Adversity can create a thirst, either to succeed or to have a pity party. Allen Cropsey chose the former and was successful beyond his wildest dreams. On July 15, 1944 during the summer he lost his right arm while working on a newspaper conveyer belt. Cropsey had displayed all-around athletic talent in his sophomore season in baseball and football. Baseball scouts were already following the big left-hander both as a hitter and a pitcher. His finest high school game as a sophomore was a 1-1, eleven-inning tie with Valley powerhouse Tulare, coached by Pete Beiden, who would later became Cropsey's coach at Fresno State.
Cropsey used the knowledge he gained as a Beiden disciple to become one of the most successful high school coaches in Central Valley history. In thirty-four years at Selma High, he led the Bears to a 502-283 record with sixteen league titles and four Central Section championships. He was a six-time coach in the City-County All-Star Game, coach of the 1977 Northern California All-Star team, 1968 Fresno Hot Stove Dinner Coach of the Year, and 1969 Selma Citizen of the Year. In a 2008 interview, Cropsey commented on losing his arm: "It was one of those things that happen[s], but what really upset me was when the doctor told me the arm stump hadn't healed enough for me to play football his sophomore and junior years at Fresno High, Cropsey lost my junior year," Cropsey said. "I did play baseball that spring and football and baseball my senior year." Cropsey was an All-City football guard for the Warriors and a winner on the mound for coach Toby Lawless.
He entered Fresno State and started on a strong Freshmen squad that included several top local high school graduates. Cropsey taught and coached elementary and junior high sports for five years before being offered the job at Selma. "Selma hadn't much baseball success except for a championship in 1939 or 1940, but the school had a lot of good players who loved to play and were just waiting for someone to put the program together,” Cropsey said. "We had a great bunch of kids and the enthusiasm was unbelievable.I was fortunate to have future major leaguers like infielder Bobby Cox and pitcher Lloyd Allen. It is difficult for me to say which was my best team because of the year-by-year talented players we had. The team with Cox at second base was one of the best and Allen was the most dominant pitcher I had when we won four championships in a row."
Cox gave this tribute in a letter read at Cropsey's retirement dinner: "Your patient enthusiasm, but aggressive style was your trademark and your demand for excellence let us know that we could never be perfect, but trying to be was what it was all about...You weren't Just preparing us for games but creating a blueprint for life." The same drive that made Cropsey a top coach enabled him to also become a good golfer and bowler. Cropsey said coaching took a lot time, but he is proud of the way his wife Linda and his children supported him in everything he did. Allen Cropsey passed away in 2008.
It would be difficult to find a man for all seasons, all people, and all settings who had a greater impact on our community than Jose Elgorriaga. He was often referred to by his Academic associates as the "Renaissance Man," but that didn't really encompass all this icon accomplished. Elgorriaga was able to carefully juggle his professorship in the Fresno State foreign language department with coaching the Bulldog soccer team to national recognition.
Teaching was his first love. He was right at home whether in the classroom, on the soccer field, or in a social gathering. He was just as comfortable discussing the latest football game with his former neighbor and then head Bulldog football coach, Jim Sweeney, as he was co-authoring a book Flamenco, Body and Soul with world-class guitarist Juan Serrano. In his coat and tie, he often read a collection of poems to a standing-room-only audience of poetry lovers in Fresno State's Arena Theater. On the flip side, he was named 1986 Men's Collegiate Coach of the Year by Soccer America magazine. Fresno drew the largest collegiate soccer crowds in the nation with a record 12,224 fans in Bulldog Stadium to watch four-time national champion University of San Francisco play his team. The following year, Fresno recorded a first when it was the pre-season #1 by Soccer Magazine.
