Ann Killion
Tuesday September 1st, 2009

Most of us would peg Saturday's game between No. 4 USC and San Jose State as a pure body bagger, in the grand tradition of early season mismatches.

A lesser program suffers a potentially embarrassing beatdown at the hands of a powerhouse, but claims a nice guaranteed paycheck. The haves crush the have-nots, but at least pay for the privilege.

But don't tell that to Dick Tomey. The 71-year old San Jose State coach doesn't use the term "body bag." And he sees nothing in the game at the Los Angeles Coliseum but a beautiful opportunity.

"No matter what happens, we're going to benefit from this experience," Tomey said Monday. "They're the deepest, most talented team in the country. This is a real opportunity."

Tomey wouldn't be at San Jose State if he weren't a devout optimist. When he arrived after the 2004 season -- after being recruited by his old friend and San Jose State alumnus, the late Bill Walsh -- the program was in shambles.

The Spartans appeared to be on the brink of extinction, plagued by dwindling crowds, terrible academic issues, little stability and just 14 wins in four years.

But Tomey plunged ahead. And one of the first things he and athletic director Tom Bowen did was work out a schedule so their team could go on the road to play the biggest, baddest football team in the nation. At the time, the Trojans were coming off back-to-back national championships. Since then, USC has lost just six games.

"We didn't want to play them back then," Tomey said. "But we wanted to schedule them four years into the program. Let's take on the best and see where we are."

Tomey will find out Saturday how his team measures up. But, no matter the outcome, the Spartans are already light years ahead of where they were when he arrived.

Tomey -- in his third stint as a head coach, following successful runs at Hawaii and Arizona -- inherited a program that had lost almost 25 percent of its potential scholarships due to poor APR (Academic Progress Report) scores. Over time, Tomey has built up the depth. Though the Spartans still aren't at the maximum 85 scholarships, they're in the mid-seventies.

Attendance can't rival USC's regular houses of 90,000, but home crowds for the Spartans are up significantly from where they had been under Tomey's predecessor Fitz Hill.

By convincing USC to host his Spartans, Tomey gained a recruiting tool; more than three dozen players on his current roster are from Southern California. The game has energized his fan base. It will give the Spartans a rare national television presence.

And then there's the guaranteed payday -- reportedly in the high six-figures. That kind of cash is something San Jose State has traditionally sought and welcomes now more than ever. As with so many California institutions, SJSU is strapped -- mandated furloughs are affecting the coaching staff and later this week the team will take a 500-mile bus ride to Los Angeles, rather than a 55-minute flight.

The biggest upside of the game, however, remains the pure motivation. The Spartans lost their final three games of the 2008 season, along with a chance at a bowl game. That bitter ending, combined with knowing who was slotted for the opener, kept the players motivated through the winter and spring.

"This game has helped us since last January," Tomey said. "I think the players feel a sense of urgency. The guys have lost weight, gained strength, trying to remake themselves. Playing USC has already helped us."

The downside would be a huge injury toll. USC has traditionally been ruthless in guarantee games. The Trojans are 28-1 against teams from the WAC, 3-0 against San Jose State. The Spartans best hope is that USC's freshman quarterback Matt Barkley is even more jittery on the big stage than they are. And that the Trojans are perhaps peeking ahead to Ohio State on Sept. 12.

Tomey's first legitimate recruits are now seniors. They've bought into Tomey's message of optimism.

"We want to shock the world," said senior defensive tackle Kalvin Cressel.

They'll have more than one chance. The Spartans follow up the USC game with a matchup against Utah, which means their first two opponents combined for a 2008 record of 25-1.

And you know what Tomey says about that?

You guessed it: golden opportunity.

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