The changing of the guard at the top of a college football program is one of the most scrutinized processes in all of sports. The experts are numerous and the expectations are downright scary.
But it is also a chance to re-invent a program. That opportunity presented itself following the 2001 football season and San Diego State officials set out to find the right man for the job.
It was a simple edict.
All the Aztec brass had to do was sort through the pretenders and contenders for the job to find the person to lead San Diego State's recovery. It had to be someone who could recapture the imagination of the Aztec fans who hungered for the offensive firepower that the San Diego State faithful feel is their heritage. It had to be someone aware of San Diego State's past but with a strong vision of the program's future - as well as the future of college football. It had to be someone with a proven track record as a winner and with the confidence to turn around a program heavy in potential but lacking in recent successes. It had to be someone who could evaluate talent and at the same time take on the sport's heavy hitters for a player's signature.
It had to be Tom Craft.
A San Diego State graduate, a former Aztec quarterback and a former offensive coordinator on Montezuma Mesa, Craft was introduced as San Diego State's 15th head football coach on Dec. 6, 2001.
In his first season as the Aztec head coach, he led a mini-revival. San Diego State showed the biggest improvement in the country in passing offense. After ranking 89th in that category in 2001, Craft's first offense was fifth nationally with an average of 330 passing yards per game and set a school record with 4,302 passing yards for the season.
The Aztecs also made a monumental jump in total offense, rising from 98th to 29th with virtually the same lineup that had sputtered the year before. Only Purdue, Southern California and Oklahoma State showed more improvement.
But the improvement was more than cosmetic.
The Aztecs finished third in the Mountain West Conference after being picked for last. It was SDSU's first upper-division finish in the new league and its first winning record in league play since the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl team. The Aztecs picked up their first-ever Mountain West wins over Air Force and Utah, pushed Colorado into the fourth quarter and lost on the last play of the game in Craft's debut at Fresno State.
Along the way, the moniker of "Air Craft" was developed by the media, playing off of the most successful period in San Diego State history, known as "Air Coryell" as well as Craft's love for throwing the ball. Craft's first team saw wide receivers J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood set NCAA records for productivity by two teammates. Both players now collect checks from the National Football League after earning all-conference honors.
The first year of the Craft era ended with a recruiting class ranked as one of the school's best ever, as the Mountain West's top class and among the nation's top 40. "Aztecs Make Their Move" heralded SuperPrep magazine after the recruiting dust had settled.
Craft's second season provided more highlights.
The Aztec defense came to be known as "The Dark Side" and was launched into national headlines when it limited second-ranked and defending national champion Ohio State without an offensive touchdown and just 196 yards of total offense in a 16-13 down-to-the-wire loss. The unit ended the season as the eighth best defense in the country and tops in the Mountain West. It was also the nation's most improved defensive unit in 2003.
The Aztecs overcame numerous injuries down the stretch to win three of their final four games and earn a .500 season for the first time since 1998. SDSU finished its regular season without its starting quarterback, leading rusher or leading receiver.
Craft's third team scared another national foe when No. 17 Michigan escaped the Aztecs, 24-21. SDSU achieved a first when it defeated Air Force for the third consecutive season and it did so with a roster depleted by injury. In fact, six freshmen were starting on the offensive side by the season finale.
In just three seasons, Craft has coached the Mountain West freshman of the year (Lynell Hamilton) and the league's defensive player of the year in Kirk Morrison, who became the first conference player to earn that award in consecutive season. Seven players have been named first-team all-Mountain West during Craft's tenure.
Tom Craft is the first San Diego State graduate to lead the football program since Bob Breitbard in 1945 and is one of just 19 coaches in Division I employed by his alma mater. His hiring is a true return to San Diego State's historic past, when SDSU was among the nation's most successful programs in the 1960s and 1970s. His philosophies are near and dear to the hearts of the Aztec faithful.
Craft's San Diego State roots are clearly evident at all times. Many of the team's workouts have been preceded by words of encouragement from past Aztec players and coaches, including current New York Jets head coach (and former Craft teammate at SDSU) Herman Edwards and former SDSU standout and College Football Hall of Fame member Fred Dryer, now best known for his television role as "Hunter". On the road, San Diego State has heard from a variety of former Aztecs, including receiver Haven Moses, a member of the Aztec and Denver Broncos Hall of Fame, and St. Louis Rams offensive lineman and former Aztec Kyle Turley.
