SDSU has long been called a Sleeping Giant.
With Men’s Basketball and a legion of supporters taking over the Final Four in Houston and San Diego selling the Mission Valley site to the university not for educational purposes but to provide a home for the football team, its money-making sports are fully awake.
Some of the Aztecs’ Olympic sports, however, are still in a slumber. Arguably more than any team on campus, the baseball program has the highest ceiling.
Judging from attendance at Padres’ games, America’s Finest City has a love affair with America’s favorite pastime. High schools in the region produce some of the best talent in the nation.
But aside from its 1958 National Championship, where SDSU outscored its opponents 52-10 in three NAIA World Series contests, the Aztecs have not had much postseason success.
“When coach Martinez reached out to me about the (assistant coach) job, one of the things he said to me was San Diego State’s never been out of a regional,” new head coach Shaun Cole said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “I did not know that, so to take on the challenge of helping accomplish something that’s never been done, especially something like that. In a storied program with the number of players that have come through here, … we need to get that done. We need to get to a super regional. We need to get to Omaha.”
With the retirement of Mark Martinez this summer, athletic director JD Wicker handed the keys to the program to Cole. It is his task to finally rouse the giant from its sleep.
Attention to detail
As a staff member for the past two years, Cole does not believe an overhaul is necessary. What he plans to emphasize is the importance of the little things. The Cole-led Atzecs will have greater attention to detail.
With Cole as the pitching coach in 2023, SDSU ranked 47th in the nation in WHIP, 56th in the country in ERA, and 36th in strikeouts per nine innings. This good pitching could have been great if it had been complemented by terrific defense. The Aztecs ranked 214 out of 295 teams with a .965 field percentage.
At the plate, SDSU’s .342 on-base percentage, .375 slugging percentage, and .249 team batting average placed it at a dismal 282, 270, and 275, respectively, in the nation. With a different voice leading the clubhouse, Cole expects all of these numbers to improve.
“We’re going to have a clean dugout,” Cole said. “It bothers me that there’s bags everywhere and sandwich wrappers. Those are little details that are big. We’re going to have a clean dugout. We’re going handle ourselves the right way on the field. We’re not going to show people up. We’re not going to show bad body language, and we’re going to play the game hard. We’re going to know the finer point of the game, like base-running, playing catch on defense, putting the ball in play on offense, throwing strikes on the mound. Do basic things better than anyone else.”
Cole’s reputation inside college baseball is as an elite pitching coach. His track record at Arizona, Eastern Kentucky, and SDSU speaks for itself. Anywhere he has gone, the team’s pitching has excelled. That should continue with the Aztecs.
SDSU’s head coach will still serve as its pitching coach. In 2022, Troy Melton (currently the Detroit Tigers No. 15 prospect, according to MLB.com) led the staff. 2023 saw TJ Fondtain (third-team All-American, 14th-round MLB selection by Tampa Bay) take Melton’s spot.
2024 could be the season that sparks the rise of sophomore Xavier Cardenas. Among the top recruits in California in 2022, Cardenas touched 98 mph as a true freshman. Cole believes Cardenas’ ceiling is a top-five overall selection in the MLB draft.
What may not be known about Cole but is evident in a conversation with him is how well he treats people. His communication skills, ability to relate, and the emphasis he places on building and maintaining relationships will be a hallmark of the program.
“One of the things I’ve tried to establish is regardless of who it is, get back to everybody,” Cole said. “Even if it takes two weeks … that was instilled in me when I was at Arizona, get back to everybody. … when I first got this job, I got hit with a ton of text messages, which I appreciated the support. People are excited. Some of them, it took two weeks to get back to them, and I still did. It’s important.”
Tapping into SDSU’s Baseball Legacy
What makes the Aztecs’ lack of postseason success more perplexing is the plethora of professionals the program has churned out. For a variety of reasons, SDSU has not been as connected to that legacy as it had in previous years. In only a few weeks on the job, Cole is already reversing that trend.
“It’s been positive, people have been excited,” Cole replied when asked about the response of SDSU’s baseball alums to his hire. “I’m fortunate, my first year with the Padres, (former Aztec) Bud Black was the manager. … Bud and I are going to connect in the offseason. … Travis Lee and I had a two-hour conversation about two weeks ago. … he’s excited to come out and be around the program more. … Stephen Strasburg he’s been around the program more the past couple of weeks, which is also another good sign. Just to have a guy like that come around our players is huge. Having his support is huge.”
“Chris Gwynn and I and Anthony Gwynn, we talked a few weeks ago. I had a three-hour lunch with Chris in Temecula about a week ago. It’s a two-way street. (If) alumni want to be involved, awesome, but I also have to do my part connecting with them and getting them more engaged with the program.”
The Tony Gwynn Legacy, always the pride of coach Martinez’s yearly schedule, will continue to be cherished and built. Cole is hoping it can be a centerpiece to getting more fans to come to Tony Gwynn Stadium.
In addition, he is looking for ways to keep more baseball alumni connected. Ideas to promote former players’ involvement include having those presently on the roster do research projects on former SDSU greats, Zoom conversations between past and present Aztecs, frequent breakfasts with the alumni still in San Diego, and periodic newsletters to make keeping up with the team easier.
Connecting with the Community
Cole originally came to SDSU in large part because it allowed him to be closer to family. He and his wife are originally from the West Coast. His connection to San Diego also runs deep.
Hired by Padres’ GM AJ Preller in 2015 as Coordinator of Player Development following two seasons as the director of Team USA’s under-18 team, Cole has extensive professional ties. He is utilizing his connections to deepen the relationship between SDSU and the Padres.
“We played the Padres Instructs Team last fall,” Cole shared when asked about his program’s relationship with San Deigo’s professional baseball club. “We were going to do that this fall, but their program got adjusted, so we’re not going to do that. I’m waiting for confirmation on this, but we may be playing a game against USD in November over at Petco.”
“Ideas that I have to elevate the Tony Gwynn Legacy and somehow partner with them because Tony was such an icon with the Padres and San Diego State. Those are things I’m going to continue to try and grow and talk about with the Padres.”
As much as any other team in sports, the Padres are the avant-garde in designing a world-class fan experience. Down the road, Cole can tap into that expertise because he personally knows the architects.
Drawing more fans will ultimately come by playing winning baseball. With more support should come more NIL opportunities, donations to the program, and increased resources from the university.
Aiming for a National Title
SDSU’s Final Four run showed that winning at the highest level is possible for any Aztec team. Softball carried the baton from men’s basketball to reach its first super regional. Cole’s aim with his program is not to just get past the postseason’s opening round. He intends to join the 1958 squad as National Champions.
“With Arizona, the year we won a National Championship, we weren’t ranked in the Top 25. We weren’t picked to win the conference. Team USA, when we went to take on Japan in the World Cup in Japan, Japan was number one. No one expected us to beat them. At the end of the season, all anybody remembers is how you finished.”
As an assistant, Cole spent years recruiting in San Diego. From afar, he thought the Aztecs’ potential was limitless. Now as the program’s sixth-ever head coach, he has one ultimate goal in mind. He wants to win it all.
“There’s been an influx of talent into this program that should be able to get to those heights in college baseball,” Cole explained. “For me personally, I view that as a challenge of mine, especially now taking over as head coach. I was fortunate enough to win a National Championship as an assistant, and I would love to do that as a head coach.”
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.