Football season is one of the most exciting times in college sports, but it’s a relatively quiet time around the West Coast Conference. While many basketball mid-major schools boast football programs and even some that have very good success at the top level, the WCC almost across the board does not have football at its schools. Before the addition of BYU to the mix, football was a complete afterthought among schools in the modern West Coast Conference.
A number of schools like Pacific have had it in the past, and San Francisco even helped produce former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle who made his name in part by doing publicity for the Dons football team. But modern times have forced many smaller schools to drop the sport over the years due to the large rosters and ensuing high costs of having a football team.
The one exception is San Diego. Not only have they maintained a football program for many years, the team has been extremely successful at the FCS level, more commonly known as Division 1-AA. Despite playing in the Pioneer Football League which has nothing but non-scholarship teams, the Toreros won back-to-back Mid-Major National Championships in 2005 and 2006. This was a voting system used to determine the best team in conferences that didn’t receive an automatic berth into the FCS Tournament that you may be familiar with for producing 1-AA powerhouses like Appalachian State and North Dakota State.
This voting system has since gone away, and as of last year the PFL winner now receives an automatic berth into the FCS Tournament. This was quite a milestone for a conference that boasts some very talented teams. While you won’t see a PFL team upsetting a nationally ranked team, or even playing one very often, the teams do play and sometimes beat quality 1-A opponents. Just a couple weeks ago for example the Toreros knocked off Princeton.
Much of this success and what put USD on the map as a football school was thanks to Jim Harbaugh, one of the best coaching hires in school history. Many fans don’t know that before the 49ers and Stanford, Harbaugh’s first ever head coaching job was with the Toreros. Those who worked and played for Harbaugh at USD will tell you that his competitive mentality was already well established by then, and it’s no surprise that he quickly brought success to the Toreros in the same way he did for Standford and the 49ers.
May 28, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Josh Johnson (1) and head coach Jim Harbaugh (right) during organized team activities at the SAP Performance Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
In fact, the Toreros have developed into a legitimate program despite their size and non-scholarship status thanks in large part to Harbaugh. The program has started to produce legitimate NFL prospects more and more often since the Harbaugh years, highlighted by Josh Johnson. The Quarterback from Oakland was one of the first recruits for Harbaugh, and he went on to obliterate school records becoming the first and so far only USD player drafted into the NFL. He has had a solid career as a backup and saw playing time as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And he is currently backing up Colin Kaepernick after reuniting with Harbaugh in San Francisco.
What’s even more impressive is how the program has continued to thrive post-Harbaugh. After losing the best coach in program history, it would be understandable if the Toreros took a step back. But the transition to new Head Coach Ron Caragher ended up being very smooth as the Toreros found another diamond in the rough. Like Harbaugh, Caragher received his first head coaching job at San Diego, and like Harbaugh his success was immediate.
Sep 20, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; San Jose State Spartans head coach Ron Caragher looks on during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
The first season success could be attributed to still having Josh Johnson and enjoying his final and best season that got him drafted, but the success continued in later years with new quarterbacks. The Toreros enjoyed a winning record in almost every season under Caragher including PFL titles in 2011 and 2012 with Caragher earning 2011 PFL Coach of the Year. And once again the program produced a 1-A Head Coach as Caragher left to coach San Jose State where he remains currently.
The impressive success across multiple coaches has continued as current coach Dale Lindsey guided the Toreros to an 8-3 record last year in his first season at the helm after working as an assistant under Caragher. Coach Lindsey would have earned a PFL title and the league’s first ever automatic berth in the FCS Tournament with the record, but an unfortunate violation related to financial aid for some players forced the Toreros to vacate their conference wins. Unfazed, the Toreros are off to a strong 3-1 start in 2014 including the win over Ivy League opponent Princeton.
It’s a proud legacy to have some great coaches come from the program considering both the program and athletic department as a wholel do not produce many major names. Outside of Kris Bryant’s emergence as a top baseball prospect after playing his college ball for the Toreros, Jim Harbaugh is the biggest name to be associated with USD Athletics. And it’s quite an accomplishment for a small school to still be keeping the history of football in the WCC alive with their success.