Utah State: Aggies took steep route to Mountain West
Former Utah State receiver Jim Ray won't forget the game in 1992 when he caught five passes for 131 yards against Cal State Fullerton, torching the Titans in a 26-7 conference win.
Almost no one else will remember. The listed attendance for the game: 2,113 people. And it felt like fewer.
"I remember catching a touchdown, running through the end zone, and maybe seeing 1,000 people there," he said. "I saw bigger crowds at my high school games at San Juan."
Ray was a letterman from 1990 to 1992, smack in the middle of the Aggies' days in the Big West. It was an era of less-than-stellar conference opponents, including schools that no longer play football today.
When the Aggies kick off against Air Force on Saturday afternoon, it will be the beginning of a much brighter era in the program's history. Compared with the dreary decades of conferences with subpar and faraway teams and a few years with no conference at all the Mountain West offers better opponents, more prosperity and more respect for a Utah State program that has been seeking all three for a long time.
"There is a significant pride factor in being among those members of the Mountain West," athletic director Scott Barnes said. "Our Aggie nation believes it's where we belong, and they have for 50 years."
It goes back to 1962, a year that lives in infamy for longtime Utah State fans. The Skyline Conference dissolved as five members left to form the Western Athletic Conference, and for 15 seasons, the Aggies were an independent.
That changed in 1978, when Utah State joined the Pacific Coast Athletic Association. It was a conference home, but the football opponents never drew much interest. The first year of conference play, the Aggies played Fresno State, San Jose State, Pacific and Long Beach State. UNLV and Nevada would eventually join, but so would Cal State Fullerton and Southwestern Louisiana.
"There were no regional ties really at all," said Craig Hislop, a radio analyst and former sports information director for the Aggies. "That was really just all we had. Our coaches and administrators were doing the best they could to create interest, but it didn't really feel like there were any natural rivalries."
The Aggies of those years were often thumped in money games against high-profile programs and returned to play to mostly empty stadiums on the road in the PCAA, which became the Big West in 1988.
Ray remembered Cal State Fullerton used to share its field with a junior college. Former lineman Brian Hunsaker said Long Beach State's stadium wasn't much better than most high school fields. The Aggies had an All-American in receiver Kendal Smith in 1988, along with four more honorable mentions, but played in front of 2,119 fans that year at Cal State Fullerton.
Hunsaker recalled when another Aggie alum, Shawn Miller, went as a fan to one of the road games at Long Beach. Hunsaker could hear Miller rooting on the Aggies the entire time, his voice much louder than any of the hometown fans. At halftime, Hunsaker walked down to the sideline to offer him pointers.
"It was real unique experience: We'd play at Nebraska in front of 80,000 fans, then play our conference games in front of only a few thousand," Hunsaker said. "It was like playing a small high school."
It wasn't a whole lot better at home. Many years, the Aggies were hard-pressed to draw more than 10,000-12,000 to Romney Stadium for conference games.
As bad as some of those conference games were, the situation got more dire after 2000 when Utah State went independent and then joined the Sun Belt. Facing newbie DI programs such as UConn and South Florida didn't do much to drum up fan interest, and then sharing a conference with North Texas and Middle Tennessee didn't make much sense for alumni who wanted to see more regional-flavored rivalries.
"In some ways, I think that was worse," Hunsaker said. "There were times I wondered if we would ever get out of there, if we would survive. That was tough for the fans."
Joining the WAC in 2005 brought some relief for Utah State, playing more familiar opponents. But even that conference started bleeding losing football teams and the Aggies were again looking for a new home.
The football turnaround under Barnes and Gary Andersen did a lot to pump up interest in the program. Utah State started playing six home games a year, one of them against an FCS opponent. They also competed well against big-name schools in money games, losing to Texas A&M by eight, Oklahoma by seven, and Auburn by four.
That success, combined with an improving infrastructure, vaulted Utah State's brand high enough to get an invite from the Mountain West. Even former players acknowledge how much of a step up it is.
"In every way, from the athletes we have to the facilities to even the administrative support, we're in a better situation today," Ray said. "I think Scott Barnes and president [Stan] Albrecht really saw that football success was the key. And they were right. It's put us on the map."
Falcon Stadium had 32,095 fans for Colgate last week, and coach Matt Wells said he expects a full display of pageantry from the Falcons, with cadets in the stands and jet fighters or bombers flying overhead. It's exactly the kind of atmosphere Utah State has hoped to play in for years.
Aggies fans have also been eager to snatch up tickets to make games at Romney Stadium as inhospitable as possible for the opposition. With a home schedule that includes Boise State and traditional rivals Wyoming and Colorado State, not to mention BYU in the nonconference schedule, USU has sold a record 8,556 season tickets with a week still left before the home opener.
"The Mountain West is a perfect fit for Utah State, and I expect the team to be competitive," Hunsaker said. "I've been an Aggie fan my whole life, and there's never been a better time to be one."
Long climb to the summit
The Aggies had a few conference homes over the years:
Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference • 1916-1937
Mountain States/Skyline Conference • 1938-1961
Independent •Â 1962-1977; 2001-2002
PCAA/Big West • 1978-2000
Sun Belt Conference • 2003-2004
Western Athletic Conference • 2005-2012
Utah State at Air Force
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network