Jose was born and raised in Spain during the revolution, when his family was forced to flee the country. His son Chato, one of a string of outstanding goalies to play at Fresno State, said of his father: "His strength was recruiting, getting players who were achievers and very good athletically. We were always in better shape than the teams we played. He was always good [at] giving tactical speeches. A good game planner, always able to tap the emotions of the players on the field. During the four years I played and then helped coach, I can't recall any time we felt there was a team we couldn't beat. That's why we beat UCLA when they were the national champions [and] Indiana when they were ranked #1. Same for San Diego State."Jose's wife, Carmen, whom he married while studying at UCLA in 1954 added, "I think his success came from his uncanny ability aggravating ability-to concentrate. I think he had a photographic memory. He could replay games play by play. He could remember what his players did and what the opposition did the year before and the strengths and weaknesses."
Elgorriaga's eleven-year record at Fresno State was 170-58-20. His teams won seven conference titles and made eight NCAA playoff appearances. In addition to his National Coach of the Year Award, he was voted Far West Coach of the Year in 1985 through 1995, Big West Conference Coach of the Year in 1985, 1986, 1989, and 1990, and Pacific Soccer Conference Coach of the Year in 1982, 1984 and 1985. He never had a losing season, coached four All-Americans, reached the final four in 1986 and the final eight in 1988. Most of his success came with homegrown players that were not recruited by the soccer powers. He did steal some gems that all schools wanted: Femi Olukai from Football College: Christian Ogbodo, an exciting player who beat UCLA with a Pele-like scissor kick; and Gerrel Elliott from New Mexico. During all home games, Carmen made dinners for the team as well as their opponents. One opposing coach said, "They beat you and then feed you." In 1979, Elgorriaga accepted an assistant coach offer from Bob Bereskin. The following year, Bereskin took a job with an oil company. Elgorriaga figured to coach four or five years and turn the job over to someone else. That didn't happen and Fresno State was better for it. The soccer field at Granite Park was named in his honor. Elgorriaga was the subject of a Sports lllustrated article on November 7, 1986 entitled "Athletics Married to Academics" by Bruce Anderson. The title says it all. Jose Elgorriaga passed away in December 2009.
In 1978, Fresno State basketball coach, Boyd Grant, introduced a new recruit at the pre-season luncheon of the Bulldog basketball booster's Time Out Club. The shy 6'7", rail-thin, teenage forward from Harvey, Illinois, stood up, smiled, and waved to the crowd. Coach Grant announced to the audience, "This is Rod Higgins and he very well could become the best player in the history of Fresno State basketball." There were some in the crowd who thought coach Grant was exaggerating a bit when the tall, 160-pound youngster got up to say hello. Little did they know that Fresno State basketball history was about to establish its greatest era of basketball since the first ball bounced in a Bulldog's gymnasium back in 1921.
Rod Higgins was part of "Chicago Connection" that assistant coach, Jim Thrash, had recruited from the Windy City area. Bobby Anderson and Tyrone Bradley were also part of that connection and the threesome, along with others such as Art Williams, Donald Mason, Bernard Thompson, Bobby Davis, and others would give the Fresno fans a whole lot to cheer about as the Boyd Grant era unfolded. Higgins was the star attraction for the Dogs during the Grant's 1979-1982 reign, as Rod was a four-year starter who could score, grab rebounds, and be a leader for the Dogs in their winning two PCAA conference championships and two appearances in the NCAA tournament. Under Grant, the Bulldogs were a disciplined, team-orientated, defense-minded squad, and the system worked just right for Rod as he grew in the program.
He led the team in shot blocking and rebounds and he could score around the basket posting up or driving in any direction. Higgins was also a deadly outside shooter and is still one of the top career free throw shooters in school history. During his career at Fresno State, Rod was named to four PCAA All-Star teams, the All-Freshman team in 1979, the Second Team in 1980, and the First Team in 1981, and again in 1982. In 1981 and 1982, Rod received Honorable Mention All-American honors from the Associated Press, United Press International, and the Sporting News. During his time at FSU, the Bulldogs had 85 wins.
In Rod's senior year in 1982, the Bulldogs went 27-3 overall to reach UPI's Top Ten national rankings for the first time in school history. They won the PCAA title, the PCAA tournament, and went on to the NCAA Tournament. They defeated West Virginia in the second round and then lost to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the Sweet 16. The final AP Top 20 rankings that year had Fresno State finishing 11th in the nation. It was a great season and the end of a great college career for Rod. In his four years at Fresno State, Rod scored over 1,400 points, grabbed over 600 rebounds and provided leadership while winning national honors. He also had become stronger, weighing in at just under 200 pounds and he had hopes of taking his game to the next level. Soon, he would find that the hard work paid off.
