SAN DIEGO — The number of San Diego State teams that have won an NCAA Division I championship can be counted on one finger.
Many Aztecs fans and alumni have no idea because it happened 50 years ago and the school dropped men’s volleyball in 2000. Brian Dutcher, who has been on campus for 24 years, does know about that championship and would love to double the school’s total when he coaches the Aztecs in their first Final Four.
“Volleyball. Men’s volleyball. Chris Marlowe,” Dutcher said, referring to one of the stars of that 1973 team, who went on to win a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and once broadcast SDSU basketball games on local TV. “They’re hard to get so you value every one of them when you can get one.”
SDSU’s first trip to the Final Four, secured with a nail-biting win against Creighton, has resonated with Aztecs alumni and fans, as well as throughout this championship-starved city. Even Bill Walton is stoked, which shows how big of a deal it is. The Aztecs (31-6) will play fellow first-timer Florida Atlantic (35-3) in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Marlowe, who does play-by-play for the Denver Nuggets, said he lost count of the number of calls, texts and emails he received after the Aztecs won the South Region final Sunday. The highlight was a voice mail from Walton, who grew up near SDSU, won two national titles under John Wooden at UCLA and watched his youngest son, Chris, play for Steve Fisher at SDSU in the early 2000s.
“It went on for maybe two minutes about ‘How great it is for San Diego State and Chris Marlowe, you were an Aztec!’ You know how Bill can rant. It was just so much fun to listen to his message. I called him back and I now have a dinner invitation at his house when in August we go down there for vacation.”
SDSU has had some great individual basketball players, including Kawhi Leonard, Michael Cage and two-sport star Tony Gwynn. Gwynn still holds SDSU’s game, season and career assists records. He was drafted by both the Padres and the then-San Diego Clippers on the same day in 1981, and a year later began his 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Padres. He later coached baseball at SDSU for 12 seasons before dying of cancer in 2014 at age 54.
But the hoops teams themselves have been mostly mediocre. Fisher inherited one of the worst teams in the country when he was hired in March 2000, bringing Dutcher along as an assistant. Together they built the Aztecs into a West Coast power. Dutcher took over after Fisher retired six years ago.
“Everybody’s just fired up,” Marlowe said. “Sometimes the longest road can be the most beautiful thing. When you’re winning every year, when you’re contending every year, there are high expectations. I don’t think anybody really expected this San Diego State team to get to the Final Four, but they have a terrific, interesting team to watch, with a collection of manly men — strong and broad and long and jumpy, and yet they are very disciplined under Brian Dutcher, which is really impressive.”
Tony Gwynn Jr., who played baseball for his dad at SDSU, said it’s “surreal” to see his alma mater in the Final Four.
“For those of us who have watched the Aztecs as long as I have, this is almost a coming out party,” Gwynn Jr., a former Albuquerque Isotope (2012-13) said. “Those are the type of wins that change the program forever and hopefully moving forward this is a consistent team.”
Gwynn imagines his father “having a smile from ear to ear” if he were still alive. “That’s how big of a deal this is. My dad’s first love was basketball. He loved it so much that he was broadcasting State games for a while there. He loved the program. He got to see it in its infant stages and go from doormat to seeing the potential that it had.”
Gwynn’s phone was blowing up on Sunday, too. He was broadcasting the Padres’ spring training game against Seattle in Peoria, Arizona. Mariners first baseman Ty France, who played at SDSU for Gwynn’s dad, had just taken his defensive position when the score of the Aztecs game was announced on the PA system.
“He was celebrating, I’m hanging out the window, giving a round of applause. It was a San Diego State moment for sure,” said Gwynn, adding that pretty much everybody he went to school with began texting him. “My phone could not stop buzzing.”
Asked if he knew how many NCAA championships SDSU has won, junior guard Lamont Butler said: “I think it’s zero.” Told about the 1973 men’s volleyball team, he added: “Oh wow, I didn’t know that.”
Gwynn also thought it was zero and then guessed the one title was men’s golf.
Told it was men’s volleyball, he quickly added: “Before we got rid of the program.”
That 1973 national championship volleyball team will have a 50th reunion in August in San Diego at the home of Duncan McFarland, who was MVP of the NCAA Tournament.
“If San Diego State happens to win the basketball championship, that would make it even more entertaining, I think,” Marlowe said.
Men’s Final Four
Florida Atlantic vs. San Diego State, 4:09 p.m., CBS
Miami vs. UConn, 6:49 p.m., CBS