Jim Sweeney, legendary Fresno State football coach, dies at 83

February 8, 2013 

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."

Photo gallery: Former Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney dies

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.

First-year Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter reacted on Twitter to Mr. Sweeney's passing: "My thoughts and prayers are with the Sweeney family. What an honor it is to follow his legacy."

Storify: Twitter lights up with memories of Jim Sweeney

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.

Mr. Sweeney's 9-2 team in 1977 -- "My favorite team because it proved I could coach and motivate" -- captured the Pacific Coast Athletic Association championship. Its signature victory was a 34-14 throttling of PCAA standard-bearing San Diego State on Oct. 8 before 14,114 fans at Ratcliffe Stadium on the Fresno City College campus.

"That was a big game in my life, a big game for this program," Mr. Sweeney would say 19 years later.

Turns out, it helped launch Mr. Sweeney to his brief NFL career. But it also started a flood of support to build the on-campus stadium.

By the time Mr. Sweeney came home to Fresno for the 1980 season, Bulldog Stadium was going up quickly. It opened for the last game of that '80 season.

Asked if the stadium -- publicly funded, without a dime of tax-payer money for $7.3 million -- would have been constructed without Mr. Sweeney's presence, Gaykian said: "I think we would have got there, but it may have been 10 or 20 years later."

So successful at the gate and on the scoreboard -- Mr. Sweeney's teams would go 84-21-2 at Bulldog Stadium -- the facility's seating capacity was increased from 30,000 to 41,031 with a two-phase expansion in 1991 that included 22 sky suites.

From gun-slinging quarterbacks Jeff Tedford to Kevin Sweeney to Mark Barsotti and Trent Dilfer, Fresno State packed the stadium with fan-pleasing teams that routinely advanced players into the NFL.

During Mr. Sweeney's final season, in 1996, the Bulldogs were represented by 18 players in the NFL. And the 1992 team alone would produce seven draft picks, including first-rounder Dilfer.

Jim Sweeney Field at Bulldog Stadium was named in the coach's honor in 1997: "A monumental occasion, the highlight of my coaching career."

But it did follow a painful finish, on and off the field.

His last teams went 5-7-1, 5-7 and 4-7. His last home game -- Nov. 16 -- was a 44-38 overtime loss to Air Force on a day his team led 31-3 at halftime. And the last game of his career was a 31-21 loss at San Diego State, the program against whom he had delivered several monumental victories -- counting a Dilfer and Ron Rivers spectacular 63-37 shootout over the Marshall Faulk-prized Aztecs in Fresno on Nov. 20, 1993.

"I told the team in the locker room after the game, 'This is the best team I've ever coached,' " Mr. Sweeney said.

He did so in discomfort during a stretch in which he experienced seven surgeries, virtually from heart to toe, in his final six seasons.

Still, all the while, the man with an affinity for boxing bounced off the ropes and made a statement for his players, continuing to climb -- step by perilous step -- a 50-foot tower from which he observed practices often in his career.

But then, three days before that final curtain call on Nov. 23, 1996, at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium, he made a concession incomprehensible to those close to the master motivator: "My emotional tank is empty. I can't give pep talks anymore."

Following the game, he elaborated: "I've been waiting for (the end) to happen. It's been a long, hard grind.

"My only regret is not winning at least six games in (each of) the last three years. I feel like I've let a lot of people down, and I'll have a lot of regret and remorse for that. I'm thankful I stayed at Fresno State for so long, but the last three years, that's an awesome thing to carry."

Until then, he carried on his mule-like back a community starved for major-college belonging.

It all began in 1976, when he arrived from Washington State of the then-Pac 8 Conference, where he had gone a humbling 26-59-1 in eight years following a rousing career start at Montana State.

He was 47 and in doubt: "I had to prove to myself that I could coach."

Mr. Sweeney succeeded in a brash, daring and oft-intimidating manner that had few boundaries.

