Fresno State’s next big football game has me thinking about legacies.
A legacy in sports is usually based on statistics. But sometimes the most lasting legacy is built on teamwork.
The Bulldogs hit the road to play San Diego State on Saturday. Fresno State under new head coach Jeff Tedford is 4-2 on the year and 3-0 in the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs, 6-1 overall, are coming off a 31-14 loss to visiting Boise State last week.
The Bulldogs’ leading rusher this season is Ronnie Rivers. The 175-pound freshman has run for 344 yards (5.3 yards per attempt) and five touchdowns.
Ronnie Rivers is the son of former Bulldogs running back Ron Rivers. The dad is Fresno State’s second leading career rusher, trailing only Robbie Rouse.
Sports reporter William Ramirez wrote an excellent profile of Ronnie Rivers in the Sept. 27 edition of The Collegian, Fresno State’s student-run media platform.
The father’s success and the son’s quest to surpass it – a story as old as humanity – is at the heart of Ramirez’s tale.
“Of course I want to excel and do things better than he did, so then I can have a little bragging rights between me and my dad,” Ronnie Rivers told Ramirez. “But I just got to stay humble throughout the whole thing and just do me. Work on myself and don’t worry about what everyone else is saying…. I’m not scared of (the legacy). I like that. I’m just ready.”
But there’s more to the legacy of Ron Rivers than his career rushing yardage – 3,473. I’ll always remember Ron Rivers as one-fourth of Fresno State’s famed “Full House” backfield.
Let’s return in time to Ron Rivers’ second season with the Bulldogs.
The year was 1992. Jim Sweeney was the head coach. Fresno State was in its first year in the Western Athletic Conference, a major upgrade from the competition in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association/Big West Conference.
Everyone in Fresno wanted the Bulldogs to prove they deserved to be in the WAC. But that meant playing (beating more often than not) the likes of BYU, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado State. It also meant a renewal of the rivalry with San Diego State.
The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in 1992, losing four of their first seven games. But the total point difference in those four games was only 26. The team had talent.
Things began to jell on Oct. 24 with a three-point win over New Mexico in Bulldog Stadium. That was followed by home-turf victories over Wyoming and Utah.
That set the stage for a trip to San Diego State on Nov. 21. They didn’t call it the Wacky WAC for nothing – Fresno State, despite two conference losses, was still in the hunt for a piece of the title. But the Bulldogs had to beat the Aztecs to stay alive.
Final score: Fresno State 45, San Diego State 41.
San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Stefanie Loh in 2014 brought that game back to life in her history of the Bulldogs-Aztecs rivalry.
“With under a minute to go, and future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer under center, Fresno completed an improbable 37-yard pass play on fourth-and-9 from their own 44,” Loh wrote. “Two plays later, Dilfer found Tydus Winans for the winning score with 14 seconds on the clock. Heisman Trophy candidate Marshall Faulk could only manage two carries for 21 yards – though he did find the end zone on one – before a hyperextended knee forced him from the game. Not to be outdone was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher, Ron Rivers, who carried 16 times for 175 yards and added scoring runs of 80 and 31 yards. The loss spoiled the Aztecs’ hopes of going to their hometown Holiday Bowl.”
The Bulldogs easily beat Texas-El Paso the following week to finish the regular season 8-4 and share the WAC title (at 6-2) with Hawaii and BYU. A month after the Texas-El Paso game, the Bulldogs beat USC 24-7 in the Freedom Bowl.
The Fresno State quarterbacks coach in 1992 was Jeff Tedford (who, we should remember, was the Bulldogs’ quarterback in 1981-82).
I chatted briefly with Tedford on Tuesday morning after practice. I asked if he remembered the 1992 San Diego State game in general or the fourth-and-9 pass in particular.
“Not really. It’s a long time ago,” Tedford said. “I remember it was a battle – an exciting football game. I called all the plays. I was the play-caller at the time. I don’t remember the play or the situation…. I remember a few of those games. I remember having a shootout with BYU. I definitely remember the Freedom Bowl. That was an exciting game.”
I asked if Sweeney before the season emphasized to his coaching staff the importance of a strong Fresno State effort in its rookie season in the WAC.
“That wasn’t his approach,” Tedford said. “His approach was: we’re there to play well, no matter what league we were in. We just happened to move into another league. But there was no extra emphasis on how we prepared or how we practiced or anything like that.”
But Tedford did recall the 1992 Bulldogs’ unity.
“We played together as a team,” Tedford said. “There were a lot of great guys on that team. It was a special year, I know that. Going to the Freedom Bowl and beating SC – it turned out to be a really special year. There were a lot of great players on that team – Lorenzo and Daigle and Rivers. A really good team.”
It was at this point that I broached the issue that most interested me – the “Full House” backfield as a part of Fresno State history.
Jim Sweeney was a masterful salesman when it came to his Fresno State program. He had to be. He arrived on campus in 1976 promising to awaken a “sleeping giant.” He called his 1977 championship squad the “stadium builders” because those Bulldogs generated enough community enthusiasm to fund an on-campus home field. He was on the sideline in 1980 when the Bulldogs played their first game in the new stadium. He kept the Red Wave’s enthusiasm alive during the 1980s when the PCAA/Big West deteriorated as a football conference.
The quarterback in 1992 was Trent Dilfer. The halfbacks were Ron Rivers and Anthony Daigle. The fullback was Lorenzo Neal.
It wasn’t unusual for Sweeney to put all four on the field at the same time in the classic T formation created by Clark Shaughnessy a half-century earlier. Sweeney in news conferences and after practice sold it to reporters such as myself as the “Full House” backfield.
Sweeney’s words, and the powerful image of those four immensely talented players (all four would play in the NFL) packed so close together in the backfield, sticks with me to this day.
But what’s most important about the memory is that no single player in Fresno State’s “Full House” backfield of 1992 stands out as being unusually special. They were individuals, to be sure. But I see them as a unit. Actually, as a unit within a unit – in front of them were two talented ends and five talented offensive linemen.
Make that a unit within a unit within a unit, for their teammates were on the sideline, watching as I watched.
“T Heavy – that’s what that formation was called,” Tedford told me. “It was a fast-paced, short-yardage offense or a goal line offense. And sometimes we just stayed with it out on the field if we felt like we were rolling. I remember one time, I think it was New Mexico here, we ran it all the way down the field because they were having a hard time stopping it. The thing that made that backfield special is they could all block and they could all carry the ball and they could all catch. Whoever the lead back was set an edge really well and did a great job. They just really had a good feel for it and they were all tough – great ball carriers and very physical guys.”
It was only when our chat got to the teamwork of long ago that Tedford really perked up. I sensed that he doesn’t care all that much about who has the most 100-yard rushing games or the most career touchdown receptions in Fresno State history. I sensed that Jeff Tedford knows what history really cares about – winners.
And winning means teamwork.
“I think a lot of people felt it was an upset for us to beat USC,” Tedford said. “But I don’t know if it really was because we had great players. We were physical up front, good skill players, a great quarterback, good defensive guys. We were a good football team. And they did a great job. I remember all the plays – T Heavy right, lead it 4, lead it 5, man it 9. I mean all these plays – the T Heavy thing was ingrained. It was part of us. That was Coach Sweeney’s baby. He really took a lot of pride in that.”
There’s a worthy legacy to inspire today’s young men.