In the predawn hours of Dec. 10, 1992, I left Fresno and drove to Anaheim Stadium. That day taught me something about the Fresno State football program. I didn’t fully comprehend the lesson until Saturday’s memorial for Jim Sweeney.
The Bulldogs of Coach Sweeney and the USC Trojans of Coach Larry Smith were to play in the Freedom Bowl on Dec. 29, 1992 at Anaheim Stadium. The Trojans were 9-point favorites.
I was sent south on that Thursday more than 20 years ago to cover a Freedom Bowl news conference. The game’s public-relations push was on.
The event (with lunch) was hosted by the Orange County Sports Association, which ran the Freedom Bowl. Sweeney and Smith were the featured guests. Several dozen reporters showed up.
Most of the 100 or so guests were staunch USC fans. Sweeney and his small Fresno State group looked pretty darn lonely.
Sweeney was no rookie to the Southern California media scene. His Washington State Cougars for eight seasons (1968-1975) had routinely played the Trojans and UCLA Bruins. But Washington State had been a peer; all three were part of the Pacific 8 Conference.
On Dec. 10, 1992, Sweeney was representing a school, a city and a region that, in much of the college football world, were not viewed as the equal of USC, Los Angeles and Southern California.
Of course, many in the Valley didn’t think that way in 1992. But how to get the Trojans to play the ambitious boys from Fresno State and decide on the gridiron who was right?
Fresno State’s year-old presence in the Western Athletic Conference, the mysterious workings of the bowl system and simple fate led to the Fresno State vs. USC matchup. It’s impossible in 2013 to recapture just how amazing that sequence of events seemed in December 1992.
Smith was first to the microphone. He was cool and smooth. Polite applause was his reward.
Then it was Sweeney’s turn. He got everyone laughing with his one-liners. Then he praised the Red Wave. There will be an army of ‘em coming over the Grapevine, he promised. They’ll be numbered not in the thousands, he said, but in the tens of thousands.
“I’ll have everybody but the Trojans singing the Bulldog fight song,” Sweeney roared.
Then it happened. In retrospect, I suspect Sweeney got caught up in the excitement. He didn’t ponder the pros and cons of what he was about to do. He didn’t weigh the benefits of success vs. the consequences of failure. He acted impulsively.
Sweeney began singing.
“I’ve got that Bulldog spirit up in my head, deep in my heart, down in my toes!”
He took a breath. Silence throughout the banquet room.
“Come on! Sing! I’ve got that Bulldog spirit ….”
I was sitting there, surrounded by well-dressed USC big-shot fans, all of ‘em men, all of ‘em with the appearance of considerable wealth and ego.
And they sang!
Not all, but many — enough to make real noise. They weren’t sure of the words. But the tune is beautifully simple and the verses obvious even to a child.
“I’ve got that Bulldog spirit,” these USC men sang, followed by a goulash of adverbs, adjectives and body parts.
The Duke of Wellington said of his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, “it was a near run thing.”
Jim Sweeney’s gamble two decades ago at that Anaheim Stadium luncheon also was a near run thing. In the big scheme of things, of course, it was a small-time risk. Sweeney’s success or failure to get several dozen USC fans to sing the rival team’s ditty would not make a bit of impact on the blocking and tackling to come. Sweeney had been publicly embarrassed before. He could handle it again.
Jim Sweeney died Feb. 8 at age 83. The family held a private service. On Saturday, about 2,000 family members, former players, university officials and fans gathered at Bulldog Stadium for a public memorial service. I sat among them.
What was event’s significance?
The service certainly meant a lot to those who loved and respected Sweeney. They celebrated his life and honored his accomplishments. Well done by all.
But there was more to the event than sentiment. After all, it was held in a publicly-owned stadium, on the campus of a publicly-funded university. The event was designed to send a message.
What we saw on Saturday was the completion of Fresno State athletics’ foundational myth, a myth nearly 70 years in the making. Jim Sweeney is at the heart of that myth. And, like that long-ago songfest at Anaheim Stadium, the myth is full of near run things that ensure it will live forever even as the collective memory of Sweeney the man continues to fade (he’s been out of the public eye since 1996).
Which is how it should be. Foundational myths have no value without near run things.
Before I explain in more detail, allow me to be clear on several points:
* The foundational myth isn’t make-believe. It’s based on fact.
* But the myth isn’t an entry in an encyclopedia. It’s easy-to-understand shorthand for how we got here.
* Jim Sweeney isn’t the myth. But he is pivotal to its immortality. He ties it together. He’s less a person in the myth than an idea. Think back to your reading of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
* You don’t have to like Jim Sweeney to recognize his role in the myth.
* This is not meant to be disrespectful, but with the myth now coming full circle Fresno State athletics can breathe a sigh of relief — as if to say: “Jim Sweeney is dead. Long live Jim Sweeney. Now let’s get on with business.”
