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Commentary: Two different valleys, one similar basketball struggle

InsideTheSpartans's Andrew Pang takes a look at the similarities between the San Jose State and Fresno State basketball programs and how SJSU Head Coach Dave Wojcik's progress compares to FS Head Coach Rodney Terry.

Wednesday’s rivalry matchup in San Jose between Fresno State and San Jose State brought together two men’s basketball programs with similar histories of struggles, with San Jose State ultimately winning 65-53 and splitting the season series. Site publisher Jackson Moore wrote in his preview of the Jan. 16 game in Fresno, about San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik and Fresno State coach Rodney Terry: “Both coaches inherited rebuilding projects at their schools and took the programs from the WAC to the Mountain West.” (Fresno State would win that day’s game 81-74.)

Now in his sixth season as head coach, Terry is on track for the second winning season in his tenure at Fresno State. In the 2013-14 season, Terry’s Bulldogs went 21-18 (9-9 MW) for Fresno State’s first winning season since 2006-07 and were runners-up in the College Basketball Invitational. After going 15-17 (10-8 MW) last season, Fresno State began 5-0 in Mountain West play and is now 15-8 (6-4 MW) after beating UNLV 111-104 in double overtime Saturday. The Bulldogs lost to #15 Oregon on Nov. 30, by just 78-73.

To what extent did Terry have to “rebuild” Fresno State? Terry only had to build a Sundial Bridge. Wojcik, in contrast, has a Golden Gate Bridge to construct. This shows in examining recent histories of the two basketball programs. Since the 1990-91 season, San Jose State has had only two winning seasons (1993-94 and 2010-11) and two postseason appearances: the 1996 NCAA Tournament (by way of winning the Big West Conference Tournament) and 2011 CBI (from making the WAC semifinals). In that era, San Jose State had 14 seasons with nine or fewer wins, including the nightmare 2-28 season of 2014-15 in which the two wins were against lower division opponents.

Meanwhile in Fresno, the 25 seasons from 1990-91 to 2014-15 had 13 with winning records and 10 with postseason tournaments (two NCAA Tournaments, seven NIT’s, and one CBI). These 13 seasons included the entire seven seasons with Jerry Tarkanian at the helm (1995-2002) and two seasons in the Ray Lopes era (2002-05).

Success for the Bulldogs came with its dark side, in the form of major NCAA infractions under both Tarkanian and Lopes. The Tarkanian-era violations involved players getting multiple improper benefits, namely free meals at local restaurants, money from agents, and coursework completed by team staff. Consequently, Fresno State went on four years of probation effective 2003, was banned from a postseason, vacated its 2000 WAC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, and reduced scholarships.

Unfortunately, Lopes learned nothing from the NCAA investigation that was active when he became coach. The 2006 infractions report by the NCAA states that Lopes “was already engaged in a pattern of impermissible phone contacts that began immediately upon his April 2002 arrival on campus.” Fresno State’s probation was extended through 2010, and Fresno State was banned from the 2005-06 postseason. Recruiting visits and days were also limited.

Steve Cleveland replaced Lopes in 2005. He went 92-98 in six seasons, having previously coached at BYU from 1997 to 2005 and leading BYU to three NCAA Tournament and two NIT appearances. He could not carry that success to Fresno State, however. Although he started with two winning seasons, including a 22-10 (10-6 WAC) season in 2006-07 with an NIT appearance,  Fresno State had no more winning seasons. In addition to the recruiting restrictions of his first two seasons that came from Lopes-era infractions, Cleveland’s hands were tied further when Fresno State had practice time restricted in the 2008-09 season and scholarships reduced for the 2009 recruiting class due to a low Academic Progress Rate.

San Jose State had no NCAA infractions within the past 25 years. However, it twice had NCAA-imposed penalties due to low APR’s. In 2008, when George Nessman was coach, the program had two scholarships taken away. In 2014, for Wojcik’s second season, the program had practice time reduced. The reduction of practice time, combined with injuries and suspensions, contributed to the 2-28 record.

With a clean slate to start his tenure, Terry was able to turn around Fresno State in three seasons. In contrast, Wojcik had to deal with multiple obstacles in his first two seasons at San Jose State. For his first season, Wojcik started from scratch with just four players from the previous season and many newcomers, because “several players were not invited back for the 2013-14 season.” Then came the APR-related practice restrictions, injuries, and disciplinary issues in his second season. Wojcik got a full practice schedule back for his third season and now has a team that is playing better than its record shows.

Complaining about Wojcik’s 15-64 record with San Jose State and demanding a better coach takes little effort. However, it is important to understand that Wojcik was handcuffed from his first day on the job. Rodney Terry’s tenure at Fresno State is a similar model of what to expect for Dave Wojcik’s time as San Jose State coach.

The third season of Wojcik has already shown improvements from last year’s nightmare season. His fourth season will be make-or-break, depending on if the team advances or regresses. By 2017, the athletic director should be well-informed of the direction of men’s basketball under Wojcik and should reach a solid decision, either extending him or buying out the fifth and final season on Wojcik’s contract.

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