In Mike MacIntyre's first game as head football coach at San Jose State, his team lost at powerhouse Alabama 48-3. Before 101,000 fans in Tuscaloosa, the Spartans were hammered, pounded, overmatched and routed.

MacIntyre still found something positive to say about his players.

"They played harder in the fourth quarter than they did in the third quarter," he noted.

Hey, you've got to start somewhere.

That game was in September, 2010. San Jose State went on to finish with a miserable 1-12 record that season. But now, a mere two years later, those won-lost numbers have been almost completely reversed. The Spartans have concluded a 10-2 regular season, are ranked 24th in the nation by every significant national college football poll and are headed to a bowl game.

They also play hard in all four quarters.

The turnaround hasn't been by accident. It incorporates many factors. Most, however, have been an outgrowth of MacIntyre's master plan, the one he first outlined as a job candidate. MacIntyre was an assistant coach at Duke University when he interviewed with former San Jose State athletic director Tom Bowen in December of 2009.

Bowen, who now runs the athletic department at the University of Memphis, has vivid memories of those interviewing sessions. MacIntrye's enthusiastic personality was obvious. Bowen wanted to know what lay beneath. He liked what he found.

"He wasn't afraid," Bowen said by telephone this week. "He wasn't fearful about confronting the challenges."

The San Jose State football program definitely does offer special hurdles -- some would call them obstacle courses with brick walls topped by barbed wire -- compared to others in the top tier of college football. It is why the Spartans have had only three winning seasons in the past 20 years.

Those hurdles involve both geography and money. Often dwarfed in the Bay Area by the attention paid to Stanford and Cal of the Pac-12 Conference, the Spartans play in the less-famous Western Athletic Conference. This provides much less television revenue for the Spartans. They also struggle for attendance and student body support. They have battled with academic issues involving NCAA requisites. It's difficult for the school to hire and retain top assistant coaches because of the Bay Area's high living costs.

MacIntyre, during his interview, brought out a folder to address every single issue. Bowen, who eventually offered him the position, remembers being both delighted and slightly taken aback by MacIntyre's response.

"I remember him saying, 'I'm ready for this -- how about you?' " Bowen said, with a chuckle.

Those first months and that 2010 season were indeed a rugged road. Bowen and previous football coach Dick Tomey had improved San Jose State's infrastructure, especially in the academic areas. Bowen also managed to coax an inner circle of donors into writing big checks for an assistant coach hiring pool. But on the field, losses mounted. Bowen had been forced to schedule three so-called "body bag" games at Alabama, Wisconsin and Utah to fill the program's coffers. In those games, San Jose State was outscored 131-20.

Bowen insists he had no serious concerns about MacIntyre through the 1-12 slog. But he recalls being comforted when his special assistant, former Stanford and SJSU coach John Ralston, walked into Bowen's office and said of MacIntyre: "I like this guy. We're going to be OK." And there were some signs of progress, even in that opening squash job at Alabama. San Jose State committed no stupid penalties and only one turnover. The players never seemed to give up.

"We definitely learned from those games," said linebacker Vince Buhagiar, who started that game at Alabama as a wide-eyed freshman, just a few months out of Clayton Valley High School. "Every game we lost, we learned something. It actually made us hungry for the next game."

The subsequent offseason of 2010-11 then allowed MacIntrye to implement two key master-plan moves. He realized his team needed to match up better physically with opponents. He was impressed with how Stanford had beefed up and become more powerful under coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. So MacIntyre reached out and hired Stanford's assistant conditioning coach, Dave Forman.

"I want us to look like a different football team when we get off the bus in 2012," MacIntyre told Forman, thinking two years ahead.

"Coach, I think we can look like a different team getting off the bus in 2011," Forman replied, an answer MacIntyre liked.

Forman subsequently instituted an aggressive strength program, using a mantra he stole from motivational speaker Jim Rohn: "You can either choose the pain of discipline or the pain of regret."

MacIntrye, meanwhile, organized a plan to have he or one of his assistant coaches meet and personally shake the hand of every single high school football coach in California. MacIntyre also organized "traveling San Jose State camps" at high school fields in San Diego, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Ontario and Sacramento. They were one-day clinics that cost $40 for players to attend -- but also served as evaluation sessions. The high school coaches were encouraged to send along any player they thought had college potential.

"California is like four states in one," MacIntyre said. "It was a way for us to spread the word about San Jose State. If we sign 20 players in a recruiting season, at least 17 or 20 of them have been at our camps."

The new recruiting effort, plus the conditioning ramp-up, made the Spartans far more competitive in 2011. MacIntyre was also able to keep his coaching staff stable. Although San Jose State finished with a 5-7 record, late season victories over Navy and Fresno State created momentum moving forward.

"I could see in the players' eyes that it was working," MacIntyre said. "The culture had changed."

The 2012 season began in September with a hard-fought 20-17 loss to eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford. Afterward, Cardinal head coach Shaw said he was impressed with how much more physical San Jose State had become. San Jose State went on to win 10 of the next 11 games, including impressive victories over San Diego State, Navy and BYU. It helped that the landscape of San Jose State's conference -- the WAC -- had changed radically. Two of its best football programs, Boise State and Fresno State, had joined the Mountain West Conference. They were replaced by less powerful programs such as Texas State and Texas-San Antonio. This lessened the week-by-week physical toll on the Spartans and allowed them to get on a roll.

"Once we started winning, we just kept going," MacIntyre said.

And they stayed healthy. Forman's strength program was paying big dividends. In the 2010 season, the Spartans had lost 80 cumulative games because of injuries sustained by players on the two-deep roster -- the first two offensive and defensive units. In 2011, that figure dropped to 41 games missed. This season, the number was 28.

The Spartans closed the season looking stronger than any SJSU team of the past 20 years, with solid grind-out victories over BYU and Louisiana Tech. The next task is to beat Bowling Green in the Military Bowl, scheduled for Dec. 27 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.

Between now and then, the players say, they are enjoying the feedback from fellow SJSU students. It may be unprecedented.

"The way it is on campus right now, I never thought it would be that way," Buhagiar said. "Guys will be walking down halls and getting high fives. People you don't know will stop you and congratulate you on a game or on the team's ranking. That's new for us."

To keep the momentum going, new SJSU athletic director Gene Bleymaier has been shaking the trees and raising money for larger staff salaries and new facilities. MacIntrye has been mentioned for other head coaching jobs but says he plans to stay at SJSU for a while. He will definitely have a smile on his face when his team climbs on the charter flight to D.C. in two weeks.

"We look like a strong, athletic football team," MacIntyre said. "We look like a good football team. And we are."

It's a long way from 48-3 in Tuscaloosa.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.