J.D. Williams and Jamie Christian could’ve stayed at UNLV, a program making slow but incremental progress under third-year coach Tony Sanchez.
Scott Thompson could’ve remained at USC, where he was the Trojans’ longest-tenured staff member and finally getting a crack at on-field coaching.
Yet when their alma mater was on the line, in the form of Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford, all three answered the call without much hesitation.
“It was a no-brainer,” Williams told me recently in his new office on the second floor of the Duncan Building. “This place is home. You’ve got to come back.”
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“It’s the opportunity to bring this program back to where it should be,” Christian said in a separate interview. “Fresno State has always been a place with great players and great tradition, and there’s no reason why it can’t be like that again.”
Reconnecting with the past has been one of the constant themes since Tedford, himself a former Bulldog, took the reins coming off a 1-11 season.
Fresno State now has four former players on its coaching staff, more than Alabama, Ohio State and USC (to pick three traditional powers at random) have combined.
When you have Bulldog blood running through you, it’s easier to sell because you’ve lived it.
Scott Thompson, Fresno State tight ends coach
So why is having ex-Bulldogs coach current ones significant, or even necessary?
“It’s important to understand the traditions here and what it takes to win here,” Tedford said. “All those guys were here when we were winning, you know? They understand Fresno and the toughness and the type of kids we need to have.”
Certainly, Williams, Christian and Thompson didn’t get hired solely because they played at Fresno State. Each has an established track record and fertile recruiting connections, especially throughout California.
Still, is it easier to sell the Bulldogs when you’ve been one yourself? They sure seem to think so.
“There’s definitely something to that – there’s a little more pride,” said Thompson, who played tight end from 1995-98 under Jim Sweeney and Pat Hill.
“When you have Bulldog blood running through you, it’s easier to sell because you’ve lived it. You understand what it’s about, what Coach Sweeney built and what Pat carried on.”
To Williams, a cornerback from 1986-89 who played in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills, it all comes back to Sweeney’s famous “Bulldog born, Bulldog bred” mantra.
“I remember the first time I heard that and (Sweeney) explaining to us what it meant,” Williams said.
“You’re born into this thing. When you recruit a kid, it’s like a puppy. And over time you’re going to grow. Eventually you become a full-grown dog, and when you breed, your children come here. The whole statement is really powerful.”
4 former Fresno State football players who are now members of the coaching staff
This is Williams’ second go-round as a Bulldogs assistant. In 2000 and ’01 the Coalinga native was secondary coach under Hill before leaving for the same position at Cal under Tedford.
Williams coached four years at Cal, three at Washington and one at Utah and had two stints at UNLV sandwiched around two seasons (2013-14) at Georgia State under former Bulldogs assistant Trent Miles.
At UNLV, Williams recruited Fresno talents to the desert. The list includes Charles Williams, a former Bullard High School star who rushed for 153 yards last season against the Bulldogs as a true freshman, plus Edison products Leevel Tatum and David Tate.
“It’s great to be back,” Williams said. “The hardest thing for me has been relearning this building. It’s totally different.”
Of the three, Christian has been away the longest. But Lorenzo Neal’s former backup in 1991 and ’92 isn’t exactly a stranger, having recruited all over California during coaching stops at Sacramento State, Idaho, Arizona State, Houston and UNLV.
At Houston, Christian was instrumental in the Cougars netting Deontay Greenberry, a four-star receiver from Washington High who had committed to Notre Dame.
“Fresno (State) is to California kind of like Houston is to Texas – that’s how I see it,” said Christian, who will coach running backs and coordinate special teams. “Houston’s the small dog in Texas, and when I was there, we had to grind and get players the big guys didn’t want or overlooked.
“We had to find guys, evaluate them and really go everywhere where some (schools) won’t go. I like that part.”
It’s the opportunity to bring (Fresno State) back to where it should be.
Jamie Christian, Fresno State running backs coach
Thompson also boasts an impressive recruiting background, having served as USC’s director of player personnel from 2010-14 and director of scouting in 2015 under five (!) head coaches.
Before last season, the June Lake native was elevated to special teams and tight ends assistant under John Baxter, whom Thompson played for at Fresno State.
Even though USC and Fresno State rarely recruit the same players, Thompson is certain his connections will pay off.
“There’s plenty of guys out there – we just have to find them,” he said. “But the relationships we built over those seven years will be extremely valuable in getting leads and finding guys who are built for us.”
Now that recruiting season is over, or at least no longer the No. 1 priority, Williams, Christian, Thompson and the rest of the assistants are preparing for spring football (which starts March 27) and getting to better know the returning Bulldogs.
But first, they got to enjoy a few days off, which for Thompson were his first since August.
“Gotta go re-recruit my wife and daughter, get them back on my team,” he said with the smile of someone who’s happy to be back.