In the rear-view mirror, the Fresno State Bulldogs’ 2017 season is no less impressive. From 1-11 to 10-4; it’s only the second time in FBS history a team won 10 or more games the year after losing 10 or more. There also was a bowl victory, the Bulldogs’ first since 2007.
But more remarkable than that turnaround on the field is this: Coach Jeff Tedford and his first Bulldogs team succeeded where Fresno State, its athletics department and its football program have in the past fallen well short, and with that momentum they have perhaps a last, best chance to build a program that can sustain a winning run at a time they are getting outspent by several of their Mountain West Conference rivals.
The landscape is littered with college football programs big and mostly small that have surged, won 10 or more games and then faltered, fallen back for years or forever.
Rice. Hawaii. Ball State. New Mexico. Kent State.
It took Miami (Ohio), the first FBS team to go from 10 or more losses in one season to 10 or more wins in the next, four years to win its next 10 games.
Fresno State hasn’t had back-to-back years with a double-digit win total since 1988 and ‘89 when going 10-2 and then 11-1.
The last time the Bulldogs had 10 or more wins in a season was 2013, but that Derek Carr-fueled 11-2 campaign faded to 6-8, then 3-9 and then 1-11, which, of course, is where Tedford came in.
But Fresno State, now, still is trending upward.
So how did it happen, at this place, at this time and so fast?
Walking in the door, Tedford spent his first two weeks simply evaluating the program.
“Times have changed a lot, you kind of see where people are going, where college football is going,” Tedford said. “There are more studies being done with health, with strength and conditioning, with nutrition, with all of it.
“Teaching tools, technology, it has all evolved over the years, but there are certain things I believe are really important to the growth and development of young men and a program.”
Tedford points to four key areas.
He implemented a program that put the Bulldogs’ players together with their position coaches, as many as three times a week for some. They go over class schedules and class work, when assignments and papers are due.
It paid immediate dividends. Last fall, the Bulldogs had a program-record 24 players on the Mountain West Conference All-Academic team including 15 players who were selected for the first time. At the end of the school year, seven earned Scholar-Athlete honors, the highest academic award bestowed by the conference; to be eligible, a student-athlete must maintain a 3.5 grade-point average over two academic terms.
Strength and conditioning
He hired Stanford sports performance coach Andy Ward, who started a program to improve football functionality while building strength and improving conditioning.
And in testing at the end of the summer the Bulldogs had seven players exceed a combined 1,200 pounds in three lifts – a bench press, a power clean and a back squat – and five more players get within 20 pounds of hitting that mark.
They had two players top 1,300 pounds, offensive tackle Netane Muti and defensive tackle Jasad Haynes. At the same time last year, there were none.
“I was looking at the numbers and some of the skill guys have done a really good job of leaning out while gaining muscle at the same time, too,” Ward said. “If you’re in the 1,100-pound club for a skill guy that’s pretty good and we had quite a few of them.”
At this time a year ago, they had one player at 1,200 pounds – Muti.
The Bulldogs’ coach and his staff inherited a roster in dire trouble – just one scholarship quarterback, 11 scholarship offensive linemen, a top-heavy receivers corps, numbers down on the defensive line and at linebacker. There were just 69 players on scholarship, well below the 85 available at the FBS level.
Fresno State has not had a player selected in the NFL Draft since defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (fifth round), safety Derron Smith (sixth round) and offensive lineman Cody Wichmann (sixth round) went in 2015, the three-year streak the longest for the program going back to World War II.
So Tedford hired Washington assistant director of player personnel Spencer Harris, put his assistant coaches on the road and they attacked, working right to and through traditional recruiting landmarks like the February national letter of intent signing day.
And in just 21 months Tedford and his staff have put 52 players on scholarship – some who were already in the program, some on signing dates in February and December and some after signing day – building depth and balance between the classes and upgrading the overall talent level on the Bulldogs’ roster.
“We’re always looking for ways to get better,” Harris said. “Every day, you’re asking, ‘What can we do today to improve our roster at every position?’ It doesn’t matter if we have a three-year starter or a two-year starter. We’re always trying to build depth.”
There, the Bulldogs have made perhaps the largest gains.
And all of it runs through two double-wide trailers pushed together, maybe 50 feet by 60 feet.
There are three TVs, a few windows, some posters on the walls.
Tedford had the building installed outside the Duncan Building and adjacent to Beiden Field and Bulldog Stadium shortly after taking on a major rebuild at his alma mater, paid for it out of the football budget and opened it up to all of the Bulldogs’ athletic programs. The women’s lacrosse team has used it, women’s soccer has used it.
He got a three-year lease, which may be enough time for a proposed $20 million expansion of the student-athlete village to take root.
While the building may appear temporary and makeshift, the program it supports is all about a solid foundation.
Five years ago Fresno State was struggling with meal plans for its student-athletes. The athletic department deducted the cost of meals at the residence dining hall – the dorms – from scholarship checks, but few players had breakfast, lunch or dinner there. According to an athletic department review, 40 percent of those meals went wasted; the football program that fall semester passed on 67 percent of its meals.
Fresno State tried a pilot training table program three years ago, but beset by logistical problems that, too, failed. Not enough student-athletes were taking part.
But, with space for a dining hall right outside the Duncan Building, Tedford launched a nutrition program. He went to university catering to provide quality meals, rather than the university dining hall. The athletic department in November hired a director of sports nutrition for all of its sports programs, Alisha Parker, and soon it had players with individualized meal plans and a strategy to meet nutritional goals.
In fall camp, in addition to meals, the Bulldogs are implementing fueling and recovery strategies with a food-first approach.
“We’re doing beet juice in the mornings to help with the vasodilation, to get the blood pumping to the muscles,” Parker said. “They do take tumeric at lunch time, which is going to help with inflammation. They get tart cherry juice at night, which is going to help them recover and help them sleep.”
Ward marvels at it. “Alisha has really taken us to the next level,” he said.
Coaches eat there, too, making sure the benefits are more than physiological.
“Is it better for us to have the proper nutrition and so on and so forth? Yes, it is,” Tedford said. “But the opportunity to sit down and eat with the guys and communicate with them and talk to them like you would around a dinner table and take sincere interest in who they are as people, I think that really accelerated it all.
“It’s about creating a relationship and a trust level. Meeting with them academically three times a week, it was those types of things. It wasn’t just football and then leave. It took a huge commitment by our staff, and then the players to be receptive to it.”
That in turn has the Bulldogs trending up, with an opportunity to make another run at a Mountain West championship and perhaps a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“The difference is the intensity of things,” said cornerback Tank Kelly, a fifth-year senior. “It got us to where we were last year, so why not do it again, but do it more? Why not do it even better this year? Intensify it more.
“It rubbed off on us and we loved it. We love to see each other together. We like having each other around. They didn’t try to come in and enforce things as, ‘I’m your coach, this is this ...’ It was, ‘This is where I’ve been, I’ve seen this, I’ve done that, you may not know this background about me, let me tell you more about me before I get to know about you. We’re going to go sit down one-on-one and I want to get to know about you more.’ That’s where it came from, and it never stopped. It continued throughout the whole season. It’s tight all around, and we love it.”