SAN JOSE -- A fireworks show is scheduled after San Jose State's football opener Thursday night. Ron Caragher knows what that means: His team had better win. There's nothing more melancholy or morose than exploding starbursts in the sky after a loss to Sacramento State.
"I told our players that if you want to have a special season, you have to take it one game at a time," Caragher said the other day.
This one particular game, however, is scads more important than he probably realizes. Losing an opener often leads to a losing season. San Jose State simply cannot afford to have one.
Caragher is the Spartans' new head coach -- their sixth in the past 20 years -- and his mission is to do something none of his five predecessors accomplished. He needs to produce a winner in his first season on the job. None of his five immediate predecessors did so. Only one of the five, Dick Tomey in 2005, won his first game as SJSU's coach.
And that, in at least one version of a nutshell, is why San Jose State has had so much trouble becoming the sort of football program it seeks to be: Namely, the sort of program that sells more than a mere 2,600 season tickets, the accumulated total so far in 2013, as was recently reported by this newspaper.
"I love challenges," Caragher said. "And I know that is one challenge for our football program ... to get those 160,000 Spartan alums in the Bay Area to fill up the stadium. I have a vision for that. I believe it can happen."
How? Over the decades, dozens of marketing brains at San Jose State have been gnarled into mush, trying to create schemes that will pack Spartan Stadium's 30,465 available seats. This explains the fireworks show Thursday, plus a postgame performance by a Filipino dance group. The solution's most critical element, however, could be profoundly simple: More victories more consistently.
Of course, that's also the element Caragher can affect most directly. Yet as history tells us, it won't be easy. And not just because San Jose State is stepping up into the Mountain West Conference, with higher quality opponents.
You can look it up: During the past 20 years, San Jose State has posted just three winning football seasons. None of the three was followed up by another plus-.500 record. After raising winning hopes and enthusiasm, the Spartans have always returned to mediocrity or worse. The Spartans have not had back-to-back winning teams since 1991-92.
This season should break that string. Caragher inherits many pieces -- though not all -- from the Spartans team that went 11-2 last season, including a Military Bowl victory over Bowling Green.
So what's a fair expectation for the 2013 team?
"I don't go by numbers," said Caragher, declining to name a victory total. "My expectations are to have a team that stays and fights together and competes and gets back up when it gets knocked down. And by knocked down, I don't necessarily mean losing a game. I mean the times during a game when you get knocked down, absorb a blow or a bad break. The good teams find a way to get back up and win."
Does his team have the right stuff to do that?
"I'm impressed with the young men in the program," Caragher said. "Not that I haven't had discipline issues. But I feel like we have a good locker room culture."
Caragher has much going for him. He made a solid initial impression last winter when he took over for Mike MacIntyre, who left SJSU for Colorado. Caragher brought a winning reputation from the lower-tier program that he shepherded as head coach at the University of San Diego after succeeding Jim Harbaugh there.
There's one more thing that could help grow the Spartans fan base: Caragher's local DNA and connections. He was a star quarterback at Bellarmine College Prep (Class of 1985) and grew up in Morgan Hill, where his mom still lives. This makes Caragher the first SJSU head football coach from a South Bay high school since Terry Shea in 1990-91 -- and in Shea's first season, he reeled off a 9-2-1 record that included a victory over Fresno State before 31,218 at Spartan Stadium, plus a California Raisin Bowl victory over Central Michigan.
None of that guarantees success for Caragher. But it shows what is possible. Caragher has done his part to move tickets, touting his team at civic club luncheons. He was at Bellarmine this month for his son's freshman football tryout and ran into old classmates, whom he hopes to recruit as SJSU followers. But nothing will be more significant to the cause than a winning season. Caragher understands the concept of fan momentum.
"It just has to be a buzz among the students and alums -- you know, 'Hey, I'm a Spartan and I want to be a part of that,' " he said.
Until then, cue the Polynesian dancers and the pyrotechnics. It's time for Caragher's grand opening ceremony. He and his players would do well not to mess up the ribbon cutting.
San Jose State football not taking giant-killer Sacramento State lightly in season opener.
Sacramento State at San Jose State, 7 p.m.