San Diego State head coach Tony Gwynn before the start of their game against Long Beach State at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif. on April 4, 2011. Gwynn is a former Poly standout and MLB Hall of Famer
Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The Best Athlete in San Diego State Basketball History? Tony Gwynn

This weekend, San Diego State University makes its debut in the NCAA Tournament men's basketball Final Four. The Aztec are also the first team in Mountain West Conference history to make a Final Four appearance. It's a huge deal for the Aztecs, and it's an announcement to all college basketball fans that the MWC is a conference to be reckoned with. That is, until the Pac-12 poaches its best schools to replace USC and UCLA, which are inexplicably fleeing to the Big Ten in the latest round of conference roulette that only exists to make fatter paydays for Power 5 football schools and bewilder fans. Imagine what SDSU's Tony Gwynn could've done against the UCLA and USC baseball teams of the 1970s and 80s if the Aztecs played in the Pac-12. 

Head coach Brian Dutcher has poured a lot of sweat equity to get the Aztecs to this point. Dutcher started as an associate head coach with San Diego State in 1999 before taking over as head coach in 2017. He's installed a ferocious defense that mucks up games and slows things down, much to the chagrin of fans who enjoy seeing the ball go through the hoop. 

San Diego State has sent a few players to the NBA, including the Raptors' Malachi Flynn and Jalen McDaniels of the Philadelphia 76ers. But the best basketball player to go through SDSU is undoubtedly Kawhi Leonard. The Riverside, California, native played two seasons at San Diego State, averaging over 14 points and 10 rebounds per game and earning consensus second-team All-America honors in his sophomore season. The Klaw has gone on to have a stellar if somewhat load management-filled — career in the NBA, starring with the Spurs, Raptors and now Clippers.

In an interesting quirk of sneakers deals, even though Leonard has a signature sneaker, he's one of the few notable superstars in the league signed to New Balance, while SDSU is a Jordan brand school. This means that even though some of the Aztecs may wish to wear The KAWHI III, they're instead wearing Jayson Tatum's signature sneaker.

The Best Athlete in SDSU History


RELATED: Football Plays Are Invading March Madness on Inbound Passes, And It's Genius 

Even though Leonard is a two-time NBA champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP, he is not the best professional athlete associated with the San Diego State men's basketball team. That honor belongs to one Tony Gwynn. 

Yep, MLB superstar Tony Gwynn. The Hall of Fame outfielder for the San Diego Padres. That Tony Gwynn. 

Apparently, Gwynn wasn't even planning to pursue baseball when he arrived at SDSU. The Long Beach, California, native didn't play baseball his freshman year, instead focusing on hoops. The focus paid off. He became a two-time All-WAC player on the basketball court. Gwynn excelled as a distributor, amassing a school record 590 assists in his Aztecs career.

In four seasons from 1977-1981 on the court for SDSU, Gwynn earned a reputation as a steady playmaker and ball handler.  The 5-foot-11 point guard was not much of a jumper; in this very charming YouTube clip featuring Gwynn and his old head coach Smokey Gaines talking to a local news reporter, there's b-roll footage of Gwynn trying — and failing — to dunk in practice. Gwynn was even drafted by the San Diego Clippers following his collegiate career but chose to pursue baseball instead. Wise decision. 

 Tony Gwynn #19 of the San Diego Padres poses for the camera.

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

It somehow feels fitting that a legendary baseball player known for his ability to make contact, get on base and never strike out was an excellent passer. Putting the ball in play and making something happen is similar to passing — just keeping things moving. Joey Gallo is the polar opposite of Gwynn: a boom-or-bust home run-or-strikeout goliath who represents all that is wrong with the modern "three true outcomes" version of baseball. If Gallo played basketball, you feel as if he would only shoot 3-pointers. No defense, no passing, ever. Just running to the corner, waiting for the ball, and launching it every time it touched his hands. And he'd probably shoot like 30% — but every time one went in it would look really pretty, so he'd get an inordinate amount of playing time based on his production.

Anyway, Gwynn was the man, and anytime you get an opportunity to celebrate him, you should do that. Before he passed away in 2014, Gwynn served as the head baseball coach at his alma mater. They named the baseball stadium after him. He's a truly beloved SDSU legend who died much too young — and is as good a reason as any to root for the Aztecs this weekend. 

MORE: March Madness is Worth an Insane Amount of Money, And The NCAA Would Collapse Without It