SAN DIEGO (AP) - Two buses pulled up in front of one of this city’s signature Italian restaurants Tuesday afternoon and San Diego State football players and coaches piled out.
It had been an uneventful 11-mile trip from campus. The Aztecs posed for a team picture under the Little Italy street sign and then headed out into the historic downtown neighborhood to hang out with the locals, play some Bocce ball and eat.
After reading that Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines will take a nine-day trip to Rome next month, paid for by an anonymous booster, SDSU coach Rocky Long met with his staff to figure out what they could do on their much more moderate budget.
“I said, ‘Well, we can’t take our guys to Italy. We’ll take them to Little Italy,” Long said.
So they planned a trip to what was once the center of San Diego’s tuna fishing industry and is now a gentrified neighborhood that celebrates its Italian heritage.
Long wouldn’t come out and say it, but the Aztecs’ cross-town jaunt was a tongue-in-cheek poke at what Michigan is able to do.
“I just thought it was a great idea, and I’d love to take our team to Italy, too, but we can’t afford that kind of stuff,” Long said. “Only a few people in the world can afford to take 200 people on an expense-paid, nine-day vacation.
“Obviously it’s the haves and haves nots,” said Long, who has led the Aztecs to consecutive Mountain West titles and a bowl game in each of his six seasons. “It’s an interesting deal, because then everybody wonders why you don’t beat them.”
Long figured going to Little Italy would be a fun alternative to another spring practice.
“Most of them are going to get to see a part of San Diego they’ve never seen before,” he said. “They’ll have a good time and realize what a neat place San Diego is. It has all the stuff we don’t have to get on an airplane for. We get to do it right here. And then they’re always good for a free meal.”
Long read that Harbaugh plans to take his team to South Africa and Japan in future years, so he’s planned trips to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, formerly known as the Wild Animal Park, and the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.
“It gives our team something to do and learn something about San Diego that most of them don’t know,” Long said “Our local guys do, but most of the other ones don’t.”
Sure enough, running back Rashaad Penny, who will replace NCAA all-time leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey as SDSU’s featured back, had never been to Little Italy.
“I think this is a great thing for our team, just for us to bond together and get the final days of spring ball over with,” Penny said. “Coming down to Little Italy is awesome and I think the head coach did a great job.”
Penny chuckled when asked if the trip was a subliminal jab at Michigan, which will practice three times while in Rome.
“I mean, this is probably better than Italy,” he said. “We don’t have to spend as much. We’re having fun anyway. It’s definitely new scenery for some of us. It’s kind of new to us. It’s a different culture and I’m glad we’re coming down here to learn it.”
Long was asked if he’d take the Aztecs to Ocean Beach, the eclectic seaside neighborhood where he lives.
Could happen, because Long read that New Zealand is on Harbaugh’s list of places to take the Wolverines.
“If he goes to New Zealand, we’ve got a New Zealand restaurant in Ocean Beach,” Long cracked.
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