This is an interview I did for Review Magazine, with Fresno State’s legendary coach, Jim Sweeney, over a couple of days in late August of 1996. At the time, his brilliant career at Fresno State University was coming to a close, in what was his 20th season with his beloved Bulldogs. His 201 Division One victories, stretched over 32 seasons put him in an elite group with friends of his, like Bear Bryant of Alabama, Woody Hayes of Ohio State and Joe Paterno of Penn State.
When Coach Sweeney retired, he was among the all-time top ten in coaching records. Most football fans in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley, loved him, some loved to second guess him, but no one can deny what he did for California State University, Fresno football, and the impact the program had on the community. The reason I am posting this now is because I think it shows what a great family man, and great coach he was, but also how he was dedicated to Fresno State University and the whole Central Valley community. Jim was a brave guy, who worked hard, loved people, and was a wonderful influence on those who played for him, also on football in general in the San Joaquin Valley.
CT; After being a college head coach for 15 years, including two at Fresno State, you left the college ranks and coached a couple of years in the NFL, one year with the Oakland Raiders, and the other with the St. Louis Cardinals. When you came back to Fresno State in 1980, you talked about FSU’s being a “sleeping giant”. Did you think at the time the giant would be as big as it’s gotten?
Sweeney: I had decided that college football was where I belonged. I enjoyed my time in the NFL, but it felt that I could do more service in the college game. In Fresno State, I saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that had a tremendous growth potential because where I’d come from (Montana State in Bozeman, and Washington State in Pullman), you really didn’t have the resources in the numbers of people to deal with. If you are going to be successful, you have to have people to pave the way. The whole state of Montana had less people than we have in Fresno, and close-by counties. Pullman, Washington, is sort of isolated and difficult to get people to consistently drive to see football. In Fresno I believed that if we put a division one major university football team product on the field, that we could look like a Cal or a Stanford, and play with them or anybody. When I first went to the mall in Fresno, I noticed that there wasn’t any Bulldog paraphernalia in the stores. None. They sold Cal, Stanford, and Notre Dame, but where were the Bulldogs? Even on our own campus! So we got to work and found that, yes, a lot of people were interested.
CT: Are you happy with the Bulldog spirit on campus now?
Sweeney: Well, we have it, but we don’t have it. At Washington State, we had rallies where 6,000 students many parents would show up on Friday nights before a game and it was great. I know times have changed somewhat, but many schools still do a lot of that. I think it is unfortunate that on campus we don’t do more with our student body. I think it’s a sad situation that we don’t teach the students school songs, the student yells, and we don’t have freshman orientation that includes support of football and basketball games, and other school teams. There is always seating available for students. That’s one area I see we need to grow.
CT: What kind of support did you have to work with within the community?
Sweeney: There was a small, but intense group called the Bulldog Foundation, and that group has grown and enlarged and what they do is unique. Unique means “One of a kind”, and they are one of a kind with only one paid person really, as a fund drive master – Pat Ogle, who does a great job organizing all the volunteer work they do to raise funds, which is just unusual. The fact that they built Bulldog Stadium with no tax funds, and no student taxation for 25 years, which is the way those things go, is just a great tribute to the people of the San Joaquin Valley, particularly in Fresno, who contributed to that thing just as a faith gesture, deciding that…”OK, we’re gonna double and triple what has been the crowd at football games in Fresno.” That took a lot of faith to do that.
CT: Some fans were not happy about your leaving to coach in the NFL. Was that a mistake? Why did you come back?
Sweeney: I know there were people who were upset with me for dong that, but I think it helped me in expanding my horizons in that I became more of a passing football coach rather than a run football coach, and I think that has helped our recruiting a lot. Also I felt that college ball is where I belonged because that is where you can influence young people the most. I like, very much, what Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls coach), talks about in his book, that it’s not so much the victories and the championships in coaching, but the journey…whose life did you affect…on what level…as you go along, dealing with the defeat AND the victory, you know, making you the person you are, and affecting the people you are teaching. I see not just football players going out from Fresno State to the NFL, but young people going off into the community as teachers, coaches, preachers, and businessmen, lawyers, and executives, management people, and whatever. Every one of our teams had those guys on it, and it’s a pleasure to see them out there doing it in their communities, and especially this community. Their loyal to their program is great. Hopefully, they can pass along whatever good they got from the program.
