Fresno State and coach Rodney Terry start a seventh men’s basketball season together on Friday against UC Santa Cruz at the Save Mart Center, and how exactly did that happen?
A first-time head coach back in 2011-12, Terry inherited a program with limited talent and depth and a number of issues off the court. The program those first few years had a revolving door with its academic support, has never had the bankroll to buy games and set up competitive-yet-favorable schedules. The investment in basketball by Fresno State has the whole time lagged toward the bottom third of the Mountain West.
While conference rivals enjoy the benefits of dedicated practice facilities, the Bulldogs bounce between the Save Mart Center and the North Gym, where they do not have locker room facilities to shower after a practice.
To lift weights they go one place. To hold a video session or to get some shots up they go to another. To get treatment or rehab an injury they go to yet another.
While some teams take charter flights to many games, the Bulldogs’ travel is compromised by a lack of direct flights within the conference and last season they spent 10 hours on a bus to Reno for a game at Nevada, stuck in the snow trying to get over the Sierra.
The Bulldogs still won that game, and at the time it was their fourth consecutive victory over a team that was in first place in the conference at tip-off.
You can’t ever feel comfortable. ... I think you’re always striving to stay on the edge in terms of how hard you’re working and what you’re trying to do.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
Terry has built a stable and successful program not only with limited resources and fan support, but also when the pressure to win is high and patience can quickly wear thin.
In the Mountain West the past six years, New Mexico, Nevada, San Jose State, San Diego State, Utah State, Wyoming and UNLV have all made coaching changes due to retirements or not enough victories.
“I had a president say to me after we were 26-5, he told me how great I was, how great the season was, how great everything was,” said Fresno State associate head coach Jerry Wainwright, who hired Terry as an assistant eons ago at North Carolina-Wilmington.
“It was at a banquet, and I got up after he spoke and thanked him for his remarks and I asked him, ‘Would you feel the same way about me next year if we’re 5-26?’ And he said, ‘You know, Jerry, I sure would. And you know what? I’d miss you, too.’”
Wainwright chuckled at the joke. But he has been around, coached at schools big and small, won 245 games as a Division I head coach, took two schools to the NCAA Tournament, been hired and fired, become a granddad, beat cancer, blown out 70 candles on a birthday cake.
He finished with this: “It is the life we chose.”
Terry has made the most of that life at Fresno State. Even with the obstacles to sustained success the Bulldogs have the third-most wins in Mountain West play over the past four seasons with 43, trailing only San Diego State (55) and Boise State (46).
This season Fresno State could have one of its better teams under Terry, maybe the best.
Rodney is not coaching a team, he’s leading a program. We have carryover now. We have players and ex-players that are advocates and vocal representatives to what this is all about.
Fresno State associate head coach Jerry Wainwright
The Bulldogs have a veteran backcourt with fifth-year seniors Jaron Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor, a steely junior in Deshon Taylor. Ray Bowles, a graduate transfer from Pacific, is a key addition. Sophomore Bryson Williams appears set to take off, playing at the four. Terrell Carter II, in his senior season, has in exhibitions proven capable of providing a bruising inside presence over extended minutes.
There are a lot of pieces in place, but Terry is not deviating from the script that he made work his first six seasons.
“You can’t ever feel comfortable. We’ve never been that way, even when we were trying to build it and get guys to buy into what we were doing. I think you’re always striving to stay on the edge in terms of how hard you’re working and what you’re trying to do. It’s a constant. You’re just trying to develop really good habits.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry starts his seventh season leading the Bulldogs on Friday against UC Santa Cruz with 105 victories, third on the school’s all-time list. Boyd Grant is first with 194 wins from 1978 to ‘86 and Ed Gregory is second with 172 from 1965 to ‘77.
“What you’re really trying to develop and nurture every day is a really good culture, a culture that lends itself an opportunity to be successful by playing hard every night and hopefully having really good preparation.”
