Jim Sweeney: Son Kevin reminisces about playing for Fresno State coach

Time together as Bulldogs was a joy for young quarterback.

The Fresno BeeFebruary 9, 2013 

Kevin Sweeney had a chance to play for just about any university in the nation coming out of high school.

But his decision to be the quarterback for Fresno State was a simple matter of love -- he wanted to play for his father, then-Bulldogs coach Jim Sweeney.

A day after Mr. Sweeney died at age 83, the younger Sweeney reminisced Saturday about his dad, many of his memories rooted in the days when father and son spent time together as Bulldogs.

"Bulldog born, Bulldog bred," Kevin recited Saturday.

It was Mr. Sweeney, after all, who started the saying that has since become a school tradition. It's a phrase that still is recited toward the end of almost every Fresno State practice -- some 17 years after Mr. Sweeney last coached a game.

"For me, it was a gift that I got to play for him -- what a joy," said Kevin Sweeney, who plans to attend next Saturday's public memorial at Bulldog Stadium. "I realized that this was a unique opportunity. It had some risks at the time being a quarterback and the coach's son. But it was a gift, and it allowed us to have a unique relationship.

"I'd been around him and the football field since I was 4 years old, would go to practice with him every day. I've always admired the leadership and enthusiasm he'd exude toward others and how appreciative they were back at him. I wanted to be a part of it."

A celebration of Mr. Sweeney's life was tentatively scheduled by the university for 2 p.m. next Saturday at the stadium, on the field that is named for him.

Relatives of Mr. Sweeney are encouraging the public, especially his former players and their families, to attend. A few past Bulldogs are expected to share their memories, and a video tribute is in the works for the man who many consider to be the Godfather of Bulldog Football.

The family also plans a family-only church service that morning.

Having coached for 32 years, including 19 at Fresno State, Mr. Sweeney's influence on others was far-reaching. And his enthusiasm and wit and knowledge of football led to some of the greatest moments in school history.

Like the 1985 Fresno State team that finished 11-0-1, the only team in the nation to go undefeated that season and still the last Bulldogs team to do so.

"That was a Boise State-like feat back then, what we did," said Kevin Sweeney, a record-setting passer for many of the Bulldogs' great teams. "You couldn't really even consider us mid-level or mid-majors then. We'd play at 7:30 at night, way late for East Coast voters to notice us. But he got us noticed.

"You know, I enjoyed every single moment with him. The wins, the losses, the whole experience. And I think it's because of how he made you feel, how he made everyone feel that was a part of it. He just knew how to grow this unity so that everybody was on the same page, and you loved being part of his team and playing for him."

Mr. Sweeney provided other unique memories, like those times he stood on the field, stripped down to the waist, having taken off his shirt at the end of a game so he would have something to wave in victory.

Mr. Sweeney enjoyed singing and chanting, too, and often would rally a room of Fresno State fans by singing a refrain that he crafted and also still resonates with some longtime Redwave faithful: "I've got that Bulldog spirit up in my head, deep in my heart, down in my toes."

"It was always exciting times being around Coach Sweeney," said former Bulldogs receiver Stephone Paige, who was among the dozens of Mr. Sweeney's ex- players who went on to play in the NFL. "There never was a dull moment. He always made it fun."

Having known that Mr. Sweeney's health was deteriorating, Kevin Sweeney kept those close to his father informed of his condition almost every step of the way.

Past players, including another Bulldogs quarterbacking great, Trent Dilfer, called regularly for updates. Some friends, such as Mr. Sweeney's successor as Bulldogs coach, Pat Hill, visited the coach in the hospital as recently as a week ago.

About 7:13 p.m. Friday, Mr. Sweeney drew his final breath with his grandchildren and other family members by his side.

"I'm going to miss him," Kevin Sweeney said. "Just had so many great memories. He had the ability to inspire people to go beyond the abilities of what they thought they could do.

"He was a great salesperson because he believed in every word that he told you. Because of him, he created that Bulldog Spirit in a lot of people."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6362, bjanteola@fresnobee.com or @Banteola_TheBee on Twitter.

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