The legend himself, Don Coryell, was on tap for an Aztec workout last fall, as was NFL offensive guru and former SDSU assistant Ernie Zampese and recent Aztec Hall of Fame inductee Claude Gilbert, the second winningest coach in school history.
Many spring workouts ended with Craft quizzing his squad on Aztec trivia and San Diego State's football heritage. There is little doubt that the current San Diego State football team will have a deeper appreciation for the Red and Black tradition than most of its predecessors.
Craft has a direct link to San Diego State's glory years under Coryell. He played at State under Claude Gilbert, who was an assistant under Coryell during the school's blistering 12-year run. Gilbert succeeded the legend when Coryell left for the National Football League. Coryell left behind a stunning record of 104-19-2 and Gilbert followed with a 61-26-2 mark.
As a player, Craft was the starting quarterback and team captain for the Aztecs in 1976 and led San Diego State to a 10-1 record while completing 69 percent of his passes. In fact, during Craft's two years on the San Diego State campus, the Aztecs posted a cumulative mark of 18-4. His teammates at State included Herman Edwards and Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox.
The success he tasted as a player became a way of life for Craft as a coach. As a coordinator at San Diego State (1994-1996), he led the Aztecs to their three best offensive years in the post-Marshall Faulk era. Each of his units averaged more than 30 points per game, including an eye-popping 38.9-point average his final year as coordinator in 1996. During his last two seasons on campus, San Diego State was ranked among the nation's top 10 teams in scoring and total offense.
Under Craft's tutelage, San Diego State has seen some of its greatest individual achievements. Quarterback Billy Blanton, receivers J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood, and running back George Jones etched their names in the Aztec and national record books.
Blanton's 169.6 passing rating in 1996 is still the best ever by an Aztec and his career passing efficiency mark of 157.1 is third all-time by an NCAA player who spent all four years at a Division I program, trailing only Heisman Trophy winners Danny Wuerffel of Florida and Ty Detmer of Brigham Young.
J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood rewrote school and NCAA record books in 2002, combining for an NCAA-record 236 catches and 3,337 receiving yards. Tolver set the school single-season mark with 128 catches and Osgood has the second best season in Aztec history with 108 grabs.
And if you think the Craft attack is one dimensional, keep in mind that George Jones set the Aztec single-season rushing mark of 1,842 yards in 1995 with Tom Craft as offensive coordinator. In 2002, Lynell Hamilton had the best freshman rushing season by an Aztec since Faulk and became just the second freshman in Mountain West history named first-team all-league. He was also a freshman All-American.
Craft's stint as offensive coordinator ended with a pair of eight-win seasons in 1995 and '96. The 1995 San Diego State team was the first in NCAA history with a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,500-yard rusher and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Billy Blanton, George Jones and receivers Will Blackwell and Az Hakim).
As head coach at Palomar College, Craft's stint can only be referred to as an "era". After serving as an assistant coach at the school from 1977 to 1982 and with the school openly questioning its commitment to football, he took over head-coaching duties in 1983. After a pair of 4-6 seasons, the Comets' fortunes began to improve. By the time Craft left the San Marcos school for the Aztec coordinator's job, Palomar was coming off of a three-year stretch of 31-2, had an offense ranked among the nation's top five for five consecutive years and was sporting two national championships.
After three years at San Diego State, Craft returned to Palomar and spent five more seasons at the school. The Comets produced eight-win, 10-win and 11-win campaigns and another national title. Overall, Craft's stay at Palomar College included a record of 115-56-1. Five of his teams won at least 10 games and he won three national championships and three California community college state championships. He was voted as the state coach of the year five times and was honored as the Mission Conference coach of the year nine times. His squads posted a 9-3 record in bowl games and won nine conference titles in his last 10 seasons.
Craft was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 12, 1953. He attended Pacific Grove High School, where he was an all-conference selection in football, basketball and baseball. Before arriving at San Diego State, he played football at Monterey Peninsula College, where he led the nation's junior colleges in passing. He was a two-time all-Coast Conference selection at the school.
Craft graduated from San Diego State in 1977 and earned his master's degree from Azusa Pacific in 1983. His wife, Kathy, is also a San Diego State graduate. They have three children. Lacey Jaye played on the Aztecs' women's softball team through 2005. Kevin is a freshman quarterback on this year's Aztec football team, while another son, Kyle, is a high school junior.