For such a huge victory, it seemed a rather muted celebration. On the other hand, what are we to expect from a team whose motto is, Shut up and hit somebody? After storming from behind to stun No. 23 Wisconsin in Madison last Saturday, a handful of Fresno State Bulldogs unveiled a new shtick. Instead of wagging their index fingers in the air, they held them to their lips like librarians. "Shhh!" they said. " Fresno State football—it's a secret."
Not for long. The Bulldogs' 32-20 win before 78,506 at Camp Randall Stadium marked their third straight upset of an opponent from a major conference. It came 13 days after a dramatic 24-22 victory at Colorado and six days after the Bulldogs had extended their home winning streak to 16 games by knocking off then No. 10 Oregon State 44-24—humbling both the Beavers and a certain sports weekly that had dubbed them its preseason No. 1.
The surprising start moved Fresno State, unranked in the preseason, to No. 11. Not one of the 10 unbeaten teams ranked above the Bulldogs has such an impressive collection of wins, mainly because none is coached by Pat (Have Playbook, Will Travel) Hill. Now in his fifth season at Fresno, Hill knows that wins over Western Athletic Conference opponents won't bring his program national prominence, so he has made the Bulldogs' nonconference schedule as tough as possible. "We'll go anywhere and play anyone," says Hill, 49, who returned to Fresno, where he was an assistant from 1984 to '89, after working as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens from 1992 to '96. To get the game in Boulder, the Bulldogs had to guarantee the sale of $440,000 worth of tickets. "We don't care," says Hill, shrugging off the fact that his program netted only $150,000 of the $600,000 it received for the game. "We just wanted to play Colorado, and they'll never come here."
If his scheduling philosophy is, No cupcakes, Hill's recruiting credo could be, Lock up the valley. He wants gifted players in the San Joaquin Valley to dream of becoming Bulldogs (and, unlike its Pac-10 counterparts, Fresno State takes more than one player each year who fails to meet the standards of the NCAA's Prop 48). It's working. More than half of Hill's starters hail from this fertile plain between the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific. It is an area bounded by Bakersfield to the south and Sacramento to the north and bisected by State Highway 99, where a billboard urges motorists to DEMAND ILLEGAL ALIENS BE DEPORTED. THE JOB YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN.
Saturday's comeback—Fresno State was down 20-10 at the half—was kick-started by homegrown junior wideout Bernard Berrian, whose speed, come to think of it, should be illegal. His 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half triggered a 22-point run that carried the Bulldogs to victory. Berrian returned six kicks for 182 yards, caught eight passes for 102 yards and rushed twice for another 16. He comes from Winton (pop. 8,560), a speck on the map approximately 60 miles northwest of Fresno.
Berrian's afternoon notwithstanding, the most valuable recruit Hill has landed at Fresno State was the first one he visited. Some 12 hours and two flights after his final game as a Ravens assistant, Hill knocked on the door of the Carr family in Bakers-field. "He hadn't gotten a lot of sleep, and the airline had damaged his suitcase," recalls Sheryl Carr, whose son David had just completed his senior season as the quarterback at Stockdale High. "He was holding it together with duct tape and bungee cords."
Hill was in over his head at the Carr house, or so it seemed. David already had scholarship offers from Washington and UCLA. Many others, including Purdue and Arizona, were very interested. What kind of kid would choose Fresno over any of those programs?
The kind of kid who spent most of his elementary and junior high years living in Fresno (the Carrs moved to Bakersfield when David was 13), hustling over to campus every weekday afternoon in the fall to catch the end of Bulldogs practice. The kind of kid who, along with his father, Rodger, and younger brother Darren, would scale not one but two barbed-wire fences at dusk to sneak onto the field at Bulldog Stadium. "Is the stadium open?" Sheryl would ask as they would leave the house. "Kind of" they'd reply. David would throw to Rodger, who was covered by Darren (now a promising defensive tackle at Bakersfield College).
"I'm gonna walk down that ramp someday," Rodger recalls his 11-year-old son saying as he stood near the walkway the players use to reach the field.
David accepted Fresno State's scholarship offer without visiting another school. "There's no other place that would've felt like home," he says. "I'd watched those guys take water breaks. I'd gotten Trent Dilfer's autograph. Bulldog football was the only college football I knew."