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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Ferd Lewis
Hill's guts paying off in glory as Bulldogs challenge system

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

The well-creased red baseball cap and drooping, walrus-like mustache give no hint of the revolutionary at work behind them.

To all outward appearances, 49-year-old Pat Hill might well be a grape grower from Fowler or a dairyman in Dos Palos, two of the many small central San Joaquin Valley agricultural towns that ring Fresno, Calif.

In short, just the kind of guy who arrives in a pickup truck and helps fill the stands at Bulldog Stadium, where Hill is head football coach at Fresno State.

"I'm blue collar; they're blue collar," Hill says simply of the Bulldog constituency that regularly packs the 40,000-seat stadium on Saturdays.

But under this collar beats the heart of a firebrand and a strident voice for change. For Hill doesn't just seek to coach college football, he aims to rock its foundation.

And, to date, he's becoming a seismic presence. People in places who would otherwise only know Fresno for the tags that come on their produce, have come to look closer at what Hill has stirred up with the 6-1 and 18th-ranked Bulldogs that come to Aloha Stadium Friday afternoon for an ESPN game with Hawai'i.

Hill has taken on college sports' biggest cartel, the Bowl Championship Series and focused attention on the NCAA's academic partial qualifiers. At a school better known for the misdeeds of basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian's miscreants, Hill is the anti-Tark, pledging to deliver a top 20 program while promising "college football not a football college."

Remarkably, he's on the doorstep of both while turning the Bulldogs into a winner that aggressively seeks out the best teams in the nation as opponents. A lot of coaches talk a good schedule, saying, "we'll play anybody, anytime," but Hill lives it while adding one more element: anywhere.

In the past two seasons, the Bulldogs have played at UCLA, Ohio State, Colorado, Texas Tech, Oregon State and Wisconsin. He has ducked no one and challenged everyone.

Hill told Southern Cal the Bulldogs would not only play in the Coliseum for bus fare and lodging, but they'd guarantee to bring 20,000 ticket-buying fans. Still, no deal.

He has done it all not to make money — the Bulldogs can realize bigger paydays by playing Sacramento State at Bulldog Stadium — but to make a point.

That being that if there is to truly be a national title game, then FSU and schools like it beyond the big six conferences, deserve at least a chair at the table. Until last week's Boise State loss, the then-No. 8-ranked Bulldogs had the BCS nervously looking at the possibility of a 13-0 run of the table and one of the $11.8 million bowl slots.

That Hill has made this run with a lineup sprinkled with what the NCAA calls and many schools disdain as partial qualifiers — players who did not meet all qualifications of eligibility as freshmen — has struck a nerve with some.

Six players on FSU's two-deep list and 13 on its 85-man scholarship roster, arrived on Bulldog Lane that way and had to prove their ability in the classroom before being allowed to compete on the field. But unlike other coaches who often use and discard such players, Hill's Academic GamePlan, a study skills program copyrighted by special teams coach John Baxter that is sold nationwide, helps most to find their way academically.

"Pat Hill probably saves three-to-four kids a year by giving them opportunities they wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Hawai'i coach June Jones said.

From Hill's first recruiting class five years ago, 16 of the 22 recruits who remained at FSU have either graduated or are on schedule, a turnaround from the USA Today headline that labeled FSU as one of the nation's worst in athlete academics when he arrived. The team grade point average has risen from 2.21 to 2.77. From 40 players under 2.0, there are now 31 at 3.0 or better.

Revolutionary, perhaps, at FSU. But for Hill, just the beginning.