Rod was drafted in the second round (31st pick overall) of the 1982 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. He played in the NBA for thirteen seasons with the Bulls, Seattle Supersonics, San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and Cleveland Cavaliers. In 1986, Rod played a year in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and led the Tampa Bay franchise to the CBA title, raking in MVP honors and averaging 28.5 points a game. Back in the NBA in 1987 with the Golden State Warriors, Rod would play another ten years. In all, Rod played in 779 NBA games, averaging 9.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in his career.
Early in his time with the Bulls, he befriended Michael Jordan. "We met in his rookie year which was my third year in the league. We wound up being roommates and we leaned on each other early on," says Rod, "I left that following year, but our relationship continued to grow. We started having families and our families became close and our relationship just evolved from that time." In 1994 with his playing career completed, Rod was named an assistant coach of the Warriors, where he stayed until 2000 when he was named assistant general manager of the Washington Wizards with Michael Jordan and Wes Unseld. In 2004, he went back with the Golden State Warriors as the team's general manager, and in 2007, Rod was recruited as a GM to work with Jordan, who was now in an ownership position with the Charlotte Bobcats. Rod Higgins worked in the NBA for over twenty-five years, as a player, a coach, and an administrator.
During Rod's pro career, he remained close with his friends in Fresno, especially Tyrone Bradley and BobbyAnderson. "We are like the brothers that none of us had,"Bradley says with a big smile, "We went through a lot back in the day and it's still fresh today." For years, the trio ran the Higgins, Anderson, Bradley Basketball Camp in the Fresno area, teaching basketball to area youth, having fun, and raising money for local charities. Each of the three players had a role to make the camp successful. "Rod's role was to get Michael and other players to come to the camp; mine was to run the camp, and Bobby was our businessman, and we had success and a lot of fun with it," says Tyrone. People in Fresno were amazed how Michael would be winning NBA championships during the Chicago Bulls glory years, and a couple of days later, there would be MJ, thrilling the kids at the HAB camp and participating in a game at a sold out Selland Arena for the Fresno fans. This was at a time when Jordan was one of the most famous faces on the planet. It was a great display of friendship between Rod and MJ. Rod is married to Concetta and they have two children, Rick and Cory. The family lives in North Carolina.
Skip Kenney never swam a competitive lap in his life, but parlayed the wisdom of Gene Stephens, Darryl Rogers, and Don Gambril with thirteen months as a Marine-the last four as a sniper in Vietnam-into the most successful collegiate team swimming program in the country. He coached his Stanford University team to their 27th consecutive Pac 10 swimming title, was head coach of the U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta, and assistant coach for both 1984 and 1988. His Stanford team won seven NCAA championships and he has coached 100 different All Americans and several Olympians, including Pablo Morales, a three-time gold medalist and world record holder. Kenney has no time table for retiring. “Retire? Maybe [in] five or six years; I'm having too much fun to retire," Kenney joked "I just [in 2008] had the top recruiting class in the country. I am fortunate to get the cream of the crop at Stanford and that makes it exciting." Kenney stresses team playing and equates that to his military experience. "Surviving the war and being a successful competitive swimmer have more in common than you might think," Kenney said. "Whether in racing or combat, for you to be at your best your mind [has to take] over and the body follows. Athletics and the military both need team unity, good leadership, and proper deployment of resources. Captains are important in both so are the nutritionists, stretch coaches and stroke technicians." Team chemistry is so important that Kenney relies on his veterans to access recruits and to help their teammates.
Kenney is a graduate of Fresno High, where he played Class B football and basketball and was a diver. The only swimming that he did was to cool off in the summer or to make it to the ladder after a dive. He went to Fresno City College, where his sister competed under swimming coach Gene Stephens. Kenney said he always thought he was going to be a coach, but swimming was not on the radar. He got to know Stephens and relied on his experience once he did start coaching Swimmers. At Stephens' funeral in May 2003, Kenney made the following statement: "Without his influence, I wouldn't have been coaching swimming at all. The main reason I'm coaching swimming today because of Gene Stephens.
