Trying to budge Rodney Terry off his favorite talking points, especially during basketball season, is typically an exercise in futility.
But I give it a whirl anyway, because the question begs asking.
This is Terry’s seventh season at Fresno State. During that time he’s notched 114 coaching victories – third most in school history – while raising the Bulldogs from Mountain West bottom feeders to perennial contenders. His teams have reached 20 wins in three of the past four years and finished the last two in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT. His players compete hard, stay out of trouble and just about all of them either graduate or go on to careers in professional basketball.
Given all that, are there ever times when Terry walks onto the Save Mart Center court, looks around at all the empty rows of seats in the sparsely filled arena and feels any personal disappointment?
Naturally, Terry tries to steer me onto one of his talking points. But I hold firm and repeat the “personal disappointment” part.
“You can control what you can control,” he answers. “No coach in the country can control how many people come out to support them. But I’d like to think we run a quality program with quality young men who are worthy of being supported, and it would mean a great deal to those student-athletes to have that support.”
After seven years, Terry has grown on me.
Why hasn’t he grown on you, Fresno?
Why are you keeping this coach and his program at arm’s length instead of giving both a warm, heartfelt embrace?
What are you doing on a Wednesday night that’s better than supporting these Bulldogs with your collective hearts and lungs?
The season’s smallest crowd – 4,530 – turned out to see Fresno State pummel Arkansas-Pine Bluff 78-52, but as usual that figure should be taken with a hefty grain of coarse sea salt.
That 4,530 represents tickets sold. I’d guess there were no more than 2,000 people in the building, and that includes all the ushers, both benches and everyone seated at the scorer’s table.
Save Mart Center will undoubtedly be more full Saturday afternoon when Fresno State welcomes Oregon. But it won’t be because there’s a clamor to see the Bulldogs play a team that went to the Final Four a year ago. Rather, it’ll be because the athletic department is pulling out all the stops (i.e. free goodies and prize giveaways) to entice people through the door.
I’m not going to spend much time indulging reasons why folks don’t show up. Yes, the fan base has aged. Yes, the seats at Save Mart Center are uncomfortable. Yes, it sucks they charge $10 for parking near the arena while spots 200 yards away cost $3 – and there are no signs telling anyone that. Yes, it would be nice if there was more money to invest on a better home schedule.
But those are all just excuses. Either you’re a Bulldogs fan, or you’re not.
We would love to have a very intimidating home court and a hostile environment like other places in our league that you know are going to be very hard places to win. We’d love to have that.
Fresno State men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry
And, no, I don’t want to hear about how college basketball attendance is down everywhere. While it’s true home attendance for all Division 1 programs dipped 13.5 percent over the past decade, at Fresno State it declined 44 percent in that span.
Yes, 44 percent – from 11,713 fans per game in 2006-07 to 6,586 in 2016-17. That’s a plunge worthy of Thelma & Louise.
It would be unfair of me not to mention the 6,586 figure actually represents an increase of nearly 300 from 2015-16. But, essentially, attendance has flatlined during the Terry era.
This year’s Bulldogs are loaded with talent and have a chance to be the Terry’s best squad yet.
Again, my purpose today isn’t to rag on people for not showing up. It’s to give them reasons why they should.
Number one is talent. This year’s Bulldogs are loaded with it and have a chance to be the Terry’s best squad yet. They’re certainly a more complete team than the one Marvelle Harris led to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and play a more pleasing, up-and-down style.
People like to cheer for locals. It doesn’t get more local than Roosevelt High product Bryson Williams, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who is blossoming into one of Mountain West’s best big men right before our eyes.
People like fun personalities. They don’t come any more personable than senior Terrell Carter, who spends several minutes after games greeting fans and posing for pictures. The young man is a gem.
“Terrell is going to be a guy who comes back here in 15-20 years and be a fixture in this community,” Terry said. “I promise. You watch.”
People like to see great defense and dunks. Senior guard Jaron Hopkins fills both bills. People like to see players with drive and determination. Junior guard Deshon Taylor may only stand 6-2 but plays with the heart of someone twice his size. People like to see hustle. Junior forward Sam Bittner never met a charge he didn’t take and has developed into a 3-point threat.
And then there’s Terry, a coach who preaches consistency and effort, is visible in the community and supportive of other Bulldogs teams. Terry also forges close relationships with his players. How can I tell? By the number of alumni that remain actively involved, which shows how much they valued their experience.
“I’m really proud of him,” assistant Jerry Wainwright said of Terry, “because he has never at one time wavered from his position of, ‘I’m going to do the best I can regardless of the circumstances.’ And I cannot honestly say that about myself.”
In seven years, Terry has built a program that’s successful, that embodies the region’s blue-collar work ethic and produces quality young men. And he’s done it on a shoestring budget compared to others in the conference.
Where’s the love, Fresno? This man and his program have given more than they’ve received.
OREGON AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 3 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network (AT&T UVerse 643, Comcast 418, DirecTV 221, Dish 158)/KFIG (940 ESPN)
- Records: Bulldogs 9-2, Ducks 8-3
- Of note: The Ducks will be playing their first game outside the state of Oregon, having played eight on the home floor at Matthew Knight Arena and three at the PK80 Invitational at the Moda Center in Portland. Oregon beat Portland State 95-84 on Wednesday for its third victory in a row, a streak that includes a 95-65 win over Colorado State. The Ducks are 1-1 against Mountain West programs, having lost at home to Boise State 73-70 on a last-second 3-pointer fired from midcourt by Lexus Williams. In the victory over Portland State, Elijah Brown scored 22 points and Payton Pritchard and Kenny Wooten both added 18.