While in Houston for the Final Four, I sat down with San Diego State athletic director John David Wicker about the state of the program, conference realignment, the Pac-12 rumors and what makes the Aztecs one of the most attractive realignment and expansion candidates in all of college sports.

Saturday Out West’s Jon Gold: What is it like to be in the eye of the hurricane with all the conference realignment?

“The big thing is you don’t believe anything that’s written because it might have some truth to it, but it doesn’t have complete truth to it. We have conversations with a lot of different people, athletic directors, conference-level people across the country to understand what’s going on, what’s in their world. I think the big thing right now is the Pac-12 has to figure out their media deal, and then there’s next steps beyond that.”

SOW: It seems like for some conferences, San Diego State is suddenly the prettiest girl at the dance. How did this happen?

“I think part of it is obviously location, location, location. Being in Southern California, the only team in Southern California that’s not in the Big Ten, makes it a big deal. But it also shows the investments that we’ve made in athletics: The hiring of Steve Fisher and opening of Viejas Arena that got things going; then you hire Brady Hoke and then transition to Rocky Long; then Fisher to (Brian) Dutcher; we go back to Brady Hoke and build a football stadium; then having success, it shows that from an athletic standpoint, we have success across the board. Fifty-plus conference championships across all of our sports — we find good success. We’re beating the Pac-12, too, 7-4 since 2016 in football. I mean, we’re in the national championship game in basketball.

“There’s no question that we have a high level elite program. And we’ve had opportunities to be in the Final Four before as you look at teams that you think are talented enough, the Malachi Flynn team, the Kawhi team. So we’ve been investing. And then the other part of it is the institution is investing in becoming a great academic institution. And that goes all the way back to President (Thomas) Day saying, Hey, we’re going to go out and we’re going to have research at San Diego State.

“And that research program research portfolio has grown into 100,000-plus applications. You’re getting really quality students at the institution as well. So all of that combined is the efforts that internally all these people, this village of people, have put together to raise us to a level where that, along with location, location, location, makes us a very attractive school that people would want to associate with.”

Remind me to tell you my GPA that I had to get into San Diego State…So which came first? The investment or the results, which led to investment?

“It’s honestly some of both. You build Viejas, what was Cox Arena, and Steve Fisher doesn’t come to San Diego State if that doesn’t exist, if you’re still playing in the old Sports Arena. I think I’ve heard Steve say that. So you get Viejas, you get Steve Fisher, and you get those building blocks at that point. Football is moving up, the Chargers leaving and we compete for Mission Valley. People came out of the woodwork. It was like, ‘Wow, this is a San Diego State town.’ Sixty percent of our living alumni are in the region.

“So you look at that and we get the stadium done. And so now as you look at the chicken or the egg, where does that all fall into? The stadium is going to be that next step. Now we can go look at any Power 5 conference and say, we’re investing in football, which is important as they look at football is the revenue-driver from a television standpoint. So we’ve got elite-level basketball, and now we have arguably, and I’m biased, but seat-for-seat, we have the best stadium in the country, pro or college.

“And it’s because we’re in San Diego. That helps a lot. And plus the stadium that we build, taking advantage of the weather, great social spaces outside, our premium spaces are amazing. Just everything we did to design it with the thought of not only Aztec football, but all the other events you do. And how do I get the community into our stadium every opportunity I can so that they grow an affinity to us, San Diego State, as well as whoever else may be there? It’s San Diego State that’s doing it.”

You mentioned something that I hadn’t thought of — the Chargers leaving and its impact on SDSU football. Was there a void to fill, and did you fill it? And was that something around which the department strategized?

“Well, there are pro football fans and there are college football fans, but how do we bridge that? We had some success with seeing a little bit of a bump, but it was such a horrible place to go watch a football game. I mean, it was just … Qualcomm was awful. So you could create no fan experience. But them leaving opened the door to Mission Valley. And so now all of a sudden we’ve got an opportunity to buy Mission Valley. We completed for it, obviously. We win, we work with the city, but now we’re not only building a football stadium, a soccer stadium, a concert venue, a dirt show venue, all these different things, we’re now expanding our campus. So we’re going to have this 1.6 million-square-feet-of-innovation district, all this housing that’s going to be there. So them leaving opened up this massive opportunity to not only grow the athletic department, but to grow the entire institution and to allow us to wrap our arms more around the city of San Diego and the community.”

So tell me about your initial reaction to UCLA and USC moving to the Big Ten?

“I was at my desk when the first (Jon) Wilner tweet came out that said, ‘The world is about to change.’ I was like, ‘OK, what’s this?’ Then whatever it was, an hour or two later, the second Wilner tweet comes out that USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. I joke with people, but I’m half serious. Before the first tweet, it was like, ‘You know, JD, it’s amazing what you all are accomplishing. You’ve got this stadium opening. Football’s good. Basketball’s good. You all are doing all the things. Your opportunity is coming. Just keep working. It’s like you’re the little engine that could. You’re going to get there.’ And two hours later, it was, ‘Hey, JD, you’re the only school in Southern California that’s not in the Big 10. What’s up?’ That’s literally what it felt like. It felt that fast. But we were the only school in Southern California that is not in the Big Ten. And we’re really good at football. We’re really good at basketball. We have a brand new football stadium. I think on average, we’re the largest basketball attendance in the state of California.

