The last time Craig Young was in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly’s football stadium wasn’t called Spanos.
It didn’t have anything that could even remotely qualify as a luxury box, and the scoreboard definitely didn’t play video.
But the Mustangs’ all-time leading rusher, who had more than 4,200 yards after his last season in 1999, is back in town for the first time in years to watch Cal Poly’s Green-Gold Spring Game today at 1 p.m. and to speak at a coinciding booster barbecue.
The change he’s seen in his return — the renovation of the west side of Alex G. Spanos Stadium completed in 2006, the renaming of it after its primary donor as well as a video scoreboard donated by Moriarty Enterprises last season — has shaped the message Young intends to send.
“I come back. I see the stadium. I see some of the growth that is taking place,” Young said, “and I am extremely excited to push this thing forward and push the program where ultimately everyone wants to see it go.
“I’m going to issue a challenge not only to the guys in the room but with myself to hold up the legacy of giving.”
Where exactly does everyone want to see the program go? As the years go by, more former players are emerging to express their visions of Cal Poly playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Mustangs’ most famous alumnus, John Madden, previously expressed similar wishes while acknowledging the financial challenges of such a move last summer.
Rumors abound across the country as college conferences are talking expansion and realignment. If there is a trickledown effect on the West Coast, Cal Poly could be one of the Football Championship Subdivision schools positioning for a move up.
Fresno State coach Pat Hill has said in the past that he could foresee the Mustangs joining the Western Athletic Conference.
Whether change is on the immediate horizon is immaterial to Young.
Forward progress, on the other hand, is paramount.
“I don’t think any one moment is more important than any other,” said Young, now a branch manager at UBS Financial Services in Houston. “If the groundwork wasn’t laid from way back, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I think what is extremely important is that we don’t lose momentum, and it appears now that we are gaining momentum.”
Gary Davis was one of the running backs who paved the way for future successors at Cal Poly.
Davis was Cal Poly’s first 1,000-yard running back. He set the school’s career rushing record at 2,368 yards in 1975. After being picked in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins in 1976, he’s still the highest Mustangs running back ever drafted.
In 2005, Cal Poly had its first player ever taken in the third round, linebacker Jordan Beck, and has had two more since.
Like Young, whom he watched with admiration from the stands, Davis agrees that the program must keep striving.
“A lot of these guys who are going to the pros now are obviously reaping the benefits of what I was able to do,” Davis said. “That’s why it’s important for them to continue to move upward.
“Some of the younger guys don’t understand what it took for us to get through the door. I am probably one of the pioneers. When I went here, people laughed at me when you said you had a chance to turn pro.”
Davis, who now lives in Atascadero, said he gained further appreciation for the current coaching staff when word broke that Cal Poly had lined up future games with Arizona State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Wyoming and Northern Illinois — all FBS teams.
During Davis’ playing days, when Cal Poly competed in Division II, the Mustangs were 3-0 against Fresno State, who they will play this season for the first time in 25 years.
From 1972 to 1979, Cal Poly was 6-1-1 against the Bulldogs, their only defeat being a 52-3 loss in San Luis Obispo in 1978.
That loss came under the watch of running back Bob Trudeau, who broke the career rushing record of Davis when he finished with 2,570 yards. The two were teammates for two seasons.
Trudeau was also teammates for two seasons with Louis Jackson, who broke Trudeau’s career rushing record with 3,330 yards. After Jackson helped lead Cal Poly to a Division II national title in 1980, he held onto the record until it was broken by Antonio Warren, who finished with 3,834 yards in 1998.
Trudeau said the game has changed much since his time, when offensive linemen in front of him played in four-point stances and rarely weighed more than 250 pounds.
Just as blockers have become bigger in the past 25 years, Trudeau would like to see the stadium continue to expand.
Now at a seating capacity of 11,075, Spanos Stadium would have to add at least 4,000 more seats to satisfy NCAA requirements for moving into the FBS.
“What I’ve seen now is the commitment from the athletic department to get in a bigger conference,” Trudeau said. “When you’re a 17-year-old, 18-year-old kid, those things really impress you. It’s the facilities and the stadium and the conference when you recruit.“If they’re talking the WAC, and that’s the league I keep hearing about, that’s huge. And I think the stadium is an integral part of that expansion.”