Terry has climbed to third on the all-time Fresno State victories list behind only Boyd Grant and Ed Gregory, and recruited and developed the all-time leading scorer in school history in Marvelle Harris. In 2016 the Bulldogs won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 and after reaching the NIT last season are one of only five programs from Group of Five conferences with back-to-back trips to either the NCAA or NIT.
He has pulled the most from his players on and off the court – his players have graduated and in his tenure Fresno State basketball has posted three of the top APR scores in program history including a record 980 in 2012-13.
“The thing that always come back to me with Rodney is tough love,” said Paul Ladwig, a senior associate athletics director for external relations, who was charged with putting together a list of candidates after Fresno State parted ways with Steve Cleveland and came up with Terry through a NBA contact.
“He’s your tough father figure because he wants you to get everything done and do everything right and on the other side of the coin he’s your best father figure because he’s the guy that you know is going to put his arm around you and is going to tell you the right way to do things, he’s going to show you how the future can be.”
Former Fresno State point guard Cezar Guerrero, who tested Terry on and off the court for three years after transferring from Oklahoma State, could attest to that. He ended up with both a championship ring and a degree.
“Even though we’ve bumped heads a lot on countless occasions, at the end of the day that still is somebody who has done a lot for me and I really appreciate that,” Guerrero told The Bee in 2015.
“I don’t really get teary-eyed with anybody except for my brother, my mother, my sister and my nephew, but he’s one of the special people in my life who I feel has really changed me and helped me become the person I am. … I love that guy to death.”
Like Terry with Guerrero, the thing Fresno State has given its basketball coach is time.
“For a basketball coach, you end up going to work every day in a hazmat suit,” Wainwright said. “In today’s times it’s, ‘We want results now, now and now.’
We just work with what we have and try to make it the best. That’s the way I was raised – don’t be worried about what you don’t have, be thankful for what you do have and make it the best.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
“It’s really hard to build a program and I think in credit to what Rodney has done, Rodney is not coaching a team, he’s leading a program. We have carryover now. We have players and ex-players that are advocates and vocal representatives to what this is all about. He can point to a Tyler Johnson. He can point to a Mountain West championship. He can point to some things now that he has been able to achieve over a period of time that are his own, but also help him get his program to another level.”
Work around the obstacles to success again and win 20 games this season for what would be a fourth time in five years, and the Bulldogs will be closer.
“What are you saying, we’re overachievers?” Terry said. “You know what, nothing is given to you. You have to earn everything you get. We just work with what we have and try to make it the best. That’s the way I was raised – don’t be worried about what you don’t have, be thankful for what you do have and make it the best. We’ve always done that.
“We never complained about it or used it as a crutch as to why we still can’t be competitive and compete for a championship. You lace them up, they’re going to expect you to compete at a very high level. We’re going to have those expectations every year.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE MEN’S/WOMEN’S SEASON-OPENING DOUBLEHEADER
- Friday: Men vs. UC Santa Cruz, 5 p.m. and women vs. Eastern Washington, 7:30 p.m. at Save Mart Center (15,596)
- Radio: Men, KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600); women, KFPT (AM 790)
- Women: The Bulldogs return eight letter-winners including preseason All-Mountain West junior guard Candice White, last season’s leader in points (14.8 ppg) and minutes (34.1) and No. 2 in rebounds (5.2 rpg) behind center Bego Faz Davalos, the two-time MW Defensive Player of the Year who transferred to Duke. Junior guard Tory Jacobs was the assist leader (3.0 apg). Fresno State remains young (9 of 13 are underclassmen, and no seniors). Another player to watch is Utah transfer Jordanna Porter, a sophomore. Fresno State was picked to fninish seventh in the Mountain West in a preseason coaches’ poll.
- Men: The Bulldogs return four of their top five scorers from a 20-13 team in guards Jaron Hopkins (13.2 ppg), Deshon Taylor (12.5) and Jahmel Taylor (10.5) and forward Bryson Williams (7.7) and were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West in a preseason media poll. Fresno State also returns center Terrell Carter II, who is expected to play a more prominent role in his senior season.