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From the Vault: Stanford-San Diego State

Chronicling the short history of the Cardinal-Aztec series.

San Diego State v Arizona State
San Diego State has beaten two PAC-12 teams in the last year.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Welcome back to The Vault. If you, like me, are trying to forget last Saturday’s loss, I think I can help. One way to take your mind off that loss is to look ahead to next week’s opponent. Today I will detail the short history of the series between the Stanford Cardinal and San Diego State Aztecs. It’s not a long history, in fact, it’s a bit surprising that these two opponents have played at all.


Stanford football wasn’t exactly peaking in the 1980’s. The high water mark that the Cardinal achieved was winning two consecutive Rose Bowls under John Ralson in 1971 and 1972 was long past. Ralston’s replacement, Jack Christiansen, was run out of town despite never coaching a losing team in his five seasons. Bill Walsh came in 1977 then left for the pros after coaching Stanford to 17 wins in two seasons. Rod Dowhower (an Aztec alum) only lasted one year before leaving to coach in the NFL. That brought Paul Wiggin to The Farm in 1980. Despite being blessed with John Elway starting under center, Wiggin’s tenure was marked with failure. In his first three years, the Cardinal went 15-17 with an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback. Without him they were even worse. Stanford’s 1-10 season in 1983 was their worst record since going winless in 1960. Wiggin was fired unceremoniously and replaced by Jack Elway. Elway was known both as the rather successful coach of San Jose State and as the father of a future Super Bowl winning quarterback. As coach of the Spartans, Elway had defeated the Cardinal for the past three seasons before being hired in 1984. Elway’s first year as Stanford’s head coach was a mediocre 5-6 campaign, but it was already an improvement on Wiggin.

San Diego State’s football history really begins with Don Coryell. Coryell was the coach of the Aztecs from 1961 to 1972 and led them to their greatest success in school history. His revolutionary pass-heavy attack was the progenitor of the West Coast Offense and won a large number of games for SDSU. His disciples include Hall of Fame coaches John Madden and Joe Gibbs.

San Diego State claimed national championships in the College Division (now known as D-II) in 1966, 1967, and 1968. The Aztecs went undefeated in their first season in the University Division (D-I) in 1969 and finished 18th in the final AP Poll. Coryell left in 1972 to coach the St. Louis (football) Cardinals after accumulating a 104-19-2 record at San Diego State.

Coryell’s successor, Claude Gilbert, kept the train rolling. Gilbert’s Aztecs went 44-8-2 in his first five seasons and he even beat Bobby Bowden’s 13th ranked Florida State Seminoles in 1977. SDSU was able to parlay their success into the WAC, but with this step up in competition came growing pains. Gilbert was fired after San Diego State had two losing seasons in their first three years in their new conference. San Diego State would never be the same. Gilbert would later replace Jack Elway as San Jose State’s football coach, where he’d lead the Spartans to two consecutive 10-win seasons. Gilbert was replaced by Doug Scovil in 1981, who managed two winning seasons with Gilbert’s players but immediately started losing once they began to cycle out.

Jack Elway led Stanford in all four games against San Diego State.

This brings us to the unusual four game home and home series between the Cardinal and the Aztecs that took place from 1985 to 1988. At this time, Stanford played eight PAC-10 Conference Games (though there was no mandate as to how many conference games could be played as long as it was more than six) and three non-conference games in an 11 game regular season. This was before the Notre Dame series was held as a yearly home and home arrangement. Stanford’s only regularly scheduled non-conference opponent was San Jose State, who the Cardinal hosted nearly every year in early September. Stanford usually played two big name opponents to round out their schedule. Somehow, for four years, San Diego State became one of those big name opponents.

The 1985 meeting between Stanford and San Diego State would turn out to be the outlier of the series. 2-1 SDSU throttled the 1-2 Cardinal 41-22 at Jack Murphy Stadium. It would be the last gasp for the Aztecs under Doug Scovil, who would drop their next five games on their way to a 5-6-1 record, leading to Scovil’s firing. It was his third losing season in a row. Stanford finished 4-7, with the loss to San Diego State being their third in their own five game losing streak.

Scovil’s departure brought about the short and strange tenure of Denny Stolz on Montezuma Mesa. Stolz had coached Bowling Green to two MAC championships and it was hoped he could turn the Aztecs around. He inherited a team that had slowly been accruing talent under Scovil, but had yet to break through. They looked primed in 1986. San Diego State came into their game against Stanford with a 3-1 record, having only lost to UCLA, who were considered a favorite to win the PAC-10. The Cardinal were also in the mix, and so far they were undefeated. In a close game, Stanford won 17-10 and leapt up to 18th in the AP Poll. Unfortunately, the Cardinal kept losing every time it looked like they had any momentum and ended the year 8-4, Jack Elway’s first (and only) winning season. SDSU also finished 8-4, but it was considered a much more successful year. The Aztecs lost only one conference game and were able to claim their first (and only) league title as members of the WAC.

In 1987, the series shifted back to Jack Murphy Stadium. Both Stanford and San Diego State seemed to be having a hangover from their breakthrough seasons the previous year. The Cardinal began the season 0-4 and managed only one win over Washington State before traveling south to face the Aztecs. SDSU, though they were the reigning WAC Champions, had a paltry 1-5 record entering the game. Despite the inauspicious records of these schools, the game turned out to be very entertaining. Stanford won 44-40 to secure a win on the road. The Cardinal ended the season 5-6 while San Diego State held a similar 5-7 record.

The expectations weren’t high when 0-1 Stanford hosted 1-1 SDSU in the final leg of the four game home and home series in 1988. The game wasn’t all that interesting either. The Cardinal cruised to a 31-10 victory but it did not herald any improvement for Stanford. Both teams won only three games all year and both Elway and Stolz were fired.

This Saturday’s matchup will be the first between the two programs since 1988. These teams enter the game under very different circumstances than when they last played. The Cardinal had an up and down two decades between 1988 and 2007, when Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw brought them back to the top. San Diego State was a football nonentity until Brady Hoke broke through in 2010 and Rocky Long subsequently guided the Aztecs to three conference titles. SDSU enters the game having won the Mountain West in back to back seasons. Stanford leads the all-time series 3-1.


I want to thank you for joining me in The Vault today. I hope you learned something about a relatively obscure piece of Cardinal history. I’ll see you next week.