The revelation for San Jose State football coach Fitz Hill came in 2002.
With a bowl bid hanging in the balance, the Spartans hosted Fresno State in the season finale in front of a paltry 14,134 fans.
``From that game, I said they're not going to come,'' said Hill, now in his fourth year at SJSU. ``We've got to get creative. We've got to turn this into a festival. We've got to find a way to entertain.''
To that end, Hill has assembled a stacked lineup for Saturday's Read-2-Lead Classic, a game against Morgan State that caps three days of festivities promoting literacy and education through athletics. (Last year's event with Grambling State, which drew a sellout crowd, was called the Literacy Classic.)
Bill Cosby will help get the event started Thursday night at the Event Center when he and Hill will discuss black youth and academic success. Ticket-holders will be admitted for free.
The musical group Boyz II Men will sing the national anthem Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Morgan State's 150-member marching band, dubbed the ``Magnificent Marching Machine,'' will perform at halftime and after the game.
``The halftime show, pregame show and postgame show by the band is what really makes the draw,'' Morgan State Coach Donald Hill-Eley said. ``The football game is almost like a sidebar.''
The game is sure to draw the biggest crowd of the year, as San Jose State hosts one of the nation's top historically black colleges and universities for a second consecutive season. The school has sold 17,000 tickets, including 5,000 for students, and the hope is last-minute sales and a strong walk-up push that number over 20,000.
Several events lead up to the game, including the conversation with Cosby. A reading summit in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library on Thursday and a free multicultural festival preceding the game outside Spartan Stadium are among the other activities.
By all accounts, last year's Literacy Classic was an overwhelming success. The Spartans had their second sellout in school history, collected their first shutout in 15 years and gave fans a memorable halftime show with the renowned Grambling marching band.
But San Jose State had no financial stake in the three-day festival. Because university officials weren't willing to risk paying guaranteed money to Grambling State, Hill reached out to the African-American community and found executives willing to organize and finance the game.
This year, the university assumed the financial responsibility, which includes paying an estimated $400,000 guarantee to Morgan State and its band. Hill said acting president Don Kassing made the financial commitment and has been a big supporter of the event.
It's unclear how many tickets need to be sold to cover the costs -- last year's event drew 31,000 fans -- but Kassing told the Mercury News in August that the university needs to come close to 28,000 to ``make the arithmetic work.'' As of Tuesday, San Jose State was 11,000 short of reaching that figure.
The university hired the same marketing group that worked on last year's Literacy Classic, the San Jose-based Tager Group. It has an agreement with Comcast cable to broadcast the game and has received radio spots from KBLX, which is organizing the pregame festival.
``How many times in business do you make money the first year you do something?'' Hill asked. ``If you're looking for a quick-fix remedy, this is probably not the venture you want to go with.''
Instead of worrying about profits, Hill is trying to realize a vision: playing the annual classic in a packed house at Network Associates Coliseum or SBC Park.
``When you have a population of diversity, there's no reason it can't be done,'' Hill said. ``If we have the game in Oakland or San Francisco, we'll sell out. If you brought Grambling or Southern to Oakland, I'm confident you would get 50 or 60 thousand.''