A guy can’t be a graduate assistant forever. Three years are all any aspiring coach gets.
After spending the 2013-15 college football seasons as an offensive graduate assistant at Oregon, Joe Bernardi faced two choices: find a full-time coaching job or find another way to make a living.
“Go sell cars somewhere,” Bernardi chuckles into the phone when asked about his contingency plan. “I’d say it worked out pretty well.”
Pretty well? Now there’s an understatement. In fact, it’s hard to see how things could’ve worked out better for the former Fresno State lineman who earlier this month returned to the Bulldogs as tight ends coach.
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Or for a program that dipped to 9-17 in Years 3 and 4 under coach Tim DeRuyter on the heels of a 20-6 start in Years 1 and 2.
Bernardi needed his first full-time coaching opportunity, a chance to prove himself in his chosen profession.
I told coach DeRuyter I’d walk down the 5 freeway from Eugene, Ore., to coach on his staff – and I meant it.
And Fresno State needed an infusion of the character traits the 28-year-old exudes from the time he opens his eyes in the morning to when he shuts them at night.
“I haven’t come down from the clouds yet. I just feel really blessed,” Bernardi says. “Every day I’ve got a big smile on my face because I’m doing exactly what I want to do in the place I most want to do it.”
Listen to Bernardi talk about his alma mater and you might come away with the mistaken impression the “Bulldog Spirit” fight song was written about him.
Listen to Bernardi talk about his alma mater, and you might come away with the mistaken impression the “Bulldog Spirit” fight song was written about him.
▪ “The time I spent at Fresno State (2006-10) was by far and away the best five years of my life.”
▪ “There’s no place in America I’d rather work.”
▪ “I told coach DeRuyter I’d walk down the 5 freeway from Eugene, Ore., to coach on his staff – and I meant it.”
Fortunately for Bernardi, there wasn’t time. His Jan. 15 hire date came just in time for him to leap into the recruiting fray, and with National Signing Day fast approaching on Wednesday it’s been “all systems go” from the moment he came aboard.
Things that most people do when they change jobs – like finding a place to live – simply have to wait.
“I’ve got a bunch of boxes lying all over the place,” said Bernardi, who’s currently staying at a friend’s house. “There are no days off in this profession. You’ve got to suck it up and bring it every day.”
Although Fresno State is his first full-time job, Bernardi has been around coaching his entire life. His father, Gary Bernardi, is Colorado’s offensive-line coach and boasts a 34-year résumé as an FBS assistant. Even while Joe Bernardi was playing for the Bulldogs, starting 40 career games at center, he knew coaching was in his future.
40 Number of career starts Joe Bernardi made for the Bulldogs from 2007-10
And so did his former coach, Pat Hill, who said this during Bernardi’s senior year:
“He’s got a great mind for the game, he’s got a great personality, he’s got a passion to coach. He’s a leader. And he’s a tough mother, man.”
For all of Bernardi’s attributes, his vast reservoirs of Bulldog spirit, passion and personality, that “tough mother” part is what should make this hire a home run.
Bernardi endured multiple knee surgeries and various other dings during his career, injuries that reduced some of his effectiveness but not a drop of his desire. As a senior, he received the Paul Schechter Award for Courage, an honor bestowed to a Fresno State student-athlete who overcomes a physical challenge to become a champion.
The Bulldogs have certainly had more athletic centers over the years (Kyle Young and Ryan Wendell come immediately to mind), but none could match Bernardi’s toughness and grit.
That same toughness and grit that was so absent last season when Fresno State lost eight games, including five during conference play, by two touchdowns or more.
“We’re not going to look in the rear-view mirror or dwell on the past,” says the guy who played in four straight bowl games. “What’s done is done. All I can tell you is there’s great energy in the program right now.”
I’m not saying the Bulldogs will suddenly become tougher and grittier simply because Bernardi joined the coaching staff.
I’m saying it certainly can’t hurt.
He’s got a great mind for the game, he’s got a great personality, he’s got a passion to coach. He’s a leader. And he’s a tough mother, man.
Pat Hill, on Joe Bernardi during his senior year
At Oregon, Bernardi’s main duties were to assist longtime Ducks offensive-line coach Steve Greatwood. But he also coached other positions, including tight ends, a group the Bulldogs haven’t gotten much production from in recent seasons.
After his five years away (three at Oregon preceded by two as an offensive-line quality control coach at Tennessee), much about Fresno State football has changed. The coaches have new offices, the players have a new locker room, and there’s a new athletic training facility that didn’t exist in Bernardi’s day.
What remains is a familiar sense of belonging.
“The community here has always treated me great – I have a great deal of respect for the Red Wave,” Bernardi says. “I can’t wait to see that stadium be electric in September.”