Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Danger to the establishment
By Adrian Wojnarowski Special to ESPN.com
Pat Hill was talking fast on the telephone, clutching a newspaper clipping someone sent and refusing to believe the words of the Washington State official bemoaning the struggle to find football teams to schedule.
Pat Hill's Fresno State team is clicking at the right time.
"Are you (bleeping) me?" Hill barked.
"We'll go play them!"
Sure, Fresno State will play Washington State. Pat Hill says his team will play anyone, anywhere, anytime in America. This has turned into one of those seasons when nothing can stop Hill from thinking bigger and bigger, thinking maybe this is the year America gets it wish and those hellacious, hard-hitting mid-majors come crashing into the Bowl Championship Series system.
"This is a (bleeped) up system and I want to break the damn door down to it," Hill said. "We're still at the main table. We picked up some more chips and now we've got ourselves a bigger pile."
Yes, Hill despises this system. He hates climbing on those planes, and flying two and three zones away to play football games in Knoxville, Norman, Stillwater and Auburn.
"We're the best street fighter in the world for ESPN and Fox Sports," Hill said. "We're the club fighter just going to play the games and letting other guys make all the money. Just give us our shot, and just give us our exposure."
One of these seasons, someone is going to do it. Maybe it will be Fresno State. Maybe this is where they run the table, beat Boise State for the Western Athletic Conference championship and bring that agricultural community in Central California down to a big, beautiful New Year's Day bowl game. Maybe Pat Hill isn't much to see with that thick moustache and black shades on the sideline, but watch him let loose his Bulldogs and, man, they are something to see flying around the field.
Once again, Fresno State has declared itself a danger to the establishment, starting the season with back-to-back drillings at Washington and Kansas State. But he isn't satisfied with criss-crossing the country to play the biggest football powers in America. One of the these seasons, he wants to get USC and California in his line of fire for a state championship game, but the damndest thing keeps happening: They won't play Fresno State, now at No. 20 in the polls. And what's worse to him, he's still waiting to hear a good reason why not.
"If Southern Cal and Cal were playing Michigan, Oklahoma and Miami out of league, and they're saying, 'We don't want to play Fresno because we've got bigger fish to fry,' I can live with that," Hill says. "But they're not always doing that."
"I'm not saying they're dodging anybody, but why play Colorado State in the Coliseum when they can play Fresno State? Why should Cal choose to play Air Force on the road? Or go down to Southern Miss? People are always talking about budgets and revenues, and what makes more sense than this?
"I know they're not ducking us. ... I'm not saying they are at all, but I just don't understand it."
Well, they are kind of ducking him. Fresno State has beaten Georgia Tech and UCLA in back-to-back bowl games, a run of seven victories over BCS programs since 2000. The Houston Texans' top pick in 2002, David Carr, was the Bulldogs' star quarterback, and Fresno State started the 2001 season with three straight victories over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin to rise to No. 8 in the national polls.
He had an academic support program that Notre Dame borrowed, a graduation rate that has risen to more than 50 percent since his arrival and a team GPA that's now at 2.87. There are no arrests, no indictments and never a suggestion of NCAA impropriety. "Ah hell, we haven't been rated with a Top 70 recruiting class yet by anyone."
It's ridiculous that Washington and Arizona never offered Hill a chance to take over those teams when jobs opened up. One Pac-10 school with an opening called and talked five minutes before Hill told him he had the wrong man. He isn't some pretty boy for an athletic director to bring to wine-and-cheese parties, but an old school, smash-mouth football coach. He doesn't play that wild WAC football, but the kind of hellacious hitting that they would've loved at Washington, where Hill just took a 2-by-4 upside the Huskies' heads.
He always was something of an underdog, all the way back to his college days when he was an All-American center at UC-Riverside -- at a mere 200 pounds. At a time when so many athletic directors are blow-dried marketing department cardboard cutouts, they'll look past Hill for the pretty boys, and he sure never wanted to be one of them.
There is part of Hill that revels in the disrespect, the long flights across the country and victories against long odds. For next season, Fresno State has Texas Tech and Kansas under contract for home games and already Hill is figuring he'll end up somewhere on the road with his football team, when those schools back out of agreements.
"Texas Tech has canceled on us twice," Hill said. "What kind of message are you sending your young people when you don't live up to your contract? They'll say, 'Well, we're (canceling) for the money,' but then you shouldn't have signed a contract in the first place. Oklahoma State did it to us too. I'm just old fashioned about that. I believe if you've got a contract, then you live up to that."
Ah hell, he heard Washington State needs a game next season. He's already going to Oregon. He'll play the Cougars. He'll take Fresno State to play anyone, anywhere. He might even hold a date for the No. 1 Trojans, but Pat Hill won't hold his breath.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.