1992 COACHING-FOOTBALL INDUCTEE
He looks like a coach, he talks like a coach, he walks like a coach, he yells like a coach, and he could motivate a team to greatness. Early in his college football coaching career, James Joseph Sweeney led Montana State to a 31-20 record in five seasons. The young coach went to be interviewed for the head football position at Washington State University. Glen Terrell, the WSU president at the time, was so inspired by Jim Sweeney’s first interview that he declared that he “wanted to suit up himself and go out for the team.” Needless to say, Jim got the Job. In thirty-four seasons as a NCAA Division I head coach (Montana State from 1963 to 1967, Washington State from 1968 to 1975, Fresno State from 1976 to 1977 and 1980 to 1996), Coach Sweeney won 200 games, the last was a 41-7 victory over Boise State in Bulldog Stadium.
He was named a coach of the year eleven times. In 1989, he was a finalist for the National Coach of the Year award. At Fresno State under Sweeney, the Bulldogs moved into the national spotlight by capturing three Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA) championships, three Big West titles, and two Western Athletic Conference (WAC) titles. From 1985 to 1993, his Dogs had nine consecutive victorious seasons, while going 72-22-2. Coach Sweeney led the Bulldogs to a 5-2 record in postseason bowl game appearances, winning four California Bowl games and losing only one. In the Freedom Bowl on Christmas Day in 1992, the Dogs upset USC 24-7 in front of 58,546 fans in Anaheim Stadium and a national television audience.
In 1977, Sweeney led Fresno State to a 9-2 record and accepted an offer to be an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders under John Madden in 1978. In 1979, he accepted an offer to coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. “I know there were people who were upset with me for doing that, but I think it helped me in expanding my horizons in that I became more of a passing football coach and I think that was good.” Sweeney said, “I enjoyed my time in the NFL, but I felt I could do more service in the college game. At Fresno State, I saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that had a tremendous growth potential. I saw Fresno as a sleeping giant who could play with anybody. Not only was there a great potential for a solid recruiting program, but there was a small, but intense support group called the Bulldog Foundation and that group was unique and in great favor of building the sports programs at Fresno State, starting with a new, state of the art football stadium complex. Bob Duncan, Bud Richter, Lou Eaton, Leon Peters, Pat Ogle, and many others put a lot on the line to build the football stadium and it was a great time as it all started coming together.”
Bulldog Stadium, also known as Jim Sweeney Field, opened officially on November 15, 1980 with a Fresno State 21-14 victory over Montana State. The stadium is currently ranked the 23rd best college football facility in the nation. The Bulldog fans are loyal, loud, and enthusiastic. Since 1980, the Bulldogs have won well over eighty percent of their games on home turf. Jim Sweeney has coached so many great players over the years, notably Jan Stenerud, Steve Cordle, Henry Ellard, Steven Baker, Stephone Paige, James Williams, Trent Dilfer, Lorenzo Neal, and Aaron Craver. He has worked with many legendary coaches as well, including Dennis Erickson, Lane Kiffin, Joe Tiller, Jeff Tedford, Willy Robinson, and Kelly Skipper.
Jim’s son, Kevin, is probably most remembered by Valley fans. In 1986, Kevin broke Doug Flutie’s all time NCAA Division I career passing record. “It is a highlight, no doubt,” says Jim, “Recently, a friend sent me a Washington State game program from 1972 when I was still coaching the Cougars. In it, there was a feature about my children and they asked Kevin what it was like to be the son of the coach. Kevin was ten or eleven at the time and he said ‘My father has 105 sons. They are all playing football here and I’m just one of them. I’m the youngest.” That was some amazing insight there.” Kevin’s career at Fresno State and in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers was a treat for the whole Sweeney family. Three grandsons have followed on the family athletic path: Kevin’s son, Beau played for Cal Berkeley; Kyle Negrete was recruited to play football and baseball at the University of San Diego; and Nate Fellner was a two-way football performer with an outstanding career at Clovis West High School.
There are many records and highlights in Sweeney’s Career, but his best insights come from an expansive interview. On coaching: “Really, it’s not so much the victories or the championships, but the journey. Whose life do you affect, on what level, as you go along, dealing with the defeat AND the victory, you know, making you the person you are and affecting the people you are teaching.” On players and teams: “It’s not just players going out from Fresno State to the NFL, but young people of ours going off into the community as teachers, coaches, preachers, and businessmen…Every one of our teams had those guys on it and it is a pleasure to see them out there working in their communities and especially, this community. Their loyalty to the program is great. Hopefully, they can pass along whatever good they got from the program.” Coach Sweeney is still active in Fresno where he and his wife, June, like to visit with their children and grandchildren. Jim is a motivational speaker and can be talked into his famous Bulldog spell-outs to get a crowd going. As the colorful coach has always said, “Go Bulldogs, win the WAC.”