If Jim Sweeney’s memorial service of Feb. 16, 2013 closed the loop on the foundational myth, when did the myth begin? It began with the quest for a new football stadium.
We all know at least part of the story. Fresno State was founded in 1911 and spent its early years at the Van Ness/McKinley campus. Ratcliffe Stadium was the home football stadium. World War II ended, Fresno grew with the rest of California, and community leaders decided to build a new Fresno State campus out in the boonies — Cedar and Shaw.
This photo of the new campus from late 1955 reveals much.
Three points are worth making about this new campus.
1.) Ratcliffe Stadium, built in 1926, remained the home football stadium.
2.) The Bulldog Foundation was born in 1950, the same year construction began on the Cedar/Shaw campus.
3.) Smart, experienced men and women did the planning for the new campus.
As a quick stadium refresher:
The new campus master plan called for an on-campus stadium; the state legislature in July 1957 approved $314,000 to buy a stadium site; Fresno State officials that same month rejected pleas from the City of Fresno and Fresno County planning departments for a stadium site east of the campus and chose instead a 60-acre site on the southwest corner of Barstow and Cedar avenues; Fresno State Executive Dean Orrin Wardle in December 1964 sent a memo to Athletic Director Cecil Coleman saying there’s no state money for a stadium, it’s the wrong time to make a big push for private donations, but planning should proceed with “absolutely no publicity”; Fresno State Planning Director Leonard Hildebrandt in September 1969 told Coleman a 20,000-seat stadium would cost $1.3 million, assuming the college could unload Ratcliffe for $400,000; Norman Baxter became Fresno State president in 1970; Gene Bourdet became Fresno State athletic director in 1971; Lynn Eilefson became Bulldog Foundation executive director in 1971; the three of them got together and, with Bourdet as lead writer, hammered out a three-page report dated Feb, 3, 1972 called “Proposed Stadium Justification”; Bourdet wrote that a new stadium “would be an asset to the Fresno State student body, the campus community and the local Fresno community”; Fresno State students in a non-binding referendum rejected a 25-year, $3 per semester fee to pay for the new stadium; engineers in fall 1974 began surveying the Barstow/Cedar site; Baxter in October 1975 appointed a stadium steering committee to raise $3.2 million from the private sources, with Leon Peters, Russell Giffen and Lewis Eaton as chairmen; neighborhood residents in February 1976 said the Barstow/Cedar site was a bad idea; the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the Fresno City Council in May 1976 agreed with the neighbors; the neighbors sued in July 1976; the stadium fund drive began in October 1977, with a goal of $7 million-plus for what was now to be a 30,000-seat venue; the neighbors lost in court, their final appeal falling on deaf ears in April 1979; construction on Bulldog Stadium began in June 1979.
Blah, blah, blah — and not a mention of Jim Sweeney anywhere.
I put everything in one big paragraph to drive home my point about the Sweeney foundational myth.
Insightful community and Fresno State leaders — and there were a lot of them — knew from the moment MacArthur closed that book on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay that the local state college had immense potential in the post-World War II world. Intercollegiate athletics was part of that potential. No one knew exactly how that athletic potential would play itself out. But everyone of wisdom and ambition knew that first-class facilities were the key.
A new world of college athletics was coming. Bulldog athletics must be reborn. The key was getting that new on-campus football stadium built.
But how was the growing Valley and the wider world to make sense of the immense ambitions and changes underway at Fresno State? Master plans and environmental impact reports are one thing. They are the stuff of bureaucracy and statism. But where’s the narrative — and the personality — to tie it all together?
As we now know, Jim Sweeney’s 19-year Bulldogs career did the trick. But make no mistake — it was a near run thing.
“I think Fresno State University is a sleeping giant who is ready to be turned on and I believe I can touch the hot button,” Sweeney said by phone to local reporters when he was hired on Dec. 9, 1975.
The “sleeping giant” bit has become part of Fresno State athletic lore. The “turned on” and “hot button” bits are mercifully forgotten.
Sweeney called again on Dec. 10.
“The San Joaquin Valley is a sleeping giant,” he said. “There is no proliferation of either college or pro football there.”
Sweeney flew down from Pullman, Washington to meet the press on Dec. 15, 1975.
“What we’re going to emphasize is defense,” Sweeney said. “I know through 25 years of coach you begin winning by dominating your opponent on defense.”
He added: “I like to feel I get closer to my players than most football coaches.”
What an amazing, and many ways odd, 21 years were to follow. Here are a handful of near run things in that period.
* Between September 1, 1975, when he turned 46, and September 1, 1980, when he turned 51, Sweeney had five jobs: Washington State head coach, Fresno State head coach, Oakland Raiders assistant coach, St. Louis Cardinals assistant coach, Fresno State head coach.
That’s hardly the track record of a man who wanted to awaken the “sleeping giant” of Bulldogs football and would stick around until the job was done. That’s the track record of a very ambitious football coach who saw Fresno State as a career stepping stone when it suited him and as a place to regroup when the NFL gig turned sour.