CT: What do you think of the pro teams drafting kids before they graduate from college, and now, drafting them right out of high school?
Sweeney: I think players who bypass college really short-sheet themselves. Young people, who are lucky enough to get to go to college, get to expand their horizons with the maturation process. What college does for them is it allows them to develop options, which are going to be life lasting. It’s important to become an educated person and appreciate something other than athletics. It’s important to become an educated man or woman, and make yourself eligible to deal with leadership problems, and social focus, and responsibility and other things, and I think they short-sheet themselves when a player leaves without developing these options far beyond their athletic careers. Because we all would like have options, and I think when I get a degree, I’ve got options, and if I tear my knee up or whatever, then my option is not drug selling or labor, but can be something fulfilling and follows a lifestyle that I am going to be interested and excited about working in the rest of my life.
CT; I’m sure you have had many thrills in your coaching career. Was one of the biggest having your son do so well at Fresno State?
Sweeney: (Big smile) It is a highlight no doubt. Recently, a friend of mine sent me a Washington State game program from the 1972 season when I was with the Cougars. There was a feature about y children in the program and they asked Kevin what it was like to be the son on the coach. Kevin was 10 or 11 at the time, and he said, “My father has 105 sons. They are all playing football here, and I’m just one of them. I’m the youngest.” (Jim laughs) That was some amazing insight there. Seeing Kevin do so well in football was important, but seeing him keeping an even keel about life and his relationships with his brothers and sisters, and his friends, and what he stands for, makes me very proud. I think Kevin is going to be a community leader in community service, not just as an ex-athlete, but a guy who appreciates and loves Fresno and wants to put something back in the community. If I saw him become, say like Bob Duncan, a guy like that, not necessarily financially that successful, but to me that’s success. People like Bob, or Bud Richter, Lou Eaton, Leon Peters, the guys who put a lot on the line to build that stadium, then I think the journey has been successful. Kevin has developed a lot of options – he graduated and did well in the business school, married a wonderful girl, has a family…those things are as important to me than breaking Doug Flutie’s records. I just got as much kick out of Mark Barsoti’s playing or anybody else. Kevin was one of the brightest and toughest kids I’ve ever known. He played in pain, and his knees hurt, but he kept on going.
CT: Were you close to your dad?
Sweeney: I was very close to my dad, but he never saw me play a football game. He saw me play baseball once, but he was from the old country – never had a car – didn’t have a big social life. But he always encouraged me to participate in athletics, particularly boxing, football, and baseball. Being from the old country he didn’t understand a lot about it, but the main thing he did was make sure that we had the opportunity to do it.
CT: That was in Butte, Montana, and isn’t that where you had your first coaching job?
Sweeney: Yes, I had gone to Christian Brothers High School, and went back thereto teach and coach when I was twenty two. That was my first job. I tell people that I would probably still be there except that the Brothers took a vow of poverty and they expected me to take it with them! I taught three classes of history for two dollars a class, and coached football, basketball, and track for zero money, just for the experience. When I got the coaching job I was 22 years old, coaching 19-year old kids.
CT: You must have been a very tough guy or a great card player.
Sweeney: (laughs) I got to coach because I was a tough kid. I had these guys in class as well, and I was always able to use the ability to get them motivated. We had some great debates and I was lucky to have a great bunch of kids. I really enjoyed it. They scored real high on their on their senior exams and the principal once said to me, “Well Jim, you know they scored highest on the subjects that you teach.” And I said, “Yeah, well, that’s because I have the smart ones teaching the dumb ones.” They were bright kids, brighter than me; I just utilized their abilities. I got a kick out of those classes. They were good students and good football players as well.
CT: Were the players you coached in those days pretty much the same as the players today?
