Ruben Peña brings Hall of Fame care to San Diego State football

Ruben Peña stands next to Sean Lewis before Lewis addressed the crowd at Viejas Arena. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Ruben Peña addresses the team following a practice last year. (Don De Mars/EVT)

La Jolla Country Day School (LJCDS) honored its 2011 baseball team with induction into the school’s Hall of Fame earlier this month. In a ceremony held on January 19, LJCDS recognized the pioneering accomplishments of that squad. 

They set the school record for wins in a season with 25 and won the program’s first CIF title. Thirteen of the 20 players on the roster went on to compete at the next level, including the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Edman. 

On Saturday, June 4, 2011, Edman hit a leadoff home run in LJCDS’ 7-0 rout of Francis Parker in the Division IV CIF championship held at Tony Gwynn Stadium. Among the players who celebrated that day and were immortalized last week was SDSU’s Director of Football Operations, Ruben Peña

Ruben Peña on the sidelines. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“It’s an extreme honor to be in this position and part of a unique group of guys, fun group of guys, hard-working group of guys,” Peña told EVT in an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “To be forever remembered for that 2011 baseball team, it was a lot of fun. … It was tremendous to get back on campus; it was great to be around the guys. A lot of them I hadn’t seen since I had graduated.”

Public recognition was a change of pace for his typically behind-the-scenes efforts. Peña explained that in his line of work, flying under the radar is the surest sign of a job well done. Like a composer orchestrating an ensemble, Peña harmonizes a myriad of details to produce a seamless work of administrative art. 

About 150 people make up the traveling group for SDSU’s away games. Getting them to and from San Diego is a herculean task under Peña’s care. 

It starts at the Fowler Athletic Center, where he coordinates with TSA to come to campus and do their pre-flight check. Riding on the buses Peña scheduled to the fixed base operator (FBO) at Lindbergh Field that the school charters the plane through is the next step in the journey.  

Once the preflight meal is distributed and the throng is on board, Peña enjoys a brief in-flight respite before his operations team gets the team to their hotel courtesy of more charter buses and a pre-arranged police escort. After they arrive, Peña makes sure everyone has their room keys, coordinates the team’s meal and snack, and arranges the meeting spaces. 

Ruben Peña behind Jack Browning as he signs autographs for a pair of young fans. It is the type of events Peña coordinates. (Don De Mars/EVT)

On game day, more buses shuttle the Aztecs to the stadium. Peña cheers on SDSU for a half before switching gears to make sure everyone gets home efficiently. Delays on this stretch are always a concern. Peña diligently works to make sure TSA is at the FBO, and the plane and flight crew are ready so the team can take off. 

Peña’s skill in accomplishing this task a half dozen or more times a year allows the Aztecs to compete on the field without wasting energy worrying about off-the-field details or delays. His effort is a competitive advantage for the program.  

“We have a ‘plus-one’ mentality that (head) coach (Sean) Lewis brought in within our staff and within our football team,” Peña explained. “What that means is every day, you want to be plus-one better, and you want to stack those plus-one’s up. I’m really competitive within myself and making the most out of each and every day. And really get the work done at the highest level because, at the end of the day, I’m here to support.” 

“I understand my role. I’m here to take care of our coaches. I’m here to take care of our student-athletes. I’m here to take care of our department. So, whatever is asked of me, I’m going to give my 100%.”  

Road travel is just one of at least 14 major areas Peña oversees. His work for home games is nearly the same as away contests.  In June, the Aztecs host more than 80 high school, 7-on-7 teams over two weekends in an event that culminates in a skills camp with over 800 participants.

Peña also organizes SDSU’s Pro Day and  creates community outreach events like the campus cleanup the football team participated in last year. But, at his core, he is not driven by events.

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When Lewis first addressed the media, he explained that his program would be people-centered. Over his seven years on The Mesa, Peña has embodied that ethos. It is no wonder why Peña was among the few holdovers Lewis retained from Brady Hoke’s staff. 

“As far as coach Lewis, he’s tremendous,” Peña explained. “One word to describe him is he’s passionate. He comes to work with energy every single day, and it’s contagious. It rubs off on the staff, on the student-athletes. Right now, we’re laying the foundation for the culture.  And really, I’m all in and all bought in on everything that he’s saying and the direction that we want to go as a football program.” 

At any time, players can take advantage of Peña’s open-door policy. Since he is not a coach, he offers athletes a different perspective and possibly a different approach to an issue. An elite problem solver, Peña is an invaluable resource to the players. 

Ruben Peña runs out of the tunnel at Snapdragon Stadium. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The relationships he develops make him the perfect NFL liaison for the program. Professional scouts ask him every year about the character of the potential draftees. This opportunity to see athletes develop as people over four or five years at SDSU is what Peña described as the best part of his job.

“It’s the student-athlete experience that is my number one priority and my number one thing that I want to achieve every day,” Peña said. “I take pride in making sure that they’re taken care of off the football field. … I’m there for them, and that’s what I take the most pride in, our student-athletes.”

Peña’s ability to get the job done and his personable approach is packaged in a native San Diegan that gives all he does a spirit that makes him perfect for the Aztecs. Beyond any personal and professional success, Peña shows civic pride in the work he does. He understands what it means for the city when SDSU football thrives. 

Last week, LJCDS honored Peña and the 2011 baseball team with induction to the school’s Hall of Fame. It was a fitting tribute for someone who for years has treated the SDSU football community like hall of famers. 

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