Fresno passion hasn't wilted
The fans are mad, but they still believe in the 1-4 Bulldogs
FRESNO, Calif. » They haven't seen much of this in California's Central Valley.
In a town accustomed to big wins and bowl berths, their beloved Fresno State football team's 1-4 start -- lowlighted by last week's stunning defeat at previously winless Utah State -- is cause for consternation.
"The mood is bad, obviously," said Paul Swearengin, host of a popular afternoon radio call-in show. "Nobody in Fresno likes to lose to Oregon and Washington, and they really don't like to lose to Utah State.
"I think the reaction has been astonishment and everybody scratching their heads wondering what the heck is wrong."
But eight losses in nine games haven't exactly driven the good people of Fresno to jump ship on the Bulldogs entirely. Although about 5,000 tickets were still available earlier this week, another red-clad crowd is expected to flock to Bulldog Stadium (capacity 41,031) for tomorrow afternoon's Western Athletic Conference game against Hawaii.
Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. Hawaii time.
"Since 1997 we've averaged 40,000 a game, so our fans have been great," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said after the Bulldogs' practice yesterday. "What we need to do is we need to hold up our end of the bargain and win games, that's our job.
"They're passionate about their team and they're not happy about the way things are going and neither are we."
Around the corner at the Doghouse Grill, a popular hang-out for Fresno State fans, patrons expressed their belief in a program that has reached seven straight bowl games, despite the disappointing start.
"We'll be wearing red and it'll be a big crowd on Saturday, especially with it being
homecoming," said Ian Wieland, a senior and president of Fresno State's chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, which is planning a luau-themed party before the game. "With homecoming all the alumni show up and there's a lot of school spirit.
"Basically, this area breathes football," he said in explaining the Bulldogs' importance in the San Joaquin Valley.
The losing streak hasn't hurt business a couple of miles down Shaw Avenue, at the Silver Dollar Hofbrau, another popular restaurant and sports bar.
"Win or lose, people still want to drink," said Keith Mitsuoka, who's worked at the Hofbrau for nine years.
With Bulldog memorabilia dotting the spaces on the walls not covered by big-screen TVs, the Doghouse Grill packs them in before and after home games, and is a gathering place for fans to watch road games.
"The fans are staying faithful," said general manager Matt Billingsley. "They support coach Pat Hill, they support the football team and they love it. And with Hawaii coming in, I'm sure the fans will be ready and I'm sure the players will be ready to put on a good show.
"They were a little down about the loss (to Utah State), but there's another game, and you know (stuff) happens."
John Buitrago, who stopped in for dinner with his daughter before heading across the street to watch the Fresno State volleyball match, has followed Bulldog football for about 20 years and may have more riding on tomorrow's game than most. His brother once lived on Maui, where he became a loyal Warrior backer.
"He loves Hawaii football," Buitrago said. "It's a fun rivalry. He always says, 'We're going to beat you this year.' "
Matt Stevenson and his fiancé, Whitney Arena, are regular customers at the Grill and both experienced first-hand the community's influence on Bulldog athletics. Stevenson was an offensive lineman from 2001 to 2004, while Arena played for the volleyball team.
"We have an advantage because the community is so involved," Arena said. "It brings the community into the school ... and a lot of our scholarships are based on donations from the community. It is fun to play in a town where everyone is so involved in college athletics."
Work may keep Stevenson from attending tomorrow's game, but he remembers the atmosphere when the Bulldogs and Warriors met on the field and he's confident the team's slide isn't a portent of its demise.
"I feel like they've lost to some tough teams in some tough games that were close," he said. "But by no means do I think our program is going down the tubes or anything like that. They're young, they'll rebound, they'll get better.
"When I played it was Hawaii, Boise State and us who were the dominant teams in the WAC," he said. "So those were big games for us no matter what."
Still, not everyone is so forgiving. The mounting losses have kept the phone lines lit as Swearengin has fielded his share of gripes about Hill and the team's performance during his 4-hour show on ESPN Radio 1430.
But the angst isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"When we try to take the show on some other subject, people still call about Fresno State," said Swearengin, who has been covering Valley sports for about two decades.
"(Former coach) Jim Sweeney did great things here, but when those teams lost, people quit caring. They'd go to Monterey or do something else. Now when Fresno State loses, people get pissed. I think that's a good sign because there is a passionate fan base."