“Again, all of our sports are important to us and we invest in all of our sports. But as you think about the conferences and what they are looking at, what drives the conferences, the ability to drive revenue for all of your members, and that’s basketball and football. We bring that to the table. Football and basketball, most places, they pay for most everything. How is that going to work if we get to a point one day where there’s revenue sharing, where there are employees? Title IX will always be a part of that. So you’ve got to figure out how it all works.

“That’s why I love college athletics. I love the fact that you start in the fall with football, volleyball, both soccer and cross country, then move into the winter with the basketballs and swim and dive. And then you move into the spring with all your spring sports. And it’s meaningful that we’re giving to San Diego State’s 450 to 500 student athletes the opportunity to compete and go to school at a great academic institution. And some of them were paying all of their expense. Some of them were paying some of their expense. But we’re still wrapping that around with academics, athletic medicine, all the sport that they need, mental health, all the things they need to be successful.”

OK, I’ll shoot my shot: Have you had conversations with the Pac-12 yet?

“I’ll just leave it at we’ve had discussions with a lot of folks, both conference level athletic directors across a variety of different conferences.”

We’re sitting here in Houston watching the Aztecs get ready to play in the national title game, an unimaginable idea when I was a student there two decades ago. How has Brian Dutcher built on what Steve Fisher created?

“You look at how we’ve done our coaches in the past, it’s about a culture. Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher, when they got to San Diego, started building a culture. That’s important. I don’t think enough administrators give coaches the opportunity or the time to build the culture that they need to be successful. So with that, does it look a little different with Dutch than with Fish? Yeah. I think there might be a little more emphasis on offense with Dutch than there may have been with Fish. But it’s still defense first. If you don’t play defense, you don’t get on the court. You heard the guys say that the other day.

“Dutch is now the head coach and Steve isn’t. That’s the fundamental difference right there. I got named AD, and within the first 100 days, the president who hired me announced he was leaving, the Chargers left and Steve Fisher retired. In my first 100 days. I’m like, ‘Damn, this is what this is about.’ You get in this chair, with all these different things happening and I was like, ‘Either Jim Sterk did things I didn’t know he was doing or this job is a lot harder than it was for Jim.’ And it’s not. It’s just things you don’t know.

Did you see that with Brian Dutcher, too?

“Even Dutch being on the bench with Fish for every one of Fish’s win in his career, until you get into the seat, you don’t know. One of the things that impressed me most about that coaching staff when I got there in 2011 was how they worked together. There wasn’t this (attitude of), ‘I’m the head coach, y’all can just have a seat on the bench and I’ll handle it.’ They were always working together. Fish obviously made the final decision — he got talked into it or talked out of it — but we were talking about this last night. Seton Hall vs. Michigan, NCAA Final in 1989 — do you foul last night at the end of the game, and he said, ‘I wanted to foul in (1989) but they talked me out of it and they missed a shot, Rumeal Robinson gets the ball, goes downhill and gets fouled.

“You could see his growth in becoming a head coach. I’ll never forget, we were playing Brown right after Christmas, and it’s 24-22 and Brown is up by 2 — they had started off kinda hot — and they went on a heater. They beat our tails. It was like Dutch, call a timeout, stop the run. People were like Dutch doesn’t call timeouts! But there are things you learn. It’s not your decision when you’re 1A. It’s your decision when you’re 1. Things like that, we saw him just grow into understanding how to be the head coach, while still leaning on the staff like Fisher did.”

Has that been your philosophy for the whole department?

“Yes, the people we talked to when Rocky retired were people who had ties to the program, and now Brady is ultimately the head coach. We’re fortunate; we don’t have to rebuild culture in our programs. That’s probably the biggest thing. How do you go find someone who wants to be at San Diego State. We believe we’re a quality program, we always try to have our coaches, at least in the Mountain West right now, at the top of the salary grid. We know what we operate as a Mountain West school. If we got the opportunity to elevate, then we’d look to get our coaches to an appropriate place. We never try to promote that we’re going to be the best-paying job, but we’re going to be the best quality-of-life, best quality-of-opportunity — we’re going to invest in you to the max we can — and it’s about finding the people that’s meaningful to.”

Was your feeling that this was always in the cards for SDSU? Was SDSU a sleeping giant, or is this only because of what has been created and accomplished?

“It goes back to President Day saying we want to be more than just a workforce driver. We want to get into research, we want to grow our academic status, we don’t want to be a commuter school. When Jim Sterk took the job in 2010, he said, ‘This is an untapped goldmine.’ You look at what Fisher had started? Basketball had started to take off. Jim said this is a place you can be successful and there are people who want to invest in the program, and you can go from there.”