Fresno State is an important facet of life in Fresno. Without the college, the town would be a very different place. This becomes especially true during football season, when the Fresno State Bulldogs become a city centerpiece.
Since its founding one hundred years ago, Fresno State’s football team has had several coaches, multiple rivalries, and many successful seasons. Let’s take a look at the team’s history.
Founding and Early History
Fresno State started playing football in 1921 as an independent team. After their first year, they joined the California Coast Conference before leaving to become one of the charter schools in the Northern California Athletic Conference in 1925.
During these early years, the Bulldogs acquired their first rivals: San Diego State and San Jose State. Though these rivalries remained, Fresno State and other large schools left their conference in 1939, after the NCAA started separating University Division and College Division groups. These larger schools formed the California Collegiate Athletic Association. It remained in this conference for thirty years, during which Coach Cecil Coleman led the Bulldogs to five successful seasons, including an undefeated season in 1961.
In 1969, the team once again switched conferences, joining what would eventually become the Big West Conference.
The Late 1970s – the Late 1990s
The Bulldogs began a new era when Jim Sweeny took over as head coach in 1976. Under Sweeny’s leadership, Fresno State went on to rake in some phenomenal seasons. This includes 1985, where they were the only Division I-A team in the nation to finish the season undefeated. Only the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors left a mark on this record, forcing the team to finish in a tie. This marked the beginning of a long-standing rivalry between the two teams, egged on by each team’s difficulty winning on their opponent’s home field.
In June of 1979—after local residents raised $7 million in the most successful fundraising project in the history of San Joaquin Valley—Fresno State began constructing a stadium for their football team.
At the end of the 1980 season, Fresno State began playing in the newly-built Bulldog Stadium. With their own stadium, they could host more than twice as many fans. The increased support led the team to four Big West championships and countless other victories. The field would eventually be named Jim Sweeny Field, in honor of the head coach.
The Fall of Jim Sweeny
Though Sweeny led the team to nine winning seasons back-to-back, their success took a sudden downturn in 1994. After three losing seasons in a row, the Bulldogs brought in Pat Hill as their head coach.
The Late 1990s – 2010
Pat Hill famously declared his Bulldogs would play “anybody, anywhere, anytime,” modelling his style after Bobby Bowden’s strategy for Florida State. Staying true to his word, Hill led the Bulldogs to numerous difficult non-conference games. These games were often against elite, highly-ranked programs, and not for nothing. During this period, the Bulldogs became the only BCS non-AQ team to win three consecutive bowl games over schools from BCS Conferences.
The 2001 season—with quarterback David Carr—began with multiple victories against ranked teams. These games—along with several more victories—led the Bulldogs to rank eighth in the polls. Unfortunately, the season ended with defeats against the Boise State Broncos and the Hawai’i rainbows. This kept them out of any BCS bowl games, and a defeat against Michigan State in the Silicon Valley Classic. Though the season ended in disappointment, it worked out well for Carr, who was the number one overall NFL draft pick. Due to Carr’s outstanding performance during the season, the team retired his jersey in 2007.
From 2002 to 2009, the team faced numerous highs and lows, with multiple Bowl Game victories and defeats. Towards the end of this period, however, the team began losing more often than winning.
2011 – Present Day
After a disappointing one too many disappointing defeats and losing 2011 season, Fresno State announced that Pat Hill had been fired and introduced Tim DeRuyter as the new head coach. In his first two years, he and Derek Carr—brother of David Carr—led Fresno state to consecutive conference championships.
After the Oakland Raiders drafted Derek Carr in 2014, however, DeRuyter seemed unable to pinpoint a good quarterback. He rotated through several quarterbacks and completed two seasons at a loss.
In 2016, Fresno State fired DeRuyter and replaced him with Jeff Tedford, a former Fresno state quarterback and offensive coordinator. Tedford took Fresno State to multiple championships and bowl games, making a famously impressive turnaround. Tedford ended his coaching stint after facing a setback in 2019, when he resigned due to health reasons.
Shortly thereafter, Fresno State announced Kalen DeBoer—former Fresno State offensive coordinator—would replace Tedford. During the 2021 season so far, DeBoer’s team has one two games—against UConn and Cal Poly—and lost once—against Oregon. Whether or not DeBoer will have as much success as his predecessor has yet to be determined.
The city of Fresno can be proud of their Bulldogs, and it’s unlikely that pride will fade any time soon. If you’re interested in buying tickets to the next Bulldogs Game, you can find more information on their website.
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