a real return to glory for SDSU hoops. And I can now say, tardily but happily, I told you so!