San Diego State announced the hiring of its 19th head football coach on Wednesday. Sean Lewis’ record remains 0-0 as the leader of the Aztecs, but there is little question that he won the press conference.
Given SDSU’s positioning in the world of college football, the designs of athletic director JD Wicker’s choice are easy to see. Lewis checks many of the boxes on the Aztecs’ list of qualities they wanted in their next head coach.
“That we graduated all of our young men,” Lewis said when asked what success would look like at SDSU. “That we have unbelievable leaders within the community. That we competed and won at a high level. We added more conference championships, and we had college football playoff appearances.”
“Those are the goals, and those are the objectives. Those are the standards. Those are the expectations. But it starts with the people and making sure the people are right and that they have as many doors and opportunities open and available to them in all areas as they move through their time with us, and then we win at a consistently high level year in and year out.”
The past 15 years of SDSU football brought wins, bowl bids, and three conference championships. What the decade and a half lacked, with the exceptions of dynamic running backs Donnel Pumphrey and Rashad Penny, was a reason for those other than diehards to watch the games. Defense wins championships, but offense sells tickets.
With a crown jewel of a football stadium sitting half empty most contests, Wicker needed to energize San Diego to come to Snapdragon. Lewis checks that box. Known as an offensive genius, Lewis calling plays as a head coach is the only way a program like SDSU can afford someone of his pedigree. Ten assistant coaches across college football make more than his $1.75 million base salary.
“Stretch the defense with tempo, space, and vertical shots,” Lewis said when describing his offense. “I want to be able to create as much space as possible for our skill (players) so that they can thrive in space, whether that is a wide receiver on the edge or a ball carrier coming out of the backfield. Once we have exhausted all options with space, then I want to gain a numerical advantage by shifts, motions, and pre or post-snap movement so that we can get an extra person at the point of attack.”
Lewis’ honeymoon with San Diego will last one season. A subpar 2024 will be accepted as the growing pains of hiring a new regime. If 2025 does not bring the success SDSU is accustomed to, fans’ patience will wear thin. The best hope Wicker had for creating a quick turnaround was hiring someone whose system fits the talent currently on the roster.
Lewis’ run-centered offense should allow for quick acclimation by the athletes who will stick around for 2024. In his five years as head coach of Kent State, Lewis called an average of 480 runs a year compared to 331 passing attempts. His 59-41 run-to-pass ratio is about the same as SDSU’s offense under Jeff Hecklinski. In 2023, the Aztecs ran 58.7% of the time.
Even at Colorado, where 80.8% of its 3296 total yards came through the air, Lewis stuck to running the football. Despite limited success on the ground, with only three of eight games netting more than 58 yards, 42.5% of the Buffs’ play calls were runs.
The transfer portal will still shape next year’s team, but with Lucky Sutton, Cam Davis, Anthony McMillian, Jaylon Armstead, Kenan Christon, and Sheldon Canley all potentially on the roster in 2024, they could fit well into Lewis’ offense. Also, with the number of plays his Aztec Fast attack generates, there should be plenty of carries to go around.
“When I talk about explosive offense, it’s explosive plays,” Lewis said. “That’s going to be a hallmark of who we are, whether that comes through the air or on the ground. Our last three years at Kent State, the only teams that ran the ball better than us from a run-efficiency standpoint were Army and Air Force, and all they do is run the ball.”
Head coaching experience
Prior to announcing Lewis, lists of who SDSU should hire abounded. The prevailing wisdom suggested they would bring in a P5 coordinator or a current G5 or FCS head coach. Either path had peril. Bring in a coordinator and risk that the person would not be able to create a culture. Handing the keys to an established coach from a lower level carried the danger of mediocrity.
In hiring Lewis, Wicker balanced both approaches. Lewis’ time at Kent State as a head coach will allow him to lead SDSU with invaluable personal experience. Working at Colorado showed he exists among the offensive avant-garde in college football. Expertise and innovation are married in Sean Lewis.
