Players: Jim Sweeney taught life lessons at Fresno State

Former Bulldogs say he made them who they are.

The Fresno BeeFebruary 9, 2013 

For all the glory he experienced while involved in a Fresno State football program that went 46-13-1 with four league titles and two bowl wins -- one over USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl -- Ron Collins' greatest thrill at Bulldog Stadium came 16 years after he last played a game there.

It occurred in 2009 at a 20-year team reunion, when the former star offensive tackle had the opportunity to introduce his 6-year-old son, Jaden, to his Fresno State coach, Jim Sweeney.

"One of the proudest moments of my life," Collins says.

Mr. Sweeney died Friday in Fresno. He was 83.

"One of the worst days of my life," Collins says.

Photo gallery: Former Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney dies

Collins and other ex-Bulldogs talked Friday about the life-changing impact Mr. Sweeney had on them.

They talked about his "tough love" while getting the most out of their abilities and delivering a school-best 143-75-3 record with eight conference titles and five bowl wins in 19 years.

They talked about his signature blend of intimidation and wit -- ranging from when he so rankled USC players while comically addressing a crowd of 2,000 at the Freedom Bowl Kickoff Luncheon in Anaheim, some had to be restrained from leaving the building; to the time he caved to the challenges of his players before the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii and leaped into the hotel pool, fully clothed.

But, above all, during mixtures of laughter and broken speech, they talked about the people they have been molded into today.

All of them by James Joseph Sweeney.

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"He taught a bunch of children to become men, a bunch of puppies to be Bulldogs," said Collins, a business banker in the East Bay who was part of the front that mauled the heavily favored Trojans in the Freedom Bowl.

"Coach Sweeney changed my life. He was much more than a mentor, much more than a father figure. Anyone can teach you how to block and tackle, but it takes a special person to teach you how to be a man. And that's what he did. He taught us how to take a test, how to look people in the eye. To this day, if I walk into a room to meet a CEO, I don't walk in with my hands in my pockets. Coach Sweeney taught me that.

"He's meant the world to me; essentially, how I live my life."

Tony Jackson, Vince Wesson and Rus Hartmann were raised without fathers, but they found a father figure in Mr. Sweeney.

"Growing up without a dad, he was a godsend for me. He had that kind of influence," says Jackson, a Fowler graduate and member of what Mr. Sweeney called "the stadium builders" -- the 1977 Pacific Coast Athletic Conference championship team that rocked Ratcliffe Stadium at Fresno City College while inspiring the construction of the on-campus Bulldog Stadium three years later.

Jackson, however, says he can't honestly say he envisioned the new facility when he completed his two-year Bulldogs career as an all-conference receiver.

"How could I?" asks the local insurance salesman. "Think about what Fresno's image was like, our town, from a sports standpoint. Then Coach Sweeney walked in, talking about a 'sleeping giant' and awoke something in this town we didn't know was there. He basically changed what we thought about sports. Then, we were OK with beating Cal Poly. Today, this area has grown huge, all because of his dream.

"So, did we know? Heck no, we didn't know. But it's great to see.

"I'm going to miss him terribly. I'm heartbroken."

Wesson walked on in 1982 as a 5-foot-7 wide receiver from Clovis West High. Not that his height mattered.

"Coach Sweeney was the ultimate motivator," Wesson says. "He could make you feel 10 feet tall and bullet proof."

Wesson caught the winning touchdown pass in his second game against Oregon and was immediately told by Mr. Sweeney to tell his mother he was placed on scholarship. Wesson went on to complete a four-year career.

He visited Mr. Sweeney recently at Saint Agnes Medical Center: "Coach raised his head for a moment, delayed and said, 'Vincent.' I cried on the spot. Amazing how just one word can resonate so much.

"Other than the passing of my mom, this is the most difficult death I've had to deal with."

Hartmann, who sells agriculture and industrial packaging in Fresno, is raising four boys in the Clovis High district, including Cougars varsity quarterback R.J.

"There's not a day in the last 20 years I haven't taught something to my kids and my players that didn't come from Coach Sweeney," says Hartmann, the right guard on the Freedom Bowl team. "I've had great success in my life, and I attribute the majority of it to what he taught me and the strength he gave me. I use it every day in business, and it's something I pass on to people I work with and to customers.

"Obviously, there are tough days. But nothing seems too tough after dealing with Coach Sweeney, what he put me through and prepared me for life. I'm prepared for everything; nothing overwhelms me."

Jason James, like so many of Mr. Sweeney's players, has remained in the area while making a difference professionally.

The 10-year special education teacher and assistant coach at Buchanan High arrived at Fresno State in 1991 from Buena Park High in Orange County.

"It's funny," he says, "you go away to school where you don't know anybody and you have this guy (Mr. Sweeney) in your face to commit for the team, school and community.

"He actually made me feel a heck of a lot more comfortable. The whole aspect of his coaching and him as a person -- he cared as much about the trainer as everybody on the team -- it was pretty amazing. He took care of everybody, and he wasn't afraid to show his emotions. He was very well respected among us players, more respected than people will ever know.

"He'll be remembered in our hearts forever."

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

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