Jim Sweeney, who christened Fresno State a "sleeping giant" when he arrived in 1976 and then awakened not only the school but a region with 19 years of charismatic, firm and witty leadership as a football coach, died Friday. He was 83.
"He was the catalyst, he gave us hope, and he gave us pride," said longtime Bulldogs booster Harry Gaykian. "He took us from being obscure to being somebody."
Mr. Sweeney had been admitted recently for a week at Saint Agnes Medical Center. His failing health had forced him and his wife, June, to move a couple of months earlier from their Clovis home to San Joaquin Gardens, a senior living community with continuing care services in Fresno.
Mr. Sweeney died at San Joaquin Gardens, according to John Wallace, former Bulldogs Foundation president.
DARRELL WONG/THE FRESNO BEE
Fresno Bee Staff Photo - Trent Dilfer, left, enjoys the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame enshrinement awards dinner with former coach Jim Sweeney, center, and Peter Mehas, right, at the Valdez Exhibit Hall on Thursday November 5, 2009.
MARY A. LOMMORI/THE FRESNO BEE
Fresno State's Jm Sweeney, left, talks strategy with Chris Bayne after the Bulldogs allow a Wyoming Score on October 20, 1996.
Fresno State head football coach Jim Sweeney, left of center with arm upraised, at the Freedom Bowl when the Bulldogs beat USC 24-7 in 1992.
HECTOR AMEZCUA/THE FRESNO BEE
FRESNO BEE - Fresno State head football coach Jim Sweeney, center, leads the singing of the Bulldogs fight song during a quarterback club luncheon.
Fresno State head football coach Jim Sweeney celebrates after a victory at San Diego State, clinching a WAC co-championship and berth in the Freedom Bowl in1992.
He was born in Butte, Mont., and raised there as the youngest of seven children to a miner -- some say it lent to his tough-as-nails demeanor.
Mr. Sweeney won exactly 200 games in 32 years as coach at Montana State, Washington State and Fresno State.
It's that Bulldogs career (1976-77, 1980-2006, interrupted by one-year NFL stops as an assistant with the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Raiders) that he's most remembered for: an-NCAA career record-breaking passing performance by his son, Kevin; eight conference titles; and five bowl wins, including his signature conquest -- 24-7 over USC with nearly 30,000 Fresno State fans present in the 1992 Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium.
"Biggest win in the history of Fresno State football -- by far," Mr. Sweeney said after taking a victory lap around the damp, late-December field while swirling a white towel above his head.
Greater than that, greater than all the statistical data of a program that led the NCAA in scoring three times on Mr. Sweeney's watch, Gaykian and many others say, was the belief and enthusiasm instilled by a coach in the community and beyond into the San Joaquin Valley.
"We had always been feeling kind of down; everybody picked on Fresno," Gaykian said. "But then he came and brought excitement to the community. He was tough. He was a salesman. And he was good -- he was just what we needed."
Fresno State's wild comeback win in 1982 California Bowl
Mr. Sweeney embraced fans new and old, shook hands customarily with a fingers snap from his vice-like grip, climbed atop chairs with an Irish baritone while booming "I've got the Bulldogs spirit," and thrust Fresno State into relevance beyond the West as the program made national ranking appearances in seven of his last 12 seasons.
"He had the personality, the charisma, the confidence -- he had everything going for him," Gaykian said. "He was the first person to make the community feel good about itself. We didn't see anybody wear Bulldogs T-shirts around town until he came."
Walt Reinhardt, like Gaykian a charter member of the Bulldog Foundation, the school's once-powerful fundraising arm, added: "Jim was a real livewire and the kids just loved him. He was a dear, loyal friend who had his faults but was a real blessing to this community and Fresno State athletics."
Mr. Sweeney (1992) and son Kevin (2002) are one of four father/son combinations inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. They followed Justin ('82) and Tim (2001) Simons; Charles ('60) and Tom ('86) Seaver; and Billy ('59) and Bill ('81) Vukovich.
It seems to me that it is time for us to think about giving some real recognition for coach Jim Sweeney's contributions to Fresno State and to its football program by naming the stadium, which he helped build, "Jim Sweeney Stadium."
"Jim Sweeney Field" was a nice touch, but it doesn't cut it for a man with Jim Sweeney's stature in the community and beyond.
Only a Colin Kaepernick deep ball away from the San Francisco 49ers' practice field, Levi's Stadium is taking shape in a hurry.
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