Sweeney: Sometimes I have coaches who once played for me, get philosophical, and say to me things like, “You know Coach, kids just aren’t like they were when we were playing, are they?” And I say back, “No thank God, they’re not!” (Laughs) “They’ve changed much for the better.” Kids today are so much more meaningfully dedicated, year round, to the development of their athletic prowess. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the players weren’t into it year round, lifting weights, working out, running, etc.. Back then, they had summer jobs, now they work out and go to school 12 months a year. Because they do that, they are bigger, stronger, and faster than the players from yesteryear. It takes a lot more dedication, sacrifice, and focus to be a player today than it was. The players have so much more to learn about the game. Also, they have a lot more pressure off the field as well, as far as what they do. In my day, and in recent decades, there were parties and that sort of thing but no one ever heard about them because no one ever knew about them. Now, any kid that gets in any altercation – the police cars are there and the newspapers are there, and the athlete is held up to ridicule weather it is deserved or not. It’s like politics these days, where whether you are the President of the United States or the assistant county treasurer – anything you do – and sometimes have nothing to do with, you are brought up to the masses, where years ago, people just didn’t know, for the most part, what was going on. So that is more pressure that the player has to deal with. Those players today are living with the idea that if they get in a fight or have an altercation and it gets in the newspaper or gets publicized…they’re gone. People have no idea of the rigidness of the discipline here. The players live under a very strict behavioral code and standard. Those things didn’t exist with the 1976 team, the ’68 team, and the -’58 team. Now they live under a microscope.
It is really encouraging to see how these youngsters respond to the pressure. They know and understand how it affects them and our family. Even after they leave here. Say you have some guy who played here four years ago, and he does something. We are responsible because he played football here. We are held more responsible for him than even his parents! Till he dies, he’s a former Fresno State Football Player. Every rid light, he’s a former Fresno State Football player. It’s frustrating.
CT: I can see where it would be, but on the other hand, it must make you feel good that it is very rare that you hear about something negative like that – certainly compared to the overwhelming positive stories of former players in the program.
Sweeney: Well, that’s true. Here is an example of our kids. We take a group 85 guys to Hawaii to play in the Aloha Bowl. We’re there for two weeks. We have not one incident, not one quarrel, not one time anybody had to question their behavior, all the time we were over there, and there time was free! They got to have a lot of fun, and were responsible for what they were there for, and who they were representing.
CT: How bout a few highlights from over the years with the Bulldogs.
Sweeney: Well the Freedom Bowl victory over USC would have to be a biggie. Both victories over Arizona were huge in that both of them were come from behind wins and they both were in the vast underdog situation, as both times the Wildcats were ranked so high. Beating Oregon here when we named the new stadium here was just a great thing. But, coming from a 28-7 deficit to win 29-28 against Bowling Green in the California Bowl, was one of my favorite all-time football games.
CT: How about some lowlights?
Sweeney: We’ve suffered our share of lows, but winning just 5 games in each of the last two years (1994,1995) was devastating. I felt that we had taken the program to a level where we wanted to be, even winning the WAC in our first year in it, only to have the seasons we did in ’94, and ’95…once was bad enough, but twice was devastating.
CT: In life, are you a happy man?
Sweeney: I think I am as happy as I have ever been…with my children and my grandchildren…and though with my loss of my beloved first wife (Lucille)…I am very fortunate in marriage a second time (June)…my kids tell me that nobody could be that lucky twice! June is a big part of my life…we’re great partners and we spend a lot of time together. I love my coaching staff, I am totally pleased with all of them…I have no hang-ups with any of them, and their desire is to keep me coaching, so I am about as grateful and happy as I can be. I am not sure I can live without coaching. It’s always on my mind. I am very into it.
CT: You are not a man who brags, but 201 victories!! Come on. And to think, you did it all without a sense of humor!
Sweeney: (laughs)… I really don’t think it’s that big a deal. If you are around long enough, well, you’re going to win 200 games! It means a lot more to me that I have been coaching at the same school for 20 years. That says more about a person’s productivity. It’s difficult to coach at the same school in division one football for 20 years. You can find more coaches that won 200 games than you could find coaches who coached at one school that long. There are a lot of things that can cause you to leave. I love Fresno and feel like I am a native and I feel like there is no indispensable man. There’s an indispensable institution for whom I am fortunate enough to be here working for. My prayer is that we can get back to winning again, because that stadium being filled is very important to the university. Because without that stadium being filled, there are a lot of sports that would suffer. You talk about a multi-million dollar business – which it’s been when we’re winning. So, let’s win. That’s easy enough!