With San Jose State’s resurgence, former NFL players, coaches find themselves with bragging rights

Jeff Garcia will no doubt be watching from San Diego and James Jones will be tuning in from his home in Arizona. David Fales has plans to watch from Salinas, and Dick Vermeil should be ready to go in Pennsylvania.
“It’s the opening of deer season here, so I’ll be back in hopefully for that,” Vermeil, 84, said of San Jose State’s nationally televised showdown with Boise State on Saturday afternoon. “I’m excited about it.”
San Jose State’s 4-0 start this season — its best since 1955, the year before Vermeil arrived on campus to play quarterback — has Spartans nation fired up, particularly former players and coaches who have witnessed plenty of lean years, both up close and from afar.
Now, after seeing their school enjoy only one winning season in the last 14 years, it’s the Spartans alumni’s turn to boast a little and be proud of what coach Brent Brennan’s team has done so far.
“Just excited to see San Jose State back on the map,” said Jones, a Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers who played 44 games for the Spartans from 2003 to 2006. “To be able to brag about your alma mater, to say they’re out here beating up on people, winning football games. We’ve got some bragging rights right now.”

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“They really look good,” said Claude Gilbert, 88, who played at SJSU from 1956 to 1958 and later had 38 wins as the team’s coach from 1984-89. “I think all of us old Spartans should be very proud of this team and these young men.”
It isn’t an accident that so many former Spartans still feel a strong connection to the program.
After Brennan took over as the SJSU coach in Dec. 2016, he spoke to several former coaches and players to make sure they knew he wanted them to still feel like they were a part of the team.
“He’s great about reaching out, and I appreciate that from him,” Garcia said of Brennan. “Because I don’t think there’s really been many coaches in the past that have done that like Brent has.
“He just truly believes that it’s important for me to have a stamp on the program.”
Jones said he talks to Brennan regularly, usually after every game. Vermeil said he’s been sending texts to Brennan about once a week.
“You have to win one game in a row to maintain a streak,” Vermeil said of a recent note he sent to Brennan. “When you start winning, people begin to talk about a win streak. But you only have to win one game to keep it going.”
Former San Jose State University Spartans’ starting quarterback David Fales (10) throws against the Stanford Cardinal in the first quarter at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012. (Nhat V. Meyer/Staff) 
Garcia, the Spartans’ starting quarterback from 1991 to 1993, wanted to become SJSU’s head coach after Ron Caragher was let go in Nov. 2016. Garcia, though, said he was never given the chance to formally interview for the position, which went to Brennan less than two weeks after Caragher’s dismissal.
Nevertheless, Brennan and Garcia have a good relationship. Before the Spartans played San Diego State on Nov. 6 on the road in what was their biggest game of the season up until that point, Garcia said Brennan asked him to record a speech for the players.
“I put a little something together,” Garcia said, with his voice rising, “and hopefully that helped fire them up a little bit and create a little edge before going out onto the field that day.”
SJSU beat the Aztecs 28-17, and Brennan said he received over 500 text messages just from the time the game ended until he boarded the plane to come home.

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“We’re excited for him, just seeing how he’s been able to get the turnaround, doing it the right way, pouring into the kids,” said former NFL fullback James Hodgins, who played at SJSU from 1995 to 1998 and is now the coach at Berkeley High School.
“Just definitely a sense of pride for former players.”
Fales didn’t want to draw a direct comparison from his time at the school in 2012 and 2013 to what’s going on now, but there are similarities.
Fales said former coach Mike MacIntyre raised expectations around the team, pushing the players harder than before. From 2010 to 2012, the Spartans went from 1-12 to 11-2.
“I wasn’t there for the early years, but guys were telling me it was rough,” Fales said. “People were pissed at Coach Mac just because he was setting the standard and a certain culture that guys weren’t used to.”
The Spartans went 3-22 in Brennan’s first two years when winning a Mountain West Conference title was just a pipe dream. With a win Saturday against Boise State (4-1, 4-0), though, SJSU might just make itself the team to beat.
“It’s starting to show that everybody has bought in and believes in it,” Fales said. “Once you get the whole team bought in on a certain standard, it becomes fun.”
Jones, Garcia and Hodgins have stayed in touch playing with some of their former teammates through group text messages over the years. Now it’s just a lot more enjoyable.
“I’m on a text chain with a bunch of my ex-wide receivers that I played with, the Young Guns,” said Garcia, mentioning former teammates like Bobby Blackmon, Gary Charlton and David Blakes. “We’ve had some fun, talking about how the Spartans are back, and what it means to the Spartan community. It’s been fun watching this team go out and compete on a weekly basis.”
49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia celebrates after scrambling into the end zone during the fourth quarter of the Niners’ 39-38 comeback victory over the New York Giants during the NFC Wild Card Game at Candlestick in 2003. (Bay Area News Group Archives) 
Vermeil, who played at San Jose State in 1956 and 1957, still talks to Al Saunders, a member of SJSU’s Sports Hall of Fame, and Bob Keller, who was a fullback on Vermeil’s team in 1957.
“We’ve got something to talk about and take pride in,” Vermeil said.
The Spartans who played in the NFL said there are always discussions about college football in the locker room, and often it’s about their alma mater’s success or the prestige of their conference. Some friendly wagers have also been known to happen.
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But with consistent on-field success proving to be elusive for SJSU over the years, sometimes the ex-Spartans were left out of the conversation.
“Yeah, I don’t think that was happening,” said Garcia, who played 10-plus seasons in the NFL. “I was the quiet guy.”
Not now, though.
“I’m still bragging about San Jose State. I’ll even text some of my old teammates,” Jones said. “Like, ‘y’all lucky you’re not playing us right now.’”

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