Another person Kenney has great affection for is former Fresno State player and coach, Darryl Rogers. Kenney related one of his favorite stories when Rogers was helping Stephens with the divers. "There [was] no diving coach or team at Fresno City, so I practiced at Fresno State with Coach Hairabedian. I was in Darryl's car and we were driving to Bakersfield for a dual meet. Darryl looks over at me-he doesn't know me from Adam-and says, "Diver, if you can get two seconds,I think we'll win the meet.' I told him I thought [that] I could, but actually. I got two firsts. We won eight out of thirteen events and still lost. We're driving home and Darryl says to me, ‘Diver, what kind of a screwed up sport is this? When we score more touchdowns, we win. We win more..events and we lose. Then flash ahead [to] when Darryl was coaching the Detroit Lions and the East-West Shrine game was at Stanford.
The pro coaches were scouting players, so I waited until after practice and I was about thirty yards from him. Darryl started walking my way. He finally recognizes me and says, 'Hey, diver’ -he still doesn't know my name. I love the guy." Kenney was in the Marines in 1966 and 1967. Upon his discharge, he worked toward a physical education degree at Long Beach State, teaching for the Red Cross swimming program on the side. The mother of one of his students talked Kenney into coaching the community swim team at Redondo Beach. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Kenney recalled. I thought maybe you'd keep your team in shape with jumping jacks and push-ups and then show up at meets."This was when he went to legendary Long Beach swim coach Don Gambril and admitted his lack of knowledge; Gambril agreed to teach him. Gambril was tired of the constant barrage of questions, but was taken by Kenney's interest, enthusiasm, and his tenacity in trying to learn. Despite the fact that Kenney had no competitive swimming experience, Gambril hired him as an assistant for $100 a month. It was then that Kenney learned the importance of a stopwatch. Gambril wanted to know the time of every swimmer.
At Stanford, Kenney has a board that lists all team members and asks his swimmers to write their lifetime best sets on it. When Gambril moved to Harvard in 1971, Kenney went along, but after one year of the freezing weather, he launched out on his own. He coached the Houston Dad's Club for four years where he first tutored his current assistant and top recruiter, Ted Knapp, and spent three years with the Cincinnati Marlins where he coached five Olympians. Stanford Athletic Director Andy Geiger made Kenney one of his first hires in 1979.
In 1982, backstroker Dave Bottom, who had two brothers who had been Olympians while at USC, topped Kenney's second recruiting classes and launched the beginning of a dynasty. "When Tim came, that opened the doors for a whole lot of others to join him," Kenney said. "He had a high profile name and he was very good himself. By his senior year, we won the NCAA."
In August 1962, Bob Seaman ran the mile in 3:58 at Whitesbridge Stadium in London, England, becoming the first, and to this date the only, Valley-born athlete to beat what, at that time, was the magic mile mark. Seaman had a remarkable track career as a competitor, assistant, and head manager of United States Olympic women's teams and as an official at track and field events. He also had a thirty-year association with the United States Amateur Athletic Union and Olympic committees.
The Fowler-born and raised three-sport athlete helped breathe life into a UCLA track program which was a stepchild to rival USC. In 1953, the year before Seaman and a talented freshman class arrived on the Westwood campus, the Trojans had buried the Bruins in their annual dual meet 120-11. In Seaman's senior year, UCLA snapped an amazing USC thirty-year reign by winning the Pacific Coast Conference title by two points. Seaman remembers being part of the Reedley Grant Elementary School 880-meter relay team which won and set a record at the West Coast Relays. At Reedley High, he was an end for two years and right halfback his senior year. He was part of the Pirates team that twice beat Kingsburg High powered by Rafer Johnson and Monte Clark. In basketball, he was a 6' forward for the team that was unbeaten in the North Sequoia League and captured the Fresno County championship.
