Wearing oversized T-shirts and smiles as bright and warm as the triple-digit weather outside, the children of the Merced Boys and Girls Club summer program lined up to banter, get autographs and take pictures with three of Fresno State’s most revered coaches Wednesday morning.
As big a hit as Bulldogs football coach Tim DeRuyter, men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry and swimming coach Jeanne Fleck were with the children, it was school mascot Timeout who likely garnered the most attention.
The coaches, athletic director Jim Bartko and the Fresno State sports information department dropped by the Boys and Girls Club in their second stop of four Northern Valley cities on the final day of the school’s Bulldog Express tour. The Fresno State staff visited the South and West portions of the Valley on Monday and Tuesday in an effort to reconnect with the school’s fans and energize them for the upcoming school year.
“The tour is one of the first things I did when I came here,” Bartko said. “One of the things I felt like we needed to get back to doing was getting out and saying thank you to our fans. Not just in Fresno, but the entire Valley. We say we’re the school of the Valley. We have to show that to our fans from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
“We’re trying to mix it up meeting with kids groups and adult groups. We had a nice breakfast in Madera this morning and now we’re here with the kids in Merced. They’re definitely our future, so this is a great opportunity to come out let them meet the coaches and maybe make a little impact in their lives.”
The coaches gave a little speech, introducing themselves and describing their job before fielding questions. The children were up to the task, asking questions such as how was the Bulldogs’ mascot chosen and how the school came up with its famous red that stumped the entire group.
The coaches also hammered home the importance of academics, whether or not the kids pursued athletics in college. The Boys and Girls Club staff appreciated that message.
“This is a rare and special opportunity,” executive director and former NFL offensive lineman Tony Slaton said. “For me, it’s more rewarding that this kind of emphasizes what we do with our academics. The hope is that everything we’ve discussed with the kids previously makes a little more sense now. That Fresno State is no longer just this mythical place in their mind.
“It’s now a place that they know people from and maybe becomes a little more tangible a dream for them.”
The Fresno State staff loaded up the kids with all kinds of Bulldogs swag, including T-shirts, posters, stickers and candy, which the coaches and Timeout happily signed. The coaches didn’t go away empty-handed, either. Aside from about 80 new lifelong fans, the Boys & Girls Club loaded up the coaches with T-shirts of their own, water bottles and sunscreen.
“It’s a blast,” DeRuyter said of the one-hour visit. “The whole tour is the vision of our athletic director, Jim Bartko, and I think it’s great. We talk all the time about being the Valley’s team in Fresno. It’s one thing to say it, but we’re out right now trying to show it.
“It’s always fun to hear what the kids are thinking and to try and build new fans. Even if they don’t make it out to a game this year, maybe they’ll watch on TV and see one of us and say, ‘Hey, I met that guy.’ It gives them a more personal connection with the program.”