Graduates from mid-major state colleges, particularly those who move out of the area, generally aren’t the rah-rah alum types. They have no clothing with their school’s name on it, no specialty license plates or license plate frames, no decals or bumper stickers on their cars. They rarely mention their alma mater.
That pretty much describes me, a 1968 graduate of Fresno State who moved from the San Joaquin Valley to Southern California in 1969 to pursue a career as a sportswriter. Also, if you are a sportswriter, it is drummed into you that you aren’t supposed to be a fan. There’s that old axiom: “No cheering in the press box.”
But I must confess that there have been times over the years where my Valley roots surface and I am proud to say I’m a Fresno State alum.
This week is one of those times, when I saw Fresno State was one of the TMG Newsmakers of the Week. This honor came after Fresno became bowl eligible with a 6-3 record after a 20-13 victory over BYU.
A 6-3 record may not be anything to get too excited about, but Fresno State was 1-11 last season.
Fresno State won four games in a row following losses to No. 1 Alabama, 41-10, in a game more competitive than the score indicates, and to Washington, 48-16, when the Huskies were ranked No. 6.
The Bulldogs’ fourth win in a row was an impressive 27-3 road victory over San Diego State. But then Fresno State was upset by UNLV, 26-16, at home. The Bulldogs went into that game as a 21-point favorite.
Last season, Fresno State fired its coach, Tim DeRuyter, after eight games, and Jeff Tedford was brought in during the offseason to right the ship.
Tedford was a quarterback at Fresno State in the 1980s and an assistant coach and offensive coordinator there for six seasons in the 1990s.
By season’s end, if all goes well, Tedford may end up being declared King of the San Joaquin Valley, where Fresno State football rules. Fresno State has a following throughout the entire vast agricultural valley, thus the green V on the back of the helmets, something started by former coach Pat Hill.
I grew up on a 20-acre orange grove in a rural area of Tulare County near Porterville. The one-stoplight town I’m from is Strathmore, located six miles north of Porterville on old Highway 65. New Highway 65 bypasses Strathmore, leaving it pretty much isolated. The town hotspot is the Dinky Diner. Yes, it is dinky. The high school there is now part of the Porterville school district.
Just a side note: Little Strathmore High, which in the 1980s gave up football after losing 44 games in a row, was the only Valley school to make it all the way to a state championship game last season. Strathmore lost to a Bay Area team, St. Patrick-St. Vincent of Vallejo, 29-28, on a last-second field goal. It was Strathmore’s only loss of the season.
Okay. Enough about Strathmore. I realize this website is all about college football.
I was sports editor of the school paper, the Daily Collegian, during my senior year at Fresno State. The Bulldogs were pretty good back then but always played second fiddle to the Don Coryell-coached San Diego State teams.
So, watching Fresno State dismantle San Diego State on Oct. 21 was especially enjoyable and inspired to me to email my friend and former L.A. Times colleague Chris Dufresne to suggest that he might consider a column on Tedford and the Bulldogs. He in turn suggested I write something, and that’s with this is.
It’s just running a little later than we thought due to the loss to UNLV.
This is not the first time where I felt proud to be a Fresno State alum.
There was 1992 Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium. Fresno State, led by quarterback Trent Dilfer, manhandled USC, winning 24-7.
It was a rainy December night and I was sitting in the stands with my friend, Mike Lamb, a former USC offensive lineman. Lamb is from Clovis, a suburb located a few miles east of the Fresno State campus. In 1978, after his senior season at Clovis High, several scouting services called Lamb the West Coast’s top offensive lineman prospect.
When the Freedom Bowl game was well in hand, I couldn’t resist. “You were a pretty good high school football player, weren’t you, Mike?” I said. “You could have played for Fresno State, couldn’t you? You didn’t have to settle for USC.”
The headline in the Times the next day read: Fresno Teaches USC Humility 101. And USC fired its coach, Larry Smith.
I recall Times colleague and longtime USC beat writer Mal Florence, known for his acerbic humor, was asked prior to the Freedom Bowl if he would be attending. Florence, also a USC alum, let it be known how he felt about his alma mater playing Fresno State in a bowl game. “No, someone might see me there,” he said wryly.
After the game, I asked Mal for a comment. For once, he was speechless.
In 2001, behind David Carr, the older brother of the Raiders’ Derek Carr, Fresno State opened the season with victories over three ranked teams, Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin. The Bulldogs were 6-0 and ranked No. 8 when they had a key conference game coming up against Boise State.
Randy Harvey, then the executive sports editor of the Times, called me into his office and suggested I cover the remaining Fresno State home games as long as the team remained undefeated and ranked in the top 10. I liked the idea, even though Fresno is about a four-hour drive from Los Angeles.
However, things didn’t work out as planned. Boise State upset the Bulldogs in a game that was a turning point for both school’s football programs. Boise State went up, Fresno State down.
By 2005, however, Fresno State was again getting national attention and was ranked No. 16 as it approached a game against undefeated and No. 1-ranked USC at the L.A. Coliseum on Nov. 19 of that year.
Fresno State was a late add to the USC schedule that year. News of the Fresno State addition came out in February, and around that time I ran into USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett at a Pasadena restaurant. I knew Mike because he had dabbled in sports broadcasting, which was my beat.
“Great move adding Fresno State to your schedule,” I told him. “If you had room for them, you could get 100,000 people down from the San Joaquin Valley for that game. I’m from there. I went to Fresno State.”
Said Garrett: “That’s right, I think I knew that. You know, we should honor you at halftime of that game.”
My thought was that Garrett was just being nice. No way that was going to happen.
I would learn later than someone is honored on the field at halftime of a USC home game generally only twice a year, and likely always a Trojan alum, never an alum from the visiting school.
But you know what, it did happen. On Nov. 19, there I was, down on the field standing next to Mike Garrett, a photo of me up on the Coliseum scoreboard and the PA announcer saying flowering things about me.
I was presented with a USC jacket just as the Fresno State band rushed onto the field, forcing us to move after a very brief ceremony. The Times’ T.J. Simers chided me in his column, as only he could, for accepting a gift valued at more than $50 – a no-no according the Times handbook on ethics. Sorry, that jacket still hangs in my closet.
Before the game, I was interviewed on the USC pregame radio show and was asked who I was rooting for. I diplomatically said, “I’m rooting for a good game.”
It was a good game, actually a great game. USC won, 50-42, mainly behind the running of Reggie Bush, who finished with 513 total yards, including 294 rushing. His 50-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, where he stopped on a dime at the 25, changed directions and scored, lives on in Trojan lore, even if Reggie does not.
One more confession. When Fresno State went ahead of USC, 42-41, with nine minutes to play, those Valley roots again came to the surface and I was rooting for my alma mater, Fresno State. I was a proud alum.
Larry Stewart was a sportswriter in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years–nine at the Herald-Examiner and more than 30 at the Los Angeles Times. Larry retired from the Times in 2008 and now specializes in PR and charity work.