His senior year, he ran track and reached the dream of all prep runners by winning the state mile in 4:21 at Ratcliffe Stadium. The meet was scheduled for Norwalk in Southern California, but rain forced it to Fresno, marking the only time the state meet was held on that historic clay track. Seaman's time bettered Lou Zamperini's national high school mark which caught the eye of college recruiters. Seaman was set to enroll at Occidental College until Ed Narjarian, UCLA Class of 1935 and a Reedley clothier, got involved. Narjarian spent three hours talking to Seaman and his mother. He finally convinced Seaman to go to UCLA instead of Occidental. It was ironic: the two times Seaman ran on Bruin world record relay teams, they were beaten by Occidental teams. Nevertheless, Seaman never regretted his choice. "UCLA only had one coach, Ducky Drake, when I enrolled," Seaman said. "The boosters and school officials wanted to pump up its track program. Ducky had to handle everything and he also was the school's head trainer. They hired UCLA Olympic high hurdler Craig Dixon to assist Drake and coach the freshmen and cross country teams.
Things started to move then. I set a national freshmen record of 1:49.9 in the half mile and ran the mile in 4:14." In his sophomore year, Seaman lowered his mile time to 4:01.4 and during the Compton Relays nearly caught the great Kansas miler, Wes Santee. Seaman placed third in the NCAA mile behind American stars, Jim Beatty and Bill Dellinger. Seaman beat Dellinger in the PCC versus Big Ten meet 4:04.2 to 4:04.6. In 1956, the Bruins ended the Trojans 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION complete domination of the PCC. Seaman said ten minutes after celebrating the victory, the announcement came that UCLA, USC, Washington, and California had been placed on a three-year probation for recruiting violations. The following week, UCLA took the NCAA championship with Seaman fourth in the mile which was won by Ireland's Ron Delaney. One of Seaman's "bitter pills" was next when he finished fifth in the US Olympic trials. "I was kinda worn down after the long season, but the crowning blow, I think, was our appearance on the Ed Sullivan show the week of the trials," Seaman said. "I had to stand around for hours while they filmed the dedication of our new track. I should've been on that team."
Another frustrating moment came a year later in a dual meet with Occidental. Seaman was clocked at the 1,320-meter mark in 3:02.5 and, knowing he had to run the two mile later, just coasted in. "I thought-and Dixon agreed-if I had been selfish and gone all out the final quarter I would have broken four minutes," Seaman lamented. In the 1957 West Coast Relays, Seaman anchored the Bruin team which eclipsed the distance medley record, but still lost to Occidental. In the Coliseum relays, the Bruins beat the world 1,600-meter mark by four seconds, but still placed second. At Compton, he finished second to British Olympic medalist Herb Lincoln. The next day, he looked forward to an 880-meter race with California 's Don Bowden. Seaman was thrown a curve when Bowden entered the mile instead. "I beat Bowden, Dellinger and Beatty in the AAU meet and was named the 1957 American Mile Champion of the Year,” Seaman said.
The next two years were spent on the East Coast to fulfill a military commitment. It was in 1962, while on tour with the Los Angeles Athletic Club, that he clocked his 3:58 in London. He was sixth in the 1962 AAU, fifth the following year and then developed an Achilles heel injury that ended his competitive career. Seaman began a thirty-year association with the AAU in 1968. For twenty years, he helped set qualifying standards for national championships. Bob was the women's track chairman from 1972 to 1990. He was assigned to help with the junior national team on tour to Latvia and was voted manager of the World Cup team in 1979 in Montreal, assistant manager of the U.S. Women's Olympic team in 1984, and head manager of the women's team for the 1988 Korean Olympiad. “That was the highpoint of my career," Seaman said. " was manager of arguably the best U.S. women's team ever. We won more medals and set more records than the Russians and East Germans. It was a pleasure being there." Retired Fresno State track coach, Red Estes praised Seaman as "one of the best officials we ever had at the West Coast Relays." Seaman's last tour was in l996 and at age sixty, he retired. "Overall it's been a very interesting life which had taken me around the world and then some. It was an era when track and field world records were big headlines. Now, they are just another story. I watched and managed the best."