A bit of success somewhere else and Jim Sweeney would have been just another brief coaching footnote in Fresno State history.
* On October 8, 1977, Fresno State beat then-undefeated San Diego State 34-14.
“Treating the largest crowd in FSU grid history — a standing room only 15,179 — to a smashing performance in Ratcliffe Stadium, Jim Sweeney’s Bulldogs proved they have arrived as a major college source in the West,” wrote Bee columnist Bob McCarthy.
But the score was 17-14 in the third quarter and the Aztecs had perhaps the best player on the field in running back David “Deacon” Turner.
Sweeney would later call the Bulldogs of 1977 the “stadium builders.” He would later also acknowledge that he knew he was leaving for the NFL a month before the season ended.
* Bulldog Stadium opened on November 15, 1980 as a crowd of 25,684 watched the Bulldogs beat Montana State 21-14. The 30-plus years of work to build a new home for the football Bulldogs was over.
“Clark Van Galder should’ve been there to see it,” wrote The Bee’s McCarthy. “Not to mention Jimmy Bradshaw, Cecil Coleman, Darryl Rogers and all those other coaching legends from Bulldog football past.
“If they had, you wouldn’t have found a dry eye in the house. The Doghouse. The all-new Doghouse tactfully decorated in Bulldog Blue and Red, complete with thick, green carpet, a sunken ‘game room’ large enough for 30,000-plus, four baths and professional landscaping.
“All for a mere $7.2 million, and not a mortgage payment in sight.”
Yet, the Bulldogs almost blew it. Fresno State had the ball with 1:42 left in the game at the Montana State 23-yard-line. All the Bulldogs had to do was run out the clock.
But Sweeney inserted a reserve quarterback who was a senior. Then someone called a pass play. The Bulldog QB threw an interception. Montana State drove to the Bulldogs’ 4-yard-line but time ran out.
“It was a critical play, and I’m responsible for it,” Sweeney said of the interception. “I don’t want to comment on it any further.”
* On December 18, 1982, the Bulldogs rallied from a 21-point deficit late in the third quarter to edge Bowling Green 29-28 in California Bowl II in Bulldog Stadium. Jeff Tedford threw a 2-and-a-half-yard touchdown pass to Vince Wesson with only a few seconds left in the game to tie it 28-28. Scott Darrow kicked the extra point and Sweeney had another historic victory.
Bowling Green Coach Dennis Stolz after the game pointed to the Bulldogs’ third touchdown, not the Wesson TD, as the turning point. That’s when Sweeney decided to go for two points. Darrow (the kicker) made a good pass to seldom-used tailback Terry Carter that almost hit the turf.
“The pass on the two-pointer was nearly on the ground,” Stolz said. “But he (Carter) still managed to catch it.”
And the big story after the game wasn’t what Sweeney would do next for Fresno State but whether he’d even be at Fresno State for the 1983 season. The Arizona Wranglers of the USFL wanted Sweeney to be their head coach.
“I hope you people will write about the game and the players and forget all the other garbage until next week,” Sweeney said amid the celebrating. “Right now I’m going to sleep on it. Thus far there’s been a lot of guesswork, much of it wrong.
“I’ll tell you one thing — when it was 28-7 there was no way in hell I was going to leave. I wouldn’t leave a loser.”
* And, of course, the Bulldogs beat USC 24-7 in the 1992 Freedom Bowl.
But keep in mind that the Trojans led 7-0. Curtis Conway, their star wide receiver, played only a series or two, then sat on the sidelines. In a few months, he would be the Chicago Bears’ first-round pick in the NFL draft. And USC’s star offensive tackle, Tony Biselli, didn’t play at all.
The Bulldogs had a great team. But like all these other events, the 1992 Freedom Bowl was a near run thing.
And so, in complex ways, Fresno State athletics and Jim Sweeney served each other well most of the time.
The new campus grew and grew. The new stadium got built. Big games were won in thrilling fashion. The old campus and the old stadium turned into a long-ago era, all but dead to new generations.
It doesn’t matter whether you love him or hate him. Jim Sweeney was this historical pivot. Sweeney died, and now he and events have become the foundational myth that Fresno State athletics had always lacked.
It was a near run thing, but it happened.
Pat Hill? He’ll get his due. Historical revision of his wonderful 15 years is just around the corner. His coaching excellence adds immense value to the Sweeney foundational myth.
Tim DeRuyter? Give him an 11-2 record in the fall and he’ll go on to bigger and better things. He’ll deserve them. Fresno State will then go out and get another Tim DeRuyter because it’s a program that attracts coaching talent.
Big ticket sales this fall? That’s not the way foundational myths work. Derek Carr will sell tickets. Jim Sweeney’s memory will always just sit there, like an Old Money trust fund.
I took a walk around the Fresno State campus after Saturday’s memorial service.
What a beautiful place.