Raise your hand if you thought Hawaii would be better than Fresno State this year.
On Nov. 14, 2015, the 2-7 Fresno State Bulldogs travelled to Hawaii and dominated 42-14. Today, the Bulldogs are 1-8 while Hawaii is off to a 4-5 record and holds the second place in the Mountain West West Division. In fact, it is probable that when Hawaii comes to Bulldog Stadium later this month that they reverse the roles we saw on the Islands a year ago. A win over Fresno State later this month would also inch the Rainbow Warriors closer to bowl eligibility.
How in the world has the program that gave up six touchdowns to Zack Greenlee last year a potential bowl team in one year?
A new head coach - Nick Rolovich - has made all the difference.
Hawaii and Fresno make for two very different postcards, but when it comes to the football landscape you might be surprised how similar the two programs are.
Hawaii is secluded by the Pacific Ocean - the Warriors are “THEIR” team. Fresno State isn’t an island, but the Central Valley makes up a large region, separated from major cities by mountain ranges. To the Central Valley, Fresno State is “OUR” team. Both regions also carry a pride in their local high school football and have relatively large populations while consistently seeing their top prospects attracted to the powerhouse schools who invade their territory.
June Jones built UH into a mid-major powerhouse with an offense that struck fear into any defense it faced and even earned a BCS bowl appearance. Then after hovering around .500 for three out of four seasons under Greg McMackin, it was time for new blood, but the program spiraled beyond imagine under Norm Chow.
Just as Fresno State had a long era of success under Pat Hill, who knew exactly what the program needed and how to execute it, interest began to decrease as the Bulldogs failed to replicate the runs of 2001 and 2005. In came a brand new face with Tim DeRuyter, but after two years of success the program is facing its worst stretch in school history. It is a situation that appears to need years of fixing to get back on track.
But Hawaii was in a similar situation last year - the program won only a total of 11 games in the last four years and recruiting efforts were documented as one of the worst in the conference during the time. Damage control has already been made by Rolovich in just months and the Rainbow Warriors reign in second in the Mountain West’s West Division.
So how did they do it?
After rumors of hiring a retread in June Jones, UH instead went with the up-and-coming coach with ties to Hawaii success in Nick Rolovich.
Rolovich came right on board, reflecting on the heights of the program and what he can do to make those times return. He established that UH would take pride in it’s local recruits to strive for reciprocation that they would take pride in their home school - a motto he called “Pride Rock,” not all that different from “The pride of the Valley.” If you look at Rolovich’s staff, you will see several former players and coaches who hold the program dearly and believe in how special their program can be.
Fresno State has already taken some of those steps by adding Joe Bernardi and Mark Weber to its coaching staff this year.
Is there a former Bulldog out there that can fit as an equal to Nick Rolovich? Well, Rolovich and David Carr both squared off as starting senior quarterbacks in Fresno State’s trip to Hawaii in 2001, though David Carr went onto a much longer professional career. Rolovich began building his coaching resume at UH and then as an offensive coordinator at Nevada.
Is there an exact comparison to Rolovich in the Central Valley? No, but the Fresno State program can still follow the blueprint for similar results.
The favorite for the job, Jeff Tedford, would bridge the gap between the success of the Sweeney and Hill years. He played for Sweeney. He coached Trent Dilfer under Sweeney, served as offensive coordinator under Hill and is close with the Carrs.
Wins will fix a program in itself, but a high-energy hire can jumpstart the process as proven by Hawaii. Rolivich has done so by promoting the program through social media, involving popular players of the past, finding a handful of immediate-impact recruits, having his staff visit hundreds of high schools and extending literally hundreds of scholarship offers.
Can Tedford, 54, be the high-energy guy to get fans excited? At age 40 he inherited a 1-10 California program and turned them into a 7-6 team in just one season. Can he do the same at Fresno State in 2017 if hired? If you know of the personal adversity Tedford faced in his life leading up to his success at Cal, you have to imagine there is still a lot of fight in him.
What can Tedford do to jumpstart the process? As he takes the job, he can reflect on the successes of his 1982 11-1 season as quarterback under Jim Sweeney, his first year as quarterbacks coach at Fresno State in 1992 resulting in a Freedom Bowl win over USC, leading the Fresno State offense in 1997 to an upset win at No. 17 Air Force, etc.
He can also proclaim to reawaken the sleeping giant that is the Central Valley fan base.
But possibly most important would be to put his stamp on the program by recruiting the Central Valley and connect Fresno State to local superstars as he connected Bay Area players like Marshawn Lynch to Cal. Interim Head Coach Eric Kiesau already jump started that process last night, announcing that his assistants will focus on California going forward.
Just like in Hawaii at this time last year, many Fresno State faithful want a reason for fans to come back to the seats, for a return to the program’s winning ways and for an all-out effort on local and in-state recruiting. Tedford could be the man to achieve all three in a hurry.