It's quite possible that the Fresno County athlete that most dominated the sport that they participated in, was a female. Jackie White had the numbers and accomplishments in her basketball career to suggest that what she did was of legendary proportions. During her high school years at San Joaquin Memorial from 1977-1980, Jackie was as unique to girl's basketball as Michael Jordan was to professional basketball in the 1990s. Playing under a famous figure in girls' basketball coaching, Mary Brown, Jackie was ahead of her time in that she displayed marvelous skills effortlessly and rewrote the Valley and California state high school record books. In her four years at SJM, Jackie led the Lady Panthers to a 100-4 record while averaging over twenty-four points a game, 7.5 steals, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. During that time, the Panthers won four straight Central Section championships.
At 5'8", Jackie helped put the girls' game on the map in California with her amazing ball-handling skills and her Jordanesque athletic ability in that she could score from anywhere on the court. Her quickness was unparalleled: she could drive to the basket at will and hit from long range with deadly accurate shooting skill. On defense, Jackie was also no picnic for opponents as her quickness led to many steals and yet another fast break. Jackie's game brought big crowds to the SJM gym to see the phenom perform and it was the same on the road. She was twice-selected to the Parade magazine High School Al-American Team, the top honor for girls basketball at the time in the USA. Locally, Jackie was all-everything in league, regional, and statewide play whenever she and the Panthers took the court. She was twice-named California Player of the Year, was three-time Northern California Player of the Year, and the first female recipient of the prestigious Bnai B'rith Award which has gone to the single best student athlete in the Fresno area for well over fifty years.
Obviously, there was a long line of college recruiters going out the door of the women's basketball office at San Joaquin Memorial. Jackie chose Louisiana State University and played in Baton Rouge for a year, but came back to California to play for Cal Poly Pomona where she was a two-time First Team All-American and chosen as the NCAA Division II Player of the Year in 1983. In her final year of college eligibility, Jackie competed at Long Beach State, leading the 49ers to a #3 ranking in the nation while she averaged fifteen points a game. After college, Jackie would go on to become the second woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. She got to travel and perform with perhaps the most famous mens' team ever known and loved all over the world.
There were many amazing performances that Jackie White gave during her time on the hardwoods. She and her SJM teammates were playing Rio Americano High School of Sacramento in a semi-final game at the Tournament of Champions at the Oakland Coliseum on March 14, 1980.
Jackie was on a roll as she had scored thirty-three points the night before in a 61-41 win over St. Francis of Mountain View. In seven TOC games, Jackie averaged 32.3 points a game scoring 226 points--still a TOC record. Rio Americano came into the game with a 29-1 record and for almost three quarters, the 7,500 fans at the arena were entertained by the Raiders, who had built a seventeen point lead with six minutes to play in the third quarter. What happened next was something that legends are made of. "What I remember most vividly about that game was kneeling at one of the benches and talking to God," Jackie said recently. "I said, "If you are ever going to let me show the ability and talents You gave me, let me do it now.' When I came out after halftime, I felt something almost spiritual." Jackie, five for thirteen shooting in the first half, had eleven points in the scorebook. At the six-minute mark in that third period, Jackie and teammate, Sue Mahackian, started hitting their shots and with eight minutes to go in the game they found themselves trailing the Rangers by just eight points.
Jackie wound up scoring thirty-three points in that second half comeback, twenty-four in the fourth quarter. "That was Jackie," Sue Mahackian says, "She was phenomenal. When she started scoring, she couldn't miss." The packed house at the Coliseum was on its feet screaming her name as Jackie poured in one long range missile after another followed by a steal to set up one more perfect shot for the Panthers.
the Many of the fans were there to see the TOC boys championship game that would follow, but all eyes were on Jackie White and the crowd went wild as she and her teammates came all the way back from seventeen points down to beat Rio Americano by eight points, 67-59. It was a great night for Jackie. It was a great night for Coach Mary Brown and the SJM Panthers. It was also a great night for Fresno and surely a great night for California women's basketball in general.