LAS VEGAS — Walking around the Bay Area in his San Jose State swag, head coach Brent Brennan gets shout-outs — not always because he’s recognized.
“I’ll be wearing a Spartan shirt, and I’ll see someone wearing a Spartan shirt, and I’ll be like, ‘Go Spartans!’ and they’ll say, ‘Yeah! They had a good year this year!’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, they did! Way to go, man,’” he said during Mountain West Conference media days at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. “And they’ve got no idea [they are talking to the program’s head coach].”
San Jose State football lives in a sports ecosystem with an NHL franchise; two MLB clubs, one with three World Series championships in the last 11 years; the most dominant NBA organization of the past decade; and one of the most historically successful NFL teams.
Add neighboring college football programs Cal and Stanford, and it’s a crowded landscape. What’s more, San Jose State hasn’t always given locals reason for buzz as Brennan described.
“When we were 1-11, no one was all that excited to talk about Spartan football,” Brennan said, an allusion to the 2018 season and the second one-win campaign for the program in the 2010s. “Now, people are maybe a little bit more friendly when I’m rocking the Spartan hoodie around town.”
Even if they don’t know Brennan specifically, the general enthusiasm for the Spartans in 2021 is well earned. The program is coming off its first Mountain West Conference championship and first league title of any kind since 1987.
For reference as to how long ago that was in College Football Years, it came in the defunct Pacific Collegiate Athletic Association, a conference with three programs (Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Pacific) that no longer field football teams.
San Jose State has experienced peaks like the 2020 championship run, which included an AP Top 25 high of No. 19 and final ranking of No. 24. Maintaining said peaks is another story.
In 2012, Mike MacIntyre coached the Spartans to 11 wins and a final No. 21 ranking. He left for Colorado at the end of the regular season. In 1990, Claude Gilbert — whose teams won nine games and 10 games twice in the late ‘80s — was fired when his recruiting strategy was at odds with the university’s admissions approach.
Stability could be the difference this time around thanks to a first-time head coach who bided his time, working up for this opportunity through stops all over the West, including time as a Spartans assistant under the late Dick Tomey.
“I always thought San Jose State could be a consistently good program, and I didn’t understand why it had been such a roller coaster,” Brennan said. “And I want to do that here.”
As inevitably happens when a non-traditional winner starts making noise, however, the rumors start to surface. Like Mac and Colorado eight years earlier, Pac-12 talk percolated around Brennan — specifically, the Arizona job that came open the week of San Jose State’s Mountain West Championship Game against perennial league heavyweight Boise State.
“Personally, I had a lot of faith that Brennan was going to stay,” said All-American defensive end Cade Hall. “He’s talked to me about his vision and what he wants to do with this program. I was confident he was going to stay, I’m grateful he did.”
A local product from nearby Bellarmine Prep, Hall arrived at SJSU in Brennan’s second season.
His family carries football cachet in the Bay Area — his dad was an All-Pac-10 honoree at Cal and a member of the last Super Bowl-winning 49ers team — but Hall flew under the recruiting radar as a 2-star prospect.
That suits the NFL-caliber end just fine in his aim to pave his own path.
“When Brennan recruited me, he put it to me straight,” Hall said. “He said, ‘I want to turn this program,’ because obviously, it hadn’t been successful for a very long time. He told me his vision, and I was really excited to be able to be a part of that. I was excited to come in and help turn a program around.”
And the turnaround has been dramatic. Hall signed in 2017, amid a 2-11 Spartans campaign. His freshman season marked the 1-11 nadir when Brennan said locals weren’t too eager to talk SJSU football.
But by 2019, the Spartans finished one game shy of bowl eligibility. Hall was dynamic, showing off the talent that a year later made him Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year by racking up eight tackles for a loss and a pair of forced fumbles.
Hall also registered one of his team-best five quarterback hurries in a landmark win for the program: a 31-24 defeat of Arkansas.
The program’s first-ever win over an SEC opponent foreshadowed the historic season to come. But as in all contests, there were two sides to the outcome — and a reflection of another side to celebrity.
“The fallout of that game was probably one of the lowest points of my life, not just football career,” said San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel, who quarterbacked the Razorbacks in 2019. “Coming back from that, being on a campus where, when you show your face, and you don’t necessarily get the nicest gestures on campus and you almost feel like you’re thrown out.”
Unsure what the next step in his football career would be, Starkel considered entering his name in the NFL draft or pursuing a spot in the Canadian Football League.
But Josh Love, who captained San Jose State in that fateful game, reached out.
Per Starkel, Love said: “‘Hey, if you’re looking for a spot, I have to leave. I’m graduating and they’re going to need a quarterback.’
“It was just a perfect whirlwind of everything coming together and the stars aligning for me to come to San Jose,” Starkel added.
Starkel’s individual ascension from the nadir of that September night two years ago mirrors San Jose State’s rise from a 1-11 finish just three years ago. He came back from that low point to throw 17 touchdowns in eight games last season, complete 64.2 percent of his 254 attempts, and rack up just shy of 2,200 yards.
His outstanding play earned Starkel second-team All-Mountain West recognition while revitalizing his career — even if it didn’t make Starkel an overnight celebrity in his present circles.
“I won’t say who it was, but one of the players [from another MW team at media days] was talking to Cade and I, and was like, ‘Hey, you guys got a transfer quarterback last year who ended up being pretty good for you all,’” Starkel recounted. “What was his name, who was that?’ I was like, ‘Oh, that was me.’”
The inconspicuousness doesn’t bother Starkel. On the contrary, it’s emblematic of the Spartans identity, he explained.
“We are a bunch of scrappy guys,” Starkel said. “Guys that have been counted out, guys that necessarily didn’t have all these opportunities coming out of high school or even from other colleges and then coming over to San Jose, believing in one vision, becoming one team.”
No matter if Brennan, Starkel or Hall are recognized around the Bay or not, so long as the wins keep coming, the Spartan logo will be.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.