Sweeney retired after three consecutive losing seasons. He was vocal about his replacement pegging his offensive coordinator and protégé Jeff Tedford as his choice to be the new head coach.
However, Tedford felt he wasn't ready and pulled his name out of the race, and four leading candidates emerged: Brian Billick, Walt Harris, Joe Tiller, and Pat Hill. Only Hill had ties to Fresno State as a former Sweeney assistant coach in the 1980s.
Billick was an NFL assistant looking for his first shot as a head coach; he eventually got it with the Baltimore Ravens and won a Super Bowl after the 2000 season. Harris, the former head coach of Pacific in the early 1990s, was the QB coach at Ohio State at the time. He got the head coaching gig at Pittsburgh in 1997 and led the Panthers to a BCS game in 2004 before moving on to Stanford the next season after being relieved of his duties with Panthers. Tiller was the head coach of Wyoming but pulled his name out of the FS coaching search to take over the same position at Purdue in 1997. He led the Boilermakers resurgence in the Big Ten and earned a Rose Bowl in 2001.
Despite their success, neither would have been the right hire at Fresno State to succeed Sweeney.
Hill was named the head coach in December of 1996, and he immediately went to work on the recruiting trail. The story of him arriving at David Carr's home after his last game as an assistant coach with the Ravens is legend. With his suitcase taped shut and working with no sleep, Hill pitched the Carr family on his dream of Fresno State and why their son was the right quarterback to lead his program.
Carr had offers from Purdue and Washington among others. But despite starring for Bakersfield Stockdale High School, David played his junior high years in Clovis. He used to jump the fence at Bulldog Stadium to play catch on the field he dreamed of playing on. Hill signed him in February 1997 and the rest is history.
Sure Hill never won an outright WAC title, and after the 11-2 season in 2001, Fresno State never won more than nine games or lost fewer than three games. But his mantra of playing anyone, anywhere, anytime put the Bulldog football program on the national map. The national media, including ESPN that highlighted his program on national TV more than 70 times in the last decade, embraced his brand of hardnosed football and underdog mentality.
Hill, with his Fu Manchu mustache and worn red Bulldog hat, was an iconic symbol of Fresno State football and was easily one of the most recognizable coaches in American. With Joe Paterno no longer at Penn State, Hill was the third longest tenured head coach in the FBS behind Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Larry Blakeney at Troy.
With his firing on Sunday, Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh now must make the biggest hire of his career. This is not Bulldog men's basketball. No disrespect to Rodney Terry, but his program doesn't fund the Fresno State athletic budget.
Since Boeh came aboard in 2005, his administration has been running the football program into the ground with budget cuts after budget cuts. Upon his arrival, the Bulldogs' training table budget was soon slashed. The recruiting budget slashed. Above all, the restructuring of the Bulldog Foundation and the Quarterback Club put Hill's program at an extreme disadvantage.
How many other FBS programs cannot afford to stay in a hotel the night before a home game?
How many other FBS programs don't have a training table?
How many other FBS programs don't have a recruiting a budget that allows coaches to recruit in season?
Nonetheless, Hill still produced a competitive team and solid program. But the wins were not up to standards. With his last season of 4-9 in the books, Hill averaged less than seven wins a season under Boeh's watch and never finished higher than third in the Western Athletic Conference.
Was it Hill's inability to take the program higher? Or was it Boeh's continuous budget cuts of the program?
Hill stated throughout his tumultuous season that he was the right man for the job. That no one else could deal with the elements at Fresno State.
We will soon find out if he is correct.
Boeh stated on Sunday that a national firm would be hired to help in the national search for a new head football coach. Will that firm will be based in the great state of Ohio?
There is no need to hire a national firm, especially with the budget restraints the university is enduring. Many candidates will be vocal publicly about their interest in the job. And some will contact Boeh indirectly about their interest.
Expect a few "big" names to show initial interest only to quietly pull their name out and look elsewhere. Fresno State can't afford to pay a coach more than it paid Hill. This isn't Washington State with Pac-12 TV money. Many high paid BCS programs coordinators will make as much or more than the Bulldogs next head coach will.
Expect coaches with Fresno State and/or local ties to show interest. But the current athletic administration has shown a tendency to not hire in that direction. And the administration doesn't seem to favor public opinion evident in the men's basketball coach hire.
Expect to hear names like Steve Mariucci, whose son Tyler is head of major gifts for the Bulldog Foundation, Mike Martz, who is a Bulldog alum and may want out of the NFL, Jethro Franklin, the Miami Hurricane assistant, and former Bulldog All-American defensive end, and Jim McElwain, the current Alabama offensive coordinator, and former Fresno State offensive coordinator.
But will any of them work for less than what Hill made? As well, work under an administration that hasn't shown a commitment to building a stronger football program.
One coach to look at is current New Mexico State head coach Dwayne Walker. His salary and budget constraints at Las Cruces are no better than Fresno State's. Moreover, Walker is a California guy that recruits with the best of them. He has the head coaching experience, coached in the NFL, and he was a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Will he throw his hat into the ring?
Assuming Boeh dips into the only state he seems to have contacts in, maybe he looks at current Ohio linebacker coach Ron Collins. He spent four years as the defensive coordinator at Boise State and five at Colorado under Dan Hawkins. Despite being in Ohio, and coaching under Boeh's last major hire at Ohio, Frank Solich, Collins is a West Coast guy – a graduate of Washington State.
Boeh has already stated candidate names will not be made public. Much like last March and April, the public will be left guessing. Even Rodney Terry was left guessing until he was called and given the job at midnight just hours before he was scheduled to fly back to Texas.
Fans still haven't flocked to the Save Mart Center to watch Terry's team this season, but Boeh can't afford to have a half filled Bulldog Stadium in 2012. The wrong hire could send the Fresno State football program spiraling out of the Mountain West Conference and into depths of the FCS.
At least with Hill at the helm, the program was relevant per se. Without a face, and no ESPN TV as part of the MWC next season, the only way for the Bulldogs to get back into the national picture and fill the stadium is to win and win consistently.
Boeh has to be equally invested. He has overseen the lowest attendance figures in both football and men's basketball at Fresno State in his six years as the athletic director. He desires to return to Midwest. But what major school would hire him if he can't produce successful programs at the WAC/MWC level?
The future of Fresno State football and Thomas Boeh's career will be affected by this monumental hire.
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