“If we’re going to challenge (the players) to be great in life, in academics, and within in sport, then I’m going to challenge everyone within the organization to be great in special teams, in defense, and in offense,” Lewis said. “The teams that consistently win championships are great in all those areas, not skewed one way for the other. We’re going to play our brand of complimentary football. … the challenge and expectation I have for the organization and for my staff is to take all the pieces of the history of Aztecs’ football and let’s blend it together now in this beautiful moment in time, where we can take ‘The Darkside D’ and we can take ‘Air Coryell’ and we can make it ‘Aztec Fast.’”
Name Image and Likeness
Among the most important tasks Lewis has is igniting the fan base’s participation in providing more NIL opportunities for SDSU’s football players. Having worked at Colorado, which used the PR game better than any in the nation, Lewis learned firsthand how to leverage excitement around the team into money for its players.
Lewis does not have the glamour of Deion Sanders, but he saw how the Buffaloes recruited against the nation’s elite with the help of NIL dollars. J.R. Tolver, who leads SDSU’s NIL collective Aztec Link, sat in the front row of the press conference along with other boosters and the media. If anything will galvanize the community, it’s Lewis’ youth, command of an audience, and the style of play he brings to the field.
“They chose San Diego State for a reason,” Lewis explained when asked about the 2024 recruits already committed to SDSU. “I chose San Diego State for a reason. As long as those reasons align and the things that are important to them and the boxes that they’re looking to be checked are right and there’s a great marriage between their families and us and our vision. Then, come on. Let’s rock and roll. … I believe in transparency, I believe in honesty, and we’re going to talk to those families so that they can make the best-informed decision for where they’re at and with what they’re going through cause I know it’s different, it’s unique for each one of the 11 commitments that we have right now.”
A few weeks ago, Wicker addressed the media about hiring a new head coach. He assured the community that what happened under Sanders at Colorado would not occur at SDSU. 15 days later, Wicker hired Lewis, one of CU’s architects, who guided the program as 80% of the players inherited from the previous regime left the team.
After Wednesday’s press conference, Wicker was asked if hiring one of Sanders’ chief lieutenants suggested a softening of that stance. “No, I think that was Deion Sanders … not Sean Lewis,” Wicker said.
Lewis, likewise, distanced himself from how Sanders approached building CU’s roster. Affirming that it was Sanders who made that choice, not him. SDSU’s head coach’s first order of business, he said, was speaking to the players on the current roster. He emphasized that he would not know how many transfers he would need until the players on the roster had made their decisions.
“For me, and maybe it’s my background being a high school coach, I think the most value and the most bang for your buck you’re going to get is to able to establish a relationship with a high school player,” Lewis explained. “Get to know them and their family and their sphere of influence around them; what’s important to them. And then, being able to prove to them and show to them that this is the best spot for them.”
Clashed with Deion Sanders
Lewis opened his remarks by thanking many people, including former coaches in which he’s worked. Absent from his comments were any mention of Deion Sanders. Sanders’ presence, though, hung over the press conference as media members wanted to know all about Lewis’ tenure in Boulder. While SDSU’s new coach responded well to every overture about Sanders, the warm tenor and excitement with which Lewis described nearly everything was noticeably absent.
SDSU and the University of Colorado are about 1,000 miles apart, but in college football, they are worlds apart. That Lewis and Sanders’ methods could not co-exist is a positive for the Aztecs’ new coach. To be successful at SDSU, Lewis will need to lead more like he did at Kent State than Sanders does with Colorado.
“(Taking play-calling duties away) was a choice that (Sanders) made that he felt was best for the offense, for the organization at that time,” Lewis explained. “I embraced my new role. And, the heart of it is if I was calling plays or I was washing jerseys as a high school coach years ago, it’s about the players. And so, I served the players in the capacity in which I was given and added my input where it was asked for. We were able to move and work together in a very professional manner.”
Sean Lewis checks most, but not all, boxes for SDSU
While the strength of this hire is evident, questions still abound. Lewis does not have a track record of defeating P5 schools. His defenses at Kent State left a lot to be desired. There are questions about if his uptempo offense can complement a defense. Lewis has less than ideal experience recruiting in San Diego.
There will be time to explore these this offseason. On the week Lewis was hired, however, these potential shortcomings are masked by the tremendous upside he brings to SDSU.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.