Anyone who knows me well knows that sports are something I enjoy about as much as woolen underpants. I don’t understand most sports’ rules, I can’t sit still that long, and I don’t like the thought of people ripping one another apart over a ball. Despite that, just for a moment, let me raise the Fresno State football flag.
It’s no secret that Fresno State is a rag-tag school with a sports program to match. We’re always the underdogs. But instead of letting that discourage us, we always took it as a challenge. We worked and played our hardest in hopes that we’d prove ourselves to the big world watching us. When the baseball team won the College World Series a couple of years ago, they were nicknamed the “Wonderdogs” and the “Cinderella team.”
Maybe because Fresno itself is an underdog, the community gets very, very serious about its college sports, especially football. Grandparents who met at Fresno State go to see their grandchildren on the field. Local businesses put up “Good luck, Bulldogs!” signs on game day. Roads around the college close for traffic. It’s the epitome of small-town pride.
The man who embodied that pride the most for me was football coach Pat Hill. In his ridiculous mustache and equally ridiculous, custom-painted (in a Bulldog theme, of course) red Hummer, you couldn’t help but notice the man had swagger. It was the cocky swagger of the scruffy kid whose eyes just said, “Bring it, punk.”
His slogan for the team was always, “Anybody, any time, anywhere.” It didn’t matter how big or small the challenger. The ‘Dogs would bring their best and do their damndest.
One of my favorite memories of Hill was one morning in the athlete’s gym. A new girl on my team was struggling to use a weight machine properly. Hill, a few feet away, walked over and showed her the correct grip. He stood there, watching her for a moment, to make sure her form was correct, as if she were his own player.
“Watch out, he’ll have you playing on the football team in no time!” I joked. He grinned.
I spent a lot of hours working out in that gym with his players. Sometimes, toward the end of the workout (when they were behind schedule, I theorized), Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” would loop on the gym speakers until the last man was finished. (It played for fifteen solid minutes once.) Hill himself was often there — rare among the school’s coaches — working out with the players.
But I was never more impressed with him than I was at the first Torch of Excellence athlete dinner. It was an evening that raised money for the school and recognized academic achievement among the athletes. Each coach stood up to read the names of his players that had gotten a high GPA. Hill’s list went on…and on…and on… The years I was there were all the same. He even had his share of 4.0s, though never as many as the equestrian team.
The equestrian team had an odd relationship with the football team. When I first joined, back in 2003, equestrian was a catchall. Our team of more than 150 girls were basically thought of as not much more than a Title IX load balancer for the football team. Title IX, for those who are unaware, is a law requiring equal treatment and opportunity for males and females at higher ed institutes. Somewhat unfortunately, it’s devolved into a lot of red tape that requires equal numbers of participation and spending between men’s and women’s sports teams. So, to put it very crudely, if the women’s equestrian team had a lot of members, football could have a bunch, too.
I always knew that my teammates and I were sort of second-class citizens of the sports world. (A feeling not helped, I might add, by having to spend one too many early Saturday morning cleaning skyboxes after the previous night’s football game. It was one of the ways equestrian raised money. There’s nothing like the smell of booze and old nachos — sometimes stuck to walls and ceilings — to wake a girl up in the morning.) Yet we never got anything from respect from Pat Hill. One of my coaches recalled an early morning workout in which my teammates were running suicides on the football field. Hill stopped his golf cart and told her her girls had a lot of heart (and he drove away muttering something about how they put his guys to shame).
The Fresno community often shouted that a lot of people put Hill’s players to shame. It’s been a hard few seasons for them. While I don’t follow sports closely, I know that time after time, the ‘Dogs have been highly ranked only to lose the big game, or have held out hope that this year would be their bowl year. And every year, without fail, someone screams for Pat Hill to be fired.
In the athlete’s gym, there was (is?) a sign:
Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred
Gonna be a Bulldog ’til the day I’m dead.
Coach Hill, you will always be a Bulldog, no matter where you go. You and the other underdogs of Fresno State helped me develop the courage to make my own “anybody, any time, anywhere” stand. Losing the spirit you brought to campus and to the city is a far greater tragedy than losing any football game.