Jim Sweeney's wife fondly recalls life with Fresno State coach

February 15, 2013 

Saturday's weather forecast in Fresno calls for sunshine and 70 degrees — nearly 10 above normal.

June Sweeney is sure she knows why: "Jim did this. He always said, 'When I die, I want a big party.' He made the weather nice so he can have it."

A public memorial for Jim Sweeney, her late husband, will be at 1 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium. Tailgating will begin at 10 a.m.

The winningest football coach in Fresno State history died last Friday at the age of 83.

LIVE BLOG, noon Saturday: Jim Sweeney public memorial at Bulldog Stadium

Before he went, he did make two other requests — one that was honored and one that won't be.

"He's been cremated," June Sweeney says. "That was his wish. But he also said, 'Put me in Bulldog Stadium.' That was his house, and that's where he wanted to go. But I told him they're not going to let me do that."

The wife laughs about that and, in reflection of her 23-year marriage and experience with the coach who retired following the 1996 season, she mostly expressed a time of joy.

"Football was his life, so naturally it was my life, and I loved it," she says. "I loved Jim and all the players. And he has such a great family and grandchildren who were so involved. It was just awesome."

Her husband's final years, however, were difficult as his health declined rapidly after a stroke, causing paralysis of his right arm and partially in his right leg.

"He couldn't get around and do things for himself, and he hated that," she says. "He had a lot of pride and, all of a sudden, he had to have people waiting on him. He was very unhappy with his quality of life. He was ready to call it quits."

Still, the Sweeneys continued to attend every Bulldogs home football game, right through last season.

And they also traveled to team reunions for Washington State and Montana State, where he began a 32-year college career that counted exactly 200 wins.

"He was in a wheelchair, but he loved those reunions and to see his old players," she says.

STORY ARCHIVE: Remembering Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney

Jan Stenerud and Dennis Erickson, two of Sweeney's former players at Montana State, will be among seven speakers at Saturday's memorial.

Sweeney coached at Montana State from 1963-67. June Sweeney says what they called "Decrepit Bobcat" reunions have long been held every five years, and they made them all.

"They told Jim Sweeney stories and stories on each other," she says. "You've never seen a bunch of guys like those; they were so close."

Jim and June Sweeney married in the summer of 1989.

He had been married for 38 years to Lucille "Cile" Sweeney, who died in 1988 after undergoing emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. They had eight children, including Peggy and Kevin Sweeney, who will also speak Saturday.

Kevin Sweeney, the former NCAA career passing leader, who played for his father at Fresno State from 1982-86, will close what's expected to be a 90-minute ceremony.

A stage facing the stadium's west side will be set up on Jim Sweeney Field, which was named in the coach's honor in 1997.

Sweeney began his Bulldogs career in 1976-77, when the team played its home games at Fresno City College's Ratcliffe Stadium.

He then left for two years while assisting the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Raiders in the NFL. By the time he returned to Fresno State in 1980, construction was nearly completed for Bulldog Stadium.

The first game there, ironically, was a Bulldogs 21-14 win over Montana State to close the 1980 season.

Asked what her husband's proudest achievement was at Fresno State, June Sweeney says: "Probably building the stadium; that was big to him. And his players were big to him; he loved them. And he was also so proud of his children."

In his retirement, she says, they lived a life of golf-driven, improvised travel.

"Funny," she says, "we would just throw stuff in the car with golf clubs, not going anywhere in particular, find a golf course in the middle of nothing and play. We'd have a nice dinner, stay overnight, get up the next day and go another direction."

More organized itineraries landed them in Ireland, Scotland and, often, in Hawaii.

The retirement agreed with him, she says, though adding that he last played golf probably eight years ago.

"He lived a long life with lots of good players and good things," she says. "But, in the end (of his career), he was tired and ready to retire. I don't think he ever really minded giving it up."

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

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