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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hill won't let FSU go to the dogs

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

FRESNO, Calif. The nostrils flared violently, his bushy Fu Manchu mustache shook and his eyes were as piercing as his words were direct.

"Nobody in this building is throwing in the towel," Fresno State head football coach Pat Hill staunchly maintained time and again yesterday.

In the midst of the deepest struggle of his 10-year tenure at Fresno State, a 1-4 start and 1-8 overall slide that he said, "burns my stomach and keeps me up at night," Hill remains, well, Bulldog defiant.

With the University of Hawai'i coming to town for Saturday afternoon's game, Hill said he not only isn't "throwing in the towel," he isn't throwing anybody overboard, either. He isn't changing his starting quarterback, Tom Brandstater (though a backup might see some action), isn't considering replacing his offensive coordinator, Steve Hagen, and isn't planning to leave after this season.

With losses mounting to unaccustomed levels and UH, Louisiana State and Boise State still on the horizon the last two on the road rumors and speculation have been swirling around the Bulldog football program, the athletic pride of the San Joaquin Valley, the way kudos and applause did just 11 months ago.

Back then the Bulldogs had gone into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and played then-No. 1 ranked Southern California Bulldog-tough before losing, 50-42. But since then, in a befuddling freefall that has both fans and coaches scratching for answers, FSU has lost eight of nine games, including four in a row.

With hopes of a Bowl Championship Series breakthrough long abandoned, a winning season and bowl berth receding and 5,000 tickets remaining for a homecoming game against UH that would normally be a 41,031-seat sellout by now, the howls have become louder and questions more pointed.

And, so has Hill's response. "We're staying the course and we will get better" he fairly barked at his news conference yesterday.

"You know what?" Hill told the assembled media. "If you want to blame anybody and this is for everybody in the room if there is any blame coming, it starts with the head coach so just write it down that way. OK? It is the head coach that is responsible for everything that happens. If you want to point any blame ... just point it at me. It is fine with me. Because ultimately I'm responsible for this football team."

This is classic Hill, of course. If Fresno State wanted a human version for its mascot, it would be Hill, who is typified by his signature line of a few years ago: "Just shut up and hit somebody." A coach who paces madly on the sidelines even when things are going well.

He might not be terribly inventive, willing to push boundaries like UH's June Jones, or a polished people person like Dick Tomey, whom he once coached under. But what you see is what you get. And what Fresno State has gotten, at least up through USC last year, was pretty good in a head coaching career that stands at 73-47 even with the recent fade.

So expecting Hill to rewrite the playbook, switch starting quarterbacks or juggle his staff just now is like the Fresno area swearing off grape growing. It just isn't happening in the immediate future.

It is as if he's resolutely made it a referendum on his coaching and football beliefs. That changes would be a sign of white-flagged surrender in his book. "I don't change many things," Hill acknowledged. "We live in a day and age when everybody wants you to change when you lose a game or have a bad day. People always want you to fire people and make changes when things go bad.

"I mean, June (Jones) goes through the same things. He stays with what he knows. When things get tough you don't go with something you don't understand just to make changes. In this game there are a lot of coaches that are gonna fall for changing this and changing that and, you know what, they are the coaches that end up getting fired."

With two more years left on a contract that was extended at the end of last season by a school toeing the financial line and a $900,000-plus salary that makes him the Western Athletic Conference's highest-paid coach, Hill has what many coaches in his position don't have, time to be Bulldog defiant.

For now, at least.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.