The Red Wave rose up on Saturday to honor the life of beloved former Fresno State football coach Jim Sweeney.
Fans began trickling in to the White Lot outside of Bulldog Stadium to tailgate as early as 10 a.m. for to the event, which began at 1 p.m.
One of Sweeney’s best-known chants “Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred” was up on signs that hung around the stadium. Even the scoreboard was changed in Sweeney’s honor to show the final score of the 1992 Freedom Bowl against USC, where the Bulldogs beat the Trojans 24-7.
Many prominent members of Fresno State’s athletic history joined the Sweeney family to commemorate the legendary head coach. Former players like Trent Dilfer and Lorenzo Neal spoke at the ceremony, along with current football coach Tim DeRuyter and University President John Welty. Though he did not speak, former basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian was on hand and received a standing ovation upon entering the stadium.
The event extended beyond just former Bulldogs though, as members of Sweeney’s Montana State and Washington State teams joined the Fresno State faithful.
The ceremony began with the Bulldog Beat playing hit songs from the Sweeney Era of 1976-77 and 1980-96, before jumping into the fight song to start the ceremony.
Fresno State Director of Athletics Thomas Boeh then took to the stage to welcome everyone to the ceremony. Brad Bell, a former Fresno State football player under Sweeney and now pastor of the Well Community Church, emceed the proceedings.
“You’re about to go on a journey like none before you,” Bell said. “Coach Sweeney is one of the most colorful figures that anyone has ever met and for those of you that are betting people, you would probably agree that that’s a pretty sure bet.”
He led the stadium in the Lord’s Prayer, stating that it was a tradition under Sweeney, done before every game.
Welty was the first to speak. He described Sweeney’s legacy as one that will live on forever throughout the university.
“Coach Sweeney awakened our university and Central California to new possibilities and new dreams and he led the way,” Welty said. “Today we honor a man, who dreamed impossible dreams and achieved impossible dreams.”
DeRuyter would follow. Though he did not get to know him for very long, DeRuyter thanked Sweeney for what he had done that allowed Fresno State to reach the level it is at now.
“Coach Sweeney puts us on the national map and made Fresno State the gold standard for mid-major football,” DeRuyter said. “He made us the envy of everybody else out there.”
Following the ceremony, DeRuyter spoke to how the Sweeney legacy has inspired his views on coaching.
“Listening to the stories of the coaches he coached with, the players that he played,” he said. “His impact on them really kind of brings to light the impact that a coach can have. No one will replace Jim Sweeney. He’s a legend.”
A common sentiment of those that took to the stage on Saturday was that Sweeney should be in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Bill Moos, a former player under Sweeney at Washington State, was on the selection committee for the Hall of Fame for four years while he served as the athletics director at the University of Oregon. He said he tried every year to get Sweeney recognized.
“He was about one percentage point off of what the requirement was,” Moos said. “Ironically it’s probably because he had to coach me and others at Washington State. If he could’ve had one more winning season there, it would’ve been done.”
Moos said he would not quit trying to get his much-loved coach the recognition he felt he deserved, as he continues talking to the people on the selection committee.
“If Jim Sweeney had Woody Hayes’ (former Ohio State coach) players, there wouldn’t even be a debate here,” he said, “because he’s the best football coach ever to coach in this great country, I believe.”
Neal later took the chance to tell a few Coach Sweeney stories and share what he felt made Sweeney special.
“The amazing thing about Coach Sweeney is that he didn’t care who you were,” Neal said. “No matter if you were second string, third string or even fourth string, Coach Sweeney knew his players, better than any coach. He knew what guys needed. He knew what men were going through and we loved him for it.”
Then crowd favorite, Dilfer, got his chance to speak, though he said he anticipated he might not make it all the way through without a few tears.
“I have no idea how the speakers have gotten this far without crying,” he said. “I can promise you that that’ll probably end with this speaker. Mainly because Coach Sweeney was probably the first strong man in my life that told me it was okay to cry and it was okay to bare your soul to the ones you love and care about.”
Dilfer took some time to reflect on the time he spent with Sweeney and described him as the finest football coach that he ever played for, if not the best ever.
“He understood what made a great football coach and a great leader,” Dilfer said. “You get the most from the least and the best from the best, and I guarantee you that there’s guy 113 on the 1991 team, that I don’t remember his name, but Jim Sweeney got the most out of him.”
After the ceremony, Dilfer said while it was nice to have so many people there to honor Sweeney, it was particularly moving to hear so many people speak of the influence that Sweeney had on them.
“For people to turn out and help celebrate his life,” Dilfer said, “whether it was two or 2,000, I thought it was a spectacular opportunity to honor a man that really helped shape this Valley and many of us that have influence in the world right now.”
Finally, the last speaker, Kevin Sweeney, Coach Sweeney’s son and former Fresno State quarterback, had his chance to address the crowd. He took a moment to thank all those that helped put the ceremony together and then told a few of his favorite stories about his father.
Sweeney then shared how he plans to hold up his father’s legacy, with the building of a new learning center that will bear his name. Next, he issued a challenge to the crowd, to take his father’s quotes that they had heard so many times that day, and try to better themselves with them.
“Be a better person, be a better community person, be a better husband, wife,” Kevin Sweeney said. “Just challenge yourself to be better, because that’s what Jim Sweeney wanted, was us all to be better.”
Then as he wrapped up, he brought out a football to present to his stepmother and Coach Sweeney’s widow, June. He called it the Game Ball of Life in honor of how much she helped him in his final weeks.
Kevin Sweeney said he could not be happier with the turnout.
“It was a great day,” Sweeney said. “It was a great day to celebrate my dad’s life. He was a big advocate of education and Fresno State University. It’s just been a great day of tribute to him.”
It is clear that while Coach Jim Sweeney may be gone, his legacy will continue to live on.
Perhaps DeRuyter said it best.
“I can’t say enough about the coach, but more importantly the man,” he said. “Bulldog born, Bulldog bred, gonna be a Bulldog until the day I’m dead. Go Dogs.”