"When the good Lord made Jim Sweeney," former Cal State Fullerton Gene Murphy once said, "he threw away the mold and buried it.

"His kids played their (butts) off, and that's all you can ask, regardless of skill level. You knew those players were at his command five days before the game. Players really loved the man."

Jeff Negrete, who played for Mr. Sweeney in 1983-84 and eventually married one of his daughters, Patty (who died of cancer in 2002), took it a step further.

"So often we hear kids say, 'Next to my father, you're the most influential person in my life,' " he said. "There were many players who said more than that about Coach. Many players came through who either didn't have a father figure, lost a father or, quite candidly, Coach Sweeney had a bigger impact than their father.

"He was able to assess people, and he believed in you. He was an impact player, certainly an economic force in the community with the ability to rally people who invested into student-athletes and Bulldog football. Nobody's done it bigger; nobody's done it better."

In 1975, the year before Mr. Sweeney's arrival from Pullman, Wash., Fresno State football brought in $245,000.

Not two decades later, the Bulldogs were playing USC and Colorado in consecutive bowls while generating nearly $4 million annually.

"We raised more money, five- or 10-fold, in his first five years," said Gaykian, then president of the Bulldog Foundation and a key figure in luring the coach to Fresno. "Everybody got excited, and fans started showing up."

And never like the 1992 Freedom Bowl, where the Bulldogs' four-year offensive tackle Jesse Hardwick returned to his back yard in Orange County for one final push under a coach who had influenced him to "grow up" in a hurry after first arriving as an 18-year-old.

"Coach Sweeney knew how to motivate, inspire and kick in the tail when needed," said Hardwick, now Sanger High's athletic director. "And he did all three for me. Everything he's done for so many players who walked through those halls and onto the field can't be put into words.

"He's a legend."


Jim Sweeney

Born: Sept. 1, 1929, in Butte, Mont.

Died: Feb. 8, 2013

Survivors: Wife June; sons Jimmy, Danny and Kevin; daughters Peggy Sweeney, Sheila Cornell, Mary Lou Dion and Carol Sweeney; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services: To be determined.


Remembering Jim Sweeney

First collegiate coaching victory: Defeated Fresno State 29-7 in 1963, his first year at Montana State.

200th career win: Defeated Boise State 41-7 in his final season with the Bulldogs.

Coach of the Year awards: 3 in the Big Sky while at Montana State, 1 in the Pacific 8 at Washington State, 6 in the PCAA/Big West while at Fresno State.

Best record at Fresno State: 11-0-1 in 1985

Longest stretch at Fresno State without a losing season: 12 years (1982-93)

Longest winning streak at Fresno State: 17 (1988-89)

What made the 1981 season so remarkable despite a 5-6 record: Two of the victories were over Pac-10 schools (at home vs. Oregon, 23-16, and at Arizona, 23-17) when Sweeney was still trying to build the program.

Bowl record at Fresno State: 5-2

NFL first-round draft picks: Cornerback J.D. Williams in 1990; quarterback Trent Dilfer in 1994.

Sweeney's career coaching record

MONTANA STATE

1963 6-3

1964 7-4

1965 3-7

1966 8-3

1967 7-3

Total 31-20-0

WASHINGTON STATE

1968 3-6-1

1969 1-9

1970 1-10

1971 4-7

1972 7-4

1973 5-6

1974 2-9

1975 3-8

Total 26-59-1

FRESNO STATE

1976 5-6

1977 9-2

1980 5-6

1981 5-6

1982 11-1

1983 6-5

1984 6-6

1985 11-0-1

1986 9-2

1987 6-5

1988 10-2

1989 11-1

1990 8-2-1

1991 10-2

1992 9-4

1993 8-4

1994 5-7-1

1995 5-7

1996 4-7

Total 143-75-3

Career 200-154-4

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6366, aboogaard@fresnobee.com or @beepreps on Twitter.

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