Ted Tollner, the new head football coach at San Diego State, has been a survivor -- literally and figuratively.
On Oct. 29, 1960, when he was the starting sophomore quarterback for Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, the team plane crashed while landing at the Toledo, Ohio, airport. The plane split in half, killing 22 people, including 16 players.
"It was just fate," said Tollner, whose team plays host to the Naval Academy in the season opener tomorrow night. "I was seated in the middle of the plane. Everyone in front of me was killed, and the rest of us were spared.
"That was a real difficult time for me, an 18-year-old college kid. I lost a lot of close friends and teammates in that crash. It was a hard time for everyone connected with the university. Our season was cut short, and it put life and football in perspective for a young man."
It is why Tollner, 54, who has coached football on the college and professional level for 26 years, has been able to overcome career disappointments.
He was fired by Southern Cal in 1986 despite a four-year record of 26-20-1 and a Rose Bowl victory in 1985. "I inherited a team on probation in 1983, and the next year we went 9-3 and beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl," he said. "My record probably would have been considered OK at most schools, but at USC, there were always lofty expectations."
Athletic director Fred Miller, dissatisfied with the Aztecs' record of 18-13-2 the past three seasons despite the presence of All-America running back Marshall Faulk, fired Al Luginbill and interviewed six candidates for the job.
"Tollner was No. 1 on my list at the start, and at the end," said Miller, who gave his new coach a five-year contract worth a base of $72,000 per season. "I realize I was part of the football problem, and now I hope I'm part of the solution."
This is actually Tollner's second tour of duty at San Diego State. He served as the Aztecs' offensive coordinator from 1973 to 1980 when the team posted a 61-26-2 record.
"A lot's changed since then," Tollner said. "The campus has really grown, and now we're practicing in a $3.5 million football complex and playing at Jack Murphy Stadium. But the schedule has gotten tougher. We played UCLA or USC in the past, but the WAC [Western Athletic Conference] is tough competition down the line."
The Aztecs were picked to finish seventh in a preseason WAC poll, but Tollner's reputation -- and a staff that includes former NFL assistants Jeff Fitzgerald (Tampa Bay), LaCharls McDaniel (Phoenix) and Ed White (San Diego) -- have alumni and students expecting immediate success.
With Faulk forsaking his senior year to carry the ball for the Indianapolis Colts, Tollner had to revamp the Aztecs' strategy, introducing a no-huddle offense.
Also gone is wide receiver Darnay Scott, a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Together, Faulk and Scott rolled up 10,523 yards in three seasons.
Much of the pressure to make the no-huddle offense succeed will be on senior quarterback Tim Gutierrez, who completed 62 percent of his passes (218 of 361) for 3,033 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, and senior tailback Wayne Pittman, who gained 606 yards as Faulk's backup.
Tollner has made a favorable impression on his new charges.
"The man just stands up there and looks and acts like a winner," freshman safety Derrick Norman told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Look at his track record. He's been to the show."
One of Turner's early disciples at USC was Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner. "Ted had a very positive affect on me," Turner said. "His rapport with his players is as good as I've seen between a coach and a team."
Tollner, the survivor, is ready for a new challenge. "I really don't know what to expect this year," he said. "Let's just take a ride and see how far we can go."