Jeff Tedford could’ve cost Fresno State a memorable bowl win, and caused himself a lot of restless nights.
Until Sunday, Tedford had never been called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Not during his 14 seasons as a head coach in college football and the CFL, or all the preceding years as an assistant.
“Never,” Tedford reiterated.
Then came the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs’ 33-27 Hawaii Bowl triumph over Houston.
With Fresno State leading 23-20 and within spitting distance of a touchdown that would’ve made it a two-score game, Tedford drew a flag for running out onto the field.
What got the Mountain West coach of the year so hot and bothered? He was trying to signal timeout so the officials would review the previous play: a 9-yard run by Ronnie Rivers that may or may not have landed in the end zone.
“(The referee) is standing on the goal line, so I ran out to the numbers to get in his vision to call timeout,” Tedford explained. “I can’t run straight down the sideline and expect him to see me. So you’ve got to come out to where you can get to his vision. I’ve done that a thousand times.”
Except this was Time 1,001. Out came the yellow hanky.
“I get the rule,” Tedford said. “There’s been a big emphasis on that this year. That’s if you’re cussing at an official. But I wasn’t doing that. I was calling a timeout and pointing to the pylon because I wanted that (play) to be reviewed.”
Tedford’s explanation fell upon deaf ears.
Instead of third-and-goal at the 1, the Bulldogs were pushed back 15 yards and had to settle for a 33-yard field goal, kicker Jimmy Camacho’s fourth of the night.
Instead of 30-20, the score was 26-20. Giving Houston ample time to drive for what would’ve been the go-ahead touchdown.
So when Fresno State cornerback Jaron Bryant intercepted a tipped pass and took it back to the house on the Cougars’ ensuing drive, no one inside Aloha Stadium was more relieved.
“I preach to our guys all the time, ‘Don’t have stupid penalties’ and then I get one,” Tedford said with a smile. “That wouldn’t have been good. I wouldn’t have slept for a long time.”
Rest easy, Coach. Your guys had your back.
The other day on Twitter, a follower asked me to write a column about the importance of coaching during this historic turnaround season. Fresno State, after all, is just the second team in FBS history to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins during a 12-month span.
It’s kind of a nebulous subject, honestly. The importance of coaching is easily seen but not so easily explained.
I believe it starts with respect. If every player on the roster, along with all the assistants and support staff, believe in the head coach and give him their complete respect, the trickle down happens naturally.
And Tedford, in the words of former player-turned-coffee-shop-owner Zack Follett, is a coach who “commands everyone’s respect.”
“This team has bought into everything Coach Tedford has preached,” center Aaron Mitchell said.
Tedford’s hiring last October was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. Not so much locally, because Bulldogs fans were thrilled to welcome back one of their own. But the national pundits questioned if a 56-year-old with past health issues was really the right guy for the job.
No one’s questioning anymore. They’re too busy praising.
Before the season I predicted Fresno State would go 4-8, which is better than the Las Vegas bookmakers thought about a team that went 1-11 and 3-9 the previous two.
One of the biggest reasons for 10-4 is the head coach didn’t place any limits on what was possible, or peg himself to a certain timeline.
“We didn’t come into this thing thinking it was going to take us three years,” Tedford said. “That’s not in the mindset. The mindset is to work every day and see how it goes.”
Another sign of a great head coach – or any leader for that matter – is that he passes down the credit. And Tedford does more deflecting than a mirror satellite.
Getting him to swallow even a tablespoon of praise is an exercise in futility.
“This is the ultimate team game,” Tedford said. “The staff works really, really hard, and they get along really well. They’re the ones that take the message and convey it to the players from what we talk about. I don’t coach every player myself. So this is a total staff effort. It really is.”
Tedford “hopes” his staff returns intact next season. He’s confident other players will step up to replace the leadership provided by seniors Mitchell and Malik Forrester. (Don’t underestimate their impact. It’s been huge.)
Now that the program is back on solid footing, the next step will be building upon that foundation.
“This is one year and I’m really proud of these guys – especially the seniors, to flip it around,” Tedford said. “But now this year’s over, and it’s going to be back to the drawing board for next season.”
Tedford certainly bailed out Fresno State football. It was only fitting, following a practically unheard of unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the head coach, that his players did the same to him.