Jim Sweeney had a gift for people and football. He relished the underdog's role -- yet spent a good part of his life telling Fresno residents that the city needn't be an underdog anymore.
Sweeney's ability to inspire folks and sell them on abetter days ahead was best captured by Mike Price, a former assistant on Sweeney's staff at Washington State University and later the Cougars' head coach: "When Jim had a 4-7 record, people wanted him to run for mayor. When I went 4-7, they wanted to run me out of town."
Sweeney made football fun and exciting for fans and turned people who previously paid little attention to California State University, Fresno, into fans. Make no mistake, he was the person most responsible for building (and expanding) Bulldog Stadium and ushering the university into big-time sports -- albeit at the midmajor level.
Sweeney could be crude and coarse, and he didn't suffer fools gladly. At the end of his coaching days, he was hanging on, 67 years old and fighting the effects of three back, one neck and four knee surgeries. But he could ignite spontaneous joy among players and fans.
Such a night came in 1996, when the Bulldogs, playing at home, delivered his 200th career victory by thumping Boise State University. Afterward, Sweeney smiled, waved and shook his booty. "Players love when I do that," he said. "They love watching my hips move and seeing my agility."
Perhaps overlooked in the analysis of Sweeney's career was his impact on college football. Valuing loyalty, he filled his staffs with his former Montana State University, Washington State and CSU, Fresno, players. Dennis Erickson would win two national championships as head coach of the University of Miami. Jeff Tedford became a successful head coach at University of California at Berkeley, and Joe Tiller led the University of Wyoming and Purdue University.
Price credits Sweeney with inventing the Bum-a-rooski, a trick play in which the punter pretends the snap goes over his head while a blocking back waits a couple of seconds and then runs with the ball.
Sports Illustrated cited Sweeney in 1995 as a coach who struck fear in opposing coaches. Howard Schnellenberger, the University of Oklahoma's coach at the time, said of Sweeney: "He's a wily coach who ... has won more than anyone who's had to work with unheralded players and limited resources."
Sweeney's .567 winning percentage -- tarnished by his days battling kingpins University of Southern California, UCLA and Stanford University while at Washington State -- kept him out of the College Football Hall of Fame.
But the "Dogfather" left a bigger imprint on the game -- and on people -- than some of the men enshrined there.