Taking over as the Aztecs’ head coach, Sean Lewis inherited a program from Brady Hoke with numerous positives. Snapdragon Stadium is arguably the only professional-level stadium in the Mountain West. Lewis will not have to instill toughness and work ethic into the returning players. Defensive habits and know-how exist at every Dark Side depth chart level.
Among all the advantages handed down from the previous regime, the most unique is the job Hoke and his staff did in recruiting Texas. Twelve Aztecs from the Lone Star State graced the 2023 roster.
The spectacle that is the UIL Texas State Championship, held at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, offered an illuminating example of the place football holds in the state. The East Village Times covered the final two championship games on Saturday night.
“When everyone talks about the best high school football, I think we ought to talk about why it’s the best,” North Shore head football coach Willie Gaston said postgame. “The administration, the resources that these school districts put into it, that’s what separates it when we’re saying it’s the best. … Yes, I’m going to say Texas football is the best because all of our coaches are going to work inside the school building. … In California, you don’t have to work in the school building to be coaching. So, when you have all that and the resources they’re going to give you to help these kids be successful, I couldn’t coach in a better state.”
Saving the biggest divisions for last, the contests pitted teams from the 6A Division. 40,673 took in the 6A Division 1 game between Duncanville and North Shore, and 32,346 watched the 6AD2 affair with a 7:50 pm start time between DeSoto and Humble Summer Creek.
Only two of SDSU’s games this year approached those numbers, UCLA (32,017) and at Oregon State (35,591). Despite playing in an 80,000-seat venue, the high school games felt fuller at kickoff than the Aztecs’ contests with the Bruins and Beavers. The marching bands, cheer squads, and other pageantry surrounding the championship experience matched the collegiate level.
Gathered at the event were numerous area coaches. They knew the Aztecs as a place where Texas kids had found success in college. A couple also fondly mentioned former SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Horton. “He was at my school all the time recruiting,” one coach remarked in passing.
Horton, a Dallas-Fort Worth area native, worked tirelessly to open the Texas to SDSU pipeline. Lewis only has a small window to keep it from closing. With only three weeks from the date of his hire to early signing day and without a full coaching staff, it is understandable focusing on Texas has not been high on the new staff’s task list. Moving forward, it is critical.
“It means a lot,” Duncanville head coach Reginald Samples said following his team’s 49-33 victory. “What you don’t realize is it builds a little bit more and more all year long. The support, the enthusiasm is not surprising to me because our community believes in these young men and the program and the community that I work with.”
Excellence hinges on private dedication. The habits, work ethic, and skill employed when no one is watching determines an individual’s ceiling. While the best athletes are motivated by an inner drive, outside factors play just as important of a role. As legendary as Michael Jordan’s work ethic was, he didn’t languish in baseball’s minor leagues very long before returning to the global stage.
For the children of Texas, the championships serve as a powerful motivator. Gaston described football as “the best ‘at-risk’ program in education.” In California, participation in the sport has fallen. If there was an event as supported as the Texas state title games in the Golden State, it would help reach more young men at a critical time when the course of their lives will be decided.
In Texas, chasing the chance to play in Saturday night’s atmosphere means more athletes doing the labor required away from the public eye, making more players from the state better at their craft. Texans excel at the college level because they have been tried by the crucible of competition.
“The camera’s not always there,” Duncanville edge rusher Collin Simmons, who won defensive MVP of the D1 game, explained. “We go through a lot on and off the field. Personal problems on and off the field. To go out there, do it for our brothers, do it for our head coach, for Dallas, that’s the main thing, honestly. You’ve got to have your reason why.”
In 2023, 106 athletes from the state competed on Mountain West teams. It is an impressive number considering Texas is outside of the member institution’s footprints. Most notable among them was Boise State’s RB Ashton Jeanty. The MW offensive player of the year, Jeanty was ranked the 45th-best player in the Lone Star State by 247Sports in the Class of 2022.
Filling Horton Shoes
Saturday’s final games pitted two teams from Dallas (Duncanville and DeSoto) against a pair from Houston (North Shore and Summer Creek). When Duncanville won the first contest, some of their players raced to the tunnel where DeSoto’s athletes waited to take their turn on the field. The two schools, separated by less than seven miles, cheered for each other so Dallas could lay claim to having the best high school football in Texas. These sprawling metropolitans are football factories.
Highlighting SDSU’s inroads into the state, its California sister schools and Mountain West rivals, San Jose State and Fresno State, had zero Texans on their rosters in 2023. Horton canvased Dallas and former safeties coach Kyle Hoke competed frequently in Houston for talent. Not limited to these powerhouse cities, the Aztecs landed kids from Tyler, Texarkana, and others throughout the state.
SDSU does not currently have Texas area recruiters. With the staff at SDSU still unpacking boxes in their offices in the Fowler Athletic Center, there is less structure to the recruiting process than is typical. When asked for comment, the university insisted Texas will continue to be a priority moving forward.
Three keys would help SDSU keep the inroads developed in the past decade.
Keep the present recruiting staff in place. No one knows better the relationships the former staff built in Texas than the recruiting staff headed by Ryon Lynn. Lynn and his team are still employed at SDSU. Lewis has not said if the current group will be retained or if he has other designs for how recruiting is organized on The Mesa. Losing Lynn and his team would be another separation from Horton’s work and make it harder to continue it in Texas.
Assign great area recruiters. New WR coach Lanear Sampson’s resume suggests he would be the perfect replacement for Horton. Sampson is from the Dallas area. He also starred at Baylor. OL coach Bill O’Boyle’s emphasis on toughness could play well in Texas. The community was key Saturday night. The energy from the parents, students, and fans made the event special. Only people who can authentically enter the Texas football community will be able to recruit there effectively.
Build the SDSU brand in Texas. The University of Nebraska had a car wrapped with Cornhusker players and coaches parked outside of AT&T Stadium. Nebraska’s advertisement underscored an important aspect of the championships. School colors matter in Texas. Finding ways to market the Scarlett and Black locally can go a long way to capturing more athletes who leave for college. Whether that be billboards or engaging in coaching clinics, there is a lot of competition for Texas recruits, so raising the program’s profile matters.
Jeff Horton opened the Texas to SDSU pipeline. Even as the Aztecs refocus their recruiting efforts on Southern California, Sean Lewis needs to keep this key aspect of their program that he inherited. The enthusiasm and passion for football in Texas is second to none, and every athlete from the state that heads west to play at SDSU brings that contagious culture to The Mesa.
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.