Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I Love the '80's!

Imagine if Hill would have been hired in 1987 and not 1997, where would the program be now? College football was a different monster in the 1980's and maybe Hill's dream, mullet and mustache would have fit much better back in the day.

Hill stated when he was lobbying for the job at Fresno State in the fall of 1996 that it had always been his dream job. Why would a program from the WAC, in the middle of California, under the shadows of USC and UCLA be such a dream? Maybe because Hill saw huge untapped potential his former mentor, Jim Sweeney, ignored?

In Hill's six years as an assistant coach at Fresno State (1984-1989) the Bulldogs were a very dominant team. Only the '84 team did not have a winning record, but at least went 6-6, including a 27-22 win at Arizona, who finished 7-4. The 1987 team took on the most ambitious schedule ever in school history, with road games at UCLA and Washington State, and still finished 6-5, despite losing many senior starters from the year before. Yet, Sweeney never took the program to the next level in those 6 years. It was not until the 1992 and 1993 seasons did Sweeney get the Bulldogs into the big-time with back-to-back bowl games against USC and Colorado. Sweeney was heavily aided in his cause by the University's new WAC affiliation.

So why didn't the program get more respect in the 1980's? That can be easily answered, TV. ESPN was still in its infant years and the Boys at ABC and CBS carried all the big games. There was no way in hell little ol' Fresno State was going to get any airtime. There had been only one game in the 1980's that was on ABC regional television, and that was against nationally ranked San Jose State in 1981. How could Fresno State get more airtime? Improve the product. Beating up on fellow PCAA teams and former Pac 10 doormat Oregon State does not make news east of the Rockies.

Sweeney was open to playing the Big Boys but not at the expense of a "body bag" game. He had an advantage that most other PCAA schools didn't have, the Bulldog Foundation. Sweeney could turn down any game if didn't like the deal and the athletic department would not be at a loss. Unlike a Long Beach State, who needed to play at least two to three "money" road games just to keep the budget out of the red. Sweeney was content dominating the PCAA, which became the Big West in 1988. However, when his teams played a team with excellent speed on offense or any option attack his defense would get crushed. Sweeney was an offensive genius but his defenses were far from spectacular. The 3-4 defensive schemes could mask most weakness, but not the defense's lack of speed.

So if you were a visionary like assistant coach Pat Hill what would you be thinking about around 1986? It would have been the start of his third year and the Bulldogs just came off of the most successful season in school history. He is an assistant/recruiting coordinator for a budding program in the heart of one the richest recruiting areas in the country. Maybe some of his thoughts were like kind of like this:

USC's 1986 offense had a starting FB from Kingsburg, a starting TE from Clovis West, a starting WR from Edison, and that is not including their best player SS Tim McDonald from Edison.

Florida State in just ten years went from an unknown state school in Florida to becoming a perennial top 25 bowl team by playing anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Miami has achieved elite status by playing a tough brand of pro-style of football. No gimmicks, no tricks just straight up smash mouth football. Their defense also has more speed than most offenses; no way in hell an option team is going to turn the corner on them.

To break it down in layman's terms:

1. Recruit the Valley and focus on high school players
2. Play Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime
3. Increase team speed, especially on defense

If Jim Sweeney would have implemented these concepts Fresno State would have been a lot more successful then it was from 1985 through 1996.

Hill bolted in 1989 for Arizona soon after Fresno State capped another successful but unfulfilling 11-1 conference championship season. Fresno State was 10-0 and ranked #23 at one point and the focus of an ESPN Gameday feature the day it was to conclude its season at 1-10 New Mexico. After the 45-22 drubbing at the hands of the Lobos, no one in the nation gave a shit about the Big West champion Bulldogs, despite their gaudy 10-1 regular season record. Even though they beat MAC champs Ball State 27-6 to win the Cal Raison Bowl and finish 11-1, neither the writers nor the coaches voted FS back into the top 25. What did this say about college football? No one cares about a lesser conference champ.

In the 80's it didn't matter too much about conference affiliation when it came time for bowl invitations. Filling the seats and turning on the TVs was all that mattered. Only a handful of spots were tied-in for conference champs, and almost anyone with the right schedule could be in contention for a national title. BYU won one in 1984 after finishing the season as the only unbeaten, and Air Force was very close in 1985 finishing ranked #5 in the coaches’ poll with just one loss late in the season to BYU. Add two more layman's terms to the list:

4. big wins get more respect than a lesser conference title
5. Running the table even gives the little guy a shot at the national title

fast forward to 1997 and Hill has implemented all five of these layman's terms into his program among others and has parlayed it into unparallel national exposure for the Fresno State football program. Remember, there was no BCS in1997, but there was the similar bowl alliance.

There has only been one conference title, which only fans from the Valley really care about, right? There have been numerous national TV appearances and seven straight bowl games. But there has been only one top 25 finish, and this year marks the program's first "middle-tier" bowl and the opponent is far from stellar.

Does Hill's vision belong back in college football of the 1980's? Or does Hill just need more time to fulfill his vision? Hill has yet to accomplish the many tangible goals, but you can not argue about all the intangibles the program has garnered in his nine years. No non-BCS team is going to win a national championship under the current format. The system will not change at least until the new FOX TV deal is up at the end of the decade. Until then.....

What is important to a program's success, the tangibles or intangibles?

That is the $64,000 question.

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