In 1976, coach Jim Sweeney first roamed the Fresno State sidelines.
In his time as the Bulldogs’ coach, Fresno State found a home – Bulldog Stadium. Fresno State’s success brought life to a now-rabid fan base.
Fresno State, a sleeping giant awakened in the Sweeney era, said goodbye to its forefather, its groundbreaker – its catalyst.
Mr. Sweeney, Fresno State’s emphatic fixation largely credited for elevating the Bulldogs to previously unreached heights, died on Friday. He was 83.
“Coach Sweeney challenged our university and community to be better in all things,” Fresno State President John Welty said in an email.
“He knew how to motivate others and challenged them to achieve beyond what others thought might be possible. He awakened the sleeping giant in Central California.”
Mr. Sweeney, born on Sept. 1, 1929, coached the Bulldogs from 1976-78 and 1980-96. In his 19 seasons at the Fresno State helm, he compiled a 144-74-3 (.658) record, and led the Bulldogs to eight conference championships and five bowl victories.
One of those bowl victories came against No. 23 USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl. The Sweeney-coached Bulldogs won 24-7 in a win considered as one of the biggest in program history.
For Welty, it was Mr. Sweeney’s passion and personality that he appreciated.
“Coach Sweeney was a passionate coach who cared deeply about his players. He had a quick wit and he knew how to motivate people.”
News traveled fast of Mr. Sweeney’s passing. On Friday night, the Twittersphere erupted.
Fans rallied together through social media to grieve for Mr. Sweeney.
Kyle Negrete, Mr. Sweeney’s grandson who played at USC, tweeted Friday night: “My grandfather was a great football coach and an even better man. Now he rejoices in Heaven. I’m so proud to be Coach Sweeney’s grandson.” It was preceded by another tweet: “Bulldog born, bulldog bred, gonna be a bulldog till the day I’m dead.”
Those words – along with Mr. Sweeney’s storied chant of, “I’ve got that Bulldog spirit up in my head, deep in my heart, down in my toes”—still echo among Fresno State faithful to this day.
Rick Kolstad, a scoreboard operator at Fresno State women’s basketball home games and longtime Bulldogs fan, remembers how Mr. Sweeney liked to sing and talk. He remembers Quarterback Club luncheons filled with laughter and even a home football game where Mr. Sweeney roamed the sidelines bear-chested, waving his shirt wildly.
But, Kolstad said, “More than anything, it’s the fact that he stirred up the community to get involved in supporting Fresno State – not just in athletics but also across the board.”
Current Fresno State coaches expressed their condolences for Mr. Sweeney this weekend, with several home athletic events taking a few moments before the game to honor its late, legendary coach.
“Coach Sweeney was pretty special to us,” Fresno State baseball coach Mike Batesole said after Saturday’s Alumni game. “I was lucky that, for about six or seven years, he and his wife June lived across the street from me. So I got to know Coach Sweeney and June pretty well as a terrific, terrific family.”
Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter was among the first to take to Twitter to mourn Mr. Sweeney’s loss.
“Tuff day for the Dogs. The Dog Father has left us to meet his maker. What a legacy he left for us,” he tweeted.
A coach known for his charismatic and colorful personality, Mr. Sweeney’s influence wasn’t only limited to Fresno State and the San Joaquin Valley. Like time, Mr. Sweeney’s influence transcended regions.
Mr. Sweeney coached in the NFL as an assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams in between his coaching tenure at Fresno State. He started his college head-coaching career at Montana State and also coached at Washington State before coaching the Bulldogs.
And as Kolstad put it after Saturday’s women’s basketball game: “Before Ki-Ki Moore, he was easily the best transfer we received out of Washington State.”