Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney remembered as leader, life-changer

The Fresno BeeFebruary 16, 2013 

The Dogfather of Fresno State football would not be denied this time.

Not this one last time.

Sixteen years after he made his final appearance as a coach at Bulldog Stadium, a heartbreaking loss to Air Force, Jim Sweeney at the same site was hailed as a great coach and better life-changer on a glorious mid-February day that defied the season.

Eight days after he died at the age of 83, his public memorial drew about 2,000 people -- including several hundred former players and coaching colleagues -- under slight overcast and 70 degrees.

Also present was former Bulldogs basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who moved slowly while being assisted to a stadium seat.

BLOG REPLAY: Jim Sweeney memorial at Bulldog Stadium

The celebration of Sweeney's life featured 11 speakers, beginning with Fresno State president John Welty: "Today, we honor a man who dreamed impossible dreams and achieved impossible dreams. We gather to remember a man who will live on forever in this region."

Bulldogs football coach Tim DeRuyter followed Welty, the tributes continued with the likes of NFL Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud, and they closed powerfully with former Bulldog quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Kevin Sweeney.

PHOTOS: Jim Sweeney memorial at Bulldog Stadium

In the most moving moment of the nearly two-hour ceremony, Kevin Sweeney stepped away from the lectern set up on a platform at the 50-yard line and asked for June Sweeney to meet him, presenting Jim Sweeney's widow with a football: "The game ball of life."

June and Jim Sweeney were married for 23 years after the coach's first wife of 38 years, Cile, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1988.

Kevin Sweeney, the youngest of nine children born to Jim and Cile, first thanked Welty and others before concentrating on June Sweeney: "You have been a rock, you've been amazing, to see how you took care of Dad."

Jim Sweeney had seven surgeries in the last six years of a Fresno State career that ended in 1996 -- two back, two angioplasties, prostate, rotator cuff and leg. And, in the past few years, his health declined rapidly following a stroke.

Kevin Sweeney, an NCAA record-breaking quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1982-86, gave his father a salute consistent for the day: "He was passionate about family, passionate about football and holding people accountable. He was a chance-taker and very special about it."

Kevin Sweeney also read a letter he received from one of his former receivers, Ron Jenkins. It said in part: "College football has lost a great man and Fresno State a great leader. But as every great leader does, he leaves behind a legacy."

The life of that legacy will be supported, DeRuyter said, by first having his team bearing Jim Sweeney decals on their helmets next season and, long range, with the construction of the "Jim Sweeney Learning Center" on campus.

DeRuyter, who just finished his first season at Fresno State, acknowledged he didn't know Sweeney that well: "But to hear players tell stories and his effect humbles me as a coach."

Sharing their experiences on Jim Sweeney Field were a range of former players from Montana State, Washington State and Fresno State -- Stenerud, former Purdue coach Joe Tiller, Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos and ex-Bulldogs Jethro Franklin, Lorenzo Neal, Dilfer and Sweeney.

One became emotional, and he knew he would -- Dilfer.

"Coach Sweeney told me it was OK to cry, to bear your soul to those you love and care about," said Dilfer, who played 14 years in the NFL and now is an ESPN analyst.

"I spent this week," he continued, pausing, his voice breaking, "for the first time in 19 years reflecting on my time here, trying to boil down the essence of what allowed Coach to take boys and turn them into men. And what I settled on was Coach Sweeney was a truth-teller. He was willing to tell you the truth, and it wasn't always warm and fuzzy. But you never felt better about yourself than when Coach said, 'I love you, son; you're the best.' "

If there was any one thing he embraced from Sweeney, Dilfer said, it "was there was no such thing as failure; it was a temporary setback. I got booed out of NFL stadiums, but I didn't view it as a failure; it was a temporary setback."

Two of the speakers expressed displeasure with a Sweeney setback they fear won't be temporary.

"If ever a person should have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, it was Jim Sweeney," Sam Jankovich said.

Jankovich was an assistant both at Montana State and Washington State under Sweeney, who went 200-154-4 in a 32-year career.

That included a 26-59-1 record with one winning season at Washington State.

"He gets very little credit for what he did at Washington State," said Jankovich, who, like Sweeney, was born in Butte, Mont. "His record never represented the blood, sweat and tears he paid. I've been around a lot of coaches who cried and moaned over what they didn't have, but Jim Sweeney at no time was ever deterred by not having great facilities. The only thing he told us was, 'We just have to outwork everybody.'

"You take a look at his legacy, not just win-loss record, and the many people he coached and hired and what they went on and did in their personal and professional lives. They are all deeply indebted, and nobody more than Sam Jankovich."

Jankovich's career arced from coaching to administration, first at Washington State and then as the University of Miami athletic director and New England Patriots chief operating officer.

Moos, who played for Sweeney at Washington State, said he served on the college Hall of Fame selection committee for four years.

"I went to bat every year for my coach," he said. "He was about one (winning) percentage point off the requirement, but I'm not going to quit. If Jim Sweeney had Woody Hayes' players, it wouldn't even be a debate. Jim was the best coach in this country."

On the light side -- and there was no shortage of humor on this day -- Moos shared a scenario that had Washington offer him a prestigious scholarship as an offensive lineman only to be trumped by Washington State's Sweeney in a home recruiting visit.

It went like this: "He's on about his third Scotch and my mom is matching him. Both are smoking Tareytons, and Jim didn't even smoke. Jim asks me what I'm thinking about studying in college. My mom chimes in and says I'd be an excellent teacher and coach. Jim says, '(BS), he's not going to be a coach, he's going to be the governor of Washington.' So, I signed to play for Coach Sweeney.

"In our first practice, our quarterback gets hit on four straight plays. Coach grabs my facemask with his left hand, sticks his right finger in my chest and says, 'You let him in one more time and I'm going to break your friggin' leg.' I looked at him wondering if he remembers he's talking to the future governor of Washington."

Sweeney's oldest daughter, Peg Sweeney, drew a standing ovation following a spirited account of the time her father asked what she thought happens when you die.

"I said, 'You go to heaven.' Then he asked about reincarnation. I said, 'about 30% of people believe in it, so it must be legitimate.'

"He said, 'Then that's what I believe in. And I'm going to come back as a football coach.'"

Stenerud provided the most bizarre story.

The Norway native came to the United States on a ski jumping scholarship to attend Montana State. Someone spotted him kicking a football and relayed the news of his ability to Sweeney.

"A couple weeks later," Stenerud said, "Jim got a hold of me, asked me to come to practice and even got on his knees, helping me kick. I guess he liked what he saw. Then I read in the paper him saying, 'We have the best kicker in the nation.' That was news to me but, I'll tell you one thing, it gave me a lot of confidence."

Stenerud would go on to play 19 years in the NFL and make the league's Hall of Fame.

"Jim Sweeney," he said, "totally changed my life."

Neal and Franklin, two of the most popular Bulldogs of all time, agreed.

"This man impacted lives, he changed generations," said Neal, a four-time Pro Bowler who played 17 years in the NFL. "What he stood for in the community -- he was a pillar."

Franklin, an assistant coach at the University of Miami, said he often relies on Sweeney quotations to inspire others.

"He was our dad, he was our granddad, he was our leader," Franklin said. "He took us where we couldn't take ourselves."

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

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