Jim Sweeney: Pat Hill, others praise Valley's 'father of football'

The Fresno BeeFebruary 9, 2013 

The year was 1984, and Pat Hill had lost his job as an assistant with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.

Hill's wife, Cathy, was late in her pregnancy, and the young couple couldn’t afford to leave Canada for the birth because that country offered low-cost socialized medicine.

Hill had several job offers, but most teams wanted him right away. One took into account his family situation, and that was Fresno State and coach Jim Sweeney.

"Jim was the only one who said, 'You come down when you're ready,' " Hill recalled Saturday in a telephone interview as he and others mourned Mr. Sweeney's death at age 83.

"And when Cathy and I got to Fresno with our 10-day-old son, he and June let us stay at their house until we found a place to live. He was always so good to me and my family. That's what I remember most."

Hill, who went on to succeed Mr. Sweeney as the head coach, was among those in the extended Fresno sports community who took time to share their memories.

Hill's 26-year-old middle son, Matthew James, is named in Mr. Sweeney's honor.

"He was a heckuva man and a really special coach," said Hill, who visited Mr. Sweeney at Saint Agnes Medical Center and plans to attend Saturday's public memorial at Bulldog Stadium.

"He instilled toughness into that program. Fresno State has always been known for its physical toughness, and that was due to Jim Sweeney. It was really easy to follow that trend."

Tributes flowed a day after Mr. Sweeney's passing. Moments of silence were observed at a number of university events.

Ventura College coach Steve Mooshagian, who played for Mr. Sweeney at Fresno State and later coached under him, said ex-players were kept abreast of his condition via a private Facebook page.

"But I like to remember how much of an influence he was on me earlier in my life," Mooshagian said. "Coach Sweeney used to tell me, 'Quit thinking about playing pro football. You're going to be a coach. A good coach. Get at it.'

"He made playing football for him fun and coaching with him fun."

Former Fresno State receiver Stephone Paige, one of 35 Bulldogs drafted into the NFL during Mr. Sweeney's 19-year tenure, praised his skills as a coach and motivator.

"He was always high energy," Paige said. "When you did good, he'd let you know. If it wasn't good, he'd let you know but in a constructive way that got his point across and his emotions across. ... If you played for him, you played hard for him."

His influence was felt throughout the Valley.

"He was the father of football in this Valley," Fresno City College coach Tony Caviglia said. "He would come over to Fresno City and watch some practices and games and always let me know what I was doing wrong. I just felt like when I came into town, he really welcomed me as a member of the football community."

Rams defensive coordinator Rick Scheidt, a Sweeney assistant from 1993-94, called his mentor "one of my greatest inspirations."

"I was coaching at San Francisco State and I went to a convention in Atlanta. He saw me there and told me 'I didn't know you were coaching,' " Scheidt said. "A week later he called me and asked if I wanted to be a grad assistant and coach tight ends.

"He's always been a legend in my family, from my father to my uncle (who are both former coaches). The Sweeney name in my household is a big name."

Former Bulldogs basketball coach Steve Cleveland added, "One thing I always appreciated is how upbeat and positive he was. He was always energized and had passion for the community. He was so competitive."

At Saturday's baseball alumni game, fans praised Mr. Sweeney's passion for football and, in general, the entire university.

"He believed in Fresno State with all his heart," said Mike Gavrilis, a longtime football and baseball season-ticket holder.

Every Fresno State athletic program and the campus as a whole benefited from the success and national attention that the coach and his teams garnered, Leonard Bacome said. He called Mr. Sweeney a good and genuine man.

"He was on par with Pete Beiden and Bob Bennett," Bacome said, referring to longtime Bulldogs baseball coaches.

"(He) had a very accomplished life, and it was good for us," Bacome said.

Frank Capalare, a football season-ticket holder through the years that Mr. Sweeney coached, said he was saddened to hear the news. He called Mr. Sweeney an acquaintance, "but it's like I lost a friend."

"I think a lot of people feel that way," he said.

Like many fans, Capalare credited Mr. Sweeney's program as the catalyst for the construction of Bulldog Stadium. In 1997, after Mr. Sweeney's retirement, the field was named for him.

"His mark is all over that stadium," Capalare said, "and I hope he's not forgotten."

Sweeney tribute

Fans can join former players and coaches at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Stadium to honor former coach Jim Sweeney.

Check out all the stories on Sweeney's death at fresnobee.com, and read Andy Boogaard's blog on what it was like to cover Sweeney at sports.fresnobeehive.com

Bee reporters Eddie Jimenez, Bryant-Jon Anteola and Anthony Galaviz contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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