The top diplomats at City Hall and Fresno State gathered at Bulldog Stadium on Monday to honor the university’s remarkable football team.
I use the word “diplomat” for good reason.
Mayor Lee Brand, Council Member Paul Caprioglio, President Dr. Joseph Castro and Head Coach Jeff Tedford seemed to have a simple task. The Bulldogs in 2017 won 10 games. They won the Mountain West Conference’s West Division, nearly beat Boise State (who would finish the season ranked No. 22) on the road for the conference championship, then whipped a tough Houston team in the Hawaii Bowl.
Make a few speeches, hand out a couple of proclamations, smile for the photographers – what could be easier, right?
And that’s how the 10-minute ceremony unfolded. However, the tricky part was dealing with the stark contrast that was at the heart of Monday’s event.
You see, the Bulldogs in 2016, before Tedford arrived on the scene, had gone 1-11. It was, without question, the worst season in Fresno State history. It surely ranks among the worst seasons in the modern era of Division I college football.
How do you make a big deal out of such a dramatic turnaround when the current university administration once had been enamored with the 2016 head coach and when a substantial number of the young men who played so well in 2017 were also on the team in the previous year?
You do so very diplomatically.
The Mayor was first to speak. Everyone, including the 2018 Bulldogs who had just finished a Spring Practice session, mustered in the south end zone.
“We’re here to honor Coach Tedford, who took a team that was 1-11 in 2016 and the following year went 10-4 – one of the biggest turnabouts in NCAA football history,” Brand said. “Give them a hand.”
Brand said there’s a common thread in the leadership of Tedford, Castro and himself – the continuous striving for excellence.
“This year we at the City of Fresno wish the team success, another division title, another bowl game – no pressure,” Brand said, his postscript generating a few nervous chuckles. “Again, congratulations Fresno State, Coach Tedford, his assistants and the players.”
Caprioglio represents District 4, which includes the Fresno State campus. He read from the official City Hall resolution signed by the Mayor and the seven council members.
“’Now therefore be it resolved that we, Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno City Council members, do hereby recognize and congratulate the 2017 Fresno State football team for their numerous noteworthy accomplishments and on winning the Hawaii Bowl,’” Caprioglio said. “So, team, this is for you.”
Caprioglio said each player would get a certificate with his name in recognition of the 2017 successes.
“We’re so proud of you that we want you to remember this as we remember it for posterity,” Caprioglio said.
Next was an official City Hall proclamation for Tedford. The document had lots of details about Tedford’s life and athletic feats. Caprioglio cut to the chase – Tedford is a former standout Fresno State quarterback who finally returned to the fold.
Caprioglio read from the proclamation: “Now therefore be it resolved that we, Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno City Council, do hereby proclaim April 2 to be Jeff Tedford Day in the entire City of Fresno.”
That generated the loudest cheers of the morning.
Tedford was head coach at Cal for 11 years, going 82-57 and winning five bowls. He knows all about the intricacies of college football diplomacy.
“Thank you very much. I really appreciate it – bringing all those old times back. They’re very special memories,” Tedford said. “I played in the very first season of this stadium – a long time ago. But I couldn’t be more thrilled to be back and to be with a great group of guys, a great coaching staff, a great president – Dr. Castro, thank you for all your support and guidance for us.
“But most of all, it’s about the players, about what these guys do on and off the football field. Having a great season on the field last year was very important, but more importantly we had over 62 guys that were a 3.0 (grade point average), and we’re very, very proud of that. They’re making the right decisions and the good choices off the field. We’re really proud of their growth and development. They’re working hard for next season. We look forward to going out and competing and trying to do even better next year. So, thank you all very much. I really appreciate it.”
President Castro was tactfully brief.
“I just want to add my thanks to the Mayor and the Councilman for being here today to honor our Bulldogs football team and Coach Tedford and all of our staff,” Castro said. “They exemplify for us what it means to be bold, not just on the football field but in the classroom and out in the community. I’m so proud of all that they’re doing academically and as football players. Thank you all for being here. Have a great day. Go ‘Dogs!”
Fresno State deserves the accolades. Well done, City Hall.
Still, the event raises again the question that has never been fully answered: What really happened in the 17 months from August 2016 when then Head Coach Tim DeRuyter greeted his returning team to Christmas Eve 2017 when Tedford’s inspired Bulldogs defeated Houston 33-27?
The Mayor in his first words noted that Bulldog Stadium is the stadium “that Jim Sweeney built.” Coach Sweeney’s career at Fresno State was anything but a straight and tidy line. As an old sports reporter, it’s my experience that most of college athletics is that way.
Maybe Coach Tedford and President Castro were right in their Monday remarks to avoid any reference, direct or implied, to the 2016 vs. 2017 contrast. Let sleeping dogs lie.
Yet, I like to think Monday’s ceremony did provide a hint as to how the despair of 2016 turned into the pride of 2017.
It was an unscripted hint.
Council Member Caprioglio had finished reading the resolution honoring the team. He turned to look at the Bulldogs assembled behind him. He wanted to hand the framed document to a player.
There was a pause. Then one player stepped forward. At almost the same time, another player from the other side of the group moved toward Caprioglio.
Two players, one resolution. One of the players returned to the group empty-handed. Everyone laughed good-naturedly.
One way to read the incident is as an example of crossed signals. Crossed signals on the gridiron is bad news. Perhaps the Tedford Philosophy has yet to fully take hold.
I prefer to read the incident a different way. Caprioglio’s turn toward the team was unexpected. Initiative and leadership were called for. The team responded. The resolution got home.
Bottom line: It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.