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February 10, 2013

A tribute to Bulldog great Jim Sweeney




Jim Sweeney was a great father, grandfather and great-grandfather, a great role model and inspiration, and almost certainly the best ambassador Fresno ever had.

But when grandson Kyle Negrete, then just three, got to spend the day of 1992 Freedom Bowl on the Bulldogs' bench, he realized something else as the Bulldogs beat Negrete's alma mater, USC, 24-7, for one of Sweeney's five bowl victories.

His grandfather, who died Friday at the age of 83, was a football coach. And a very forceful, loud sideline presence.

"My grandpa was very vocal . . . he liked to talk," said Negrete, who sat up with him over Thursday night, turning him every four hours. "A special moment," he said of the chance to spend one last night with him.

"He's the toughest human being I've ever seen," Negrete said of the Butte, Mont. native who started his coaching career at Montana State, then went on to Washington State for eight seasons before his two tours of duty over 19 years, with a timeout for the NFL, at Fresno State. His 200 wins in his 32 seasons are 19th all-time in college football.

"He was the kind of person you would want to play for," Negrete said of the toughness that came from his Montana roots. "That's where he got it. He was an alpha male, a Golden Gloves boxer who never turned down a fight."

He was both a great father and father-figure. But always there was football. One of his nine children, Kevin, still holds several Fresno State passing records.

And in a next-generation number that may never be equalled, he had three grandsons -- Beau Sweeney at Cal, Nate Fellner at Washington and Negrete, the USC punter -- all playing Pac-10 football two seasons back.

"He watched all our games," Negrete said. And all the other football he could find. "He'd watch the NFL all day on Sundays."

He was also "a great father figure to his players," Negrete said. "A man who loved his student-athletes, first as individuals, and second as athletes . . . ." FSU President John Welty said Friday.

Bulldog alum Chris Pacheco may have said it best: "I came to Fresno in 1983 because of Jim Sweeney! I decided to stay in Fresno after my Bulldog playing days because of Jim Sweeney! He is and always will be a father figure to me! My father died in my mid 20's, he filled that void. He treated me like a son, not a player. He taught me how to be a man, how to be accountable for your actions every day, to do the right thing, not just sometimes, all the time!"

Of Sweeney's program that produced seven Top-25 Bulldog teams, FSU Director of Athletics Thomas Boeh said he was ". . . a man of vision, toughness and character who led the Bulldogs to new heights and went on to become a national icon."

But again, that wasn't the end of it.

"Before my grandpa, no one here ever wore Fresno State gear," Negrete said, "that was all because of him."

Current FSU Coach Tim DeRuyter added that: "Coach Sweeney is an icon in college football who put Fresno State football on the national map. His larger than life personality and tenacity in which he coached the game are legendary. He will be sorely missed not only in Fresno and the Valley, but by the coaching community as a whole."

His public funeral, after a private family and friends service Saturday, will be at Bulldog Stadium. "That's the stadium he built," Negrete said. "They named the field for him."

There's another reason they'll be in Bulldog Stadium, Negrete said. "There's no church big enough. We're expecting 10,000 people to be there. It's going to be a really great celebration of my grandpa."

Among that number are expected to be some of the 35 NFL draft picks he produced, a list that includes Henry Ellard, Trent Dilfer, Stephone Paige, Stephen Baker, Ron Cox and Aaron Craver.

One can only imagine that before it's over, the tradition Jim Sweeney started, that famous cheer and chant he lived, and that lives until this day for Bulldog teams, will be heard: "I'm Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred and I'm going to be a Bulldog until the day I'm Dead! Go Dogs!"

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.


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