In the middle of California sits a sprawling city often cast to the side. And in the middle of the city, which sits in the middle of a wide valley filled with farms and dust, stands a dreamer with a Fu Manchu mustache and a sweat-stained cap.
Pat Hill is part football coach, part community conscience. When he talks about what he wants for his Fresno State football program -- opportunity and acceptance, mostly -- he may as well be talking about the city where the team plays.
The city and its 16th-ranked football team look for validation where they can find it. And nothing would bring more positive recognition than defeating top-ranked Southern California on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
"Everyone says, `You have nothing to lose,'" Hill said as dusk and cool air covered his team's practice Tuesday. "We're trying to establish ourselves. We have a lot to lose."
It is the biggest game in the program's history, and the home town is clambering aboard for the ride. As many as 20,000 Fresno State fans are expected to bleed Bulldog red into the Trojan cardinal that typically colors the 92,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. One man secured 900 tickets and reserved 18 motor coaches, to be filled with Fresno State supporters -- the self-dubbed "Red Wave" -- for the four-hour trip south.
"Ever since I've been here, this is the type of game we want," said the senior Paul Pinegar, the program's latest NFL quarterback prospect, following Trent Dilfer, Billy Volek and David Carr. "A big game against USC where we can show the nation who Fresno State is."
In the stratified world of college sports, Fresno State is not USC or UCLA, Cal or Stanford, any more than Fresno is Los Angeles or San Francisco, San Diego or Sacramento. But Fresno State has shown that, when given the chance, it can beat bigger-name schools. And its faithful fans, sensitive to the sometimes sneering attitude toward Fresno by outsiders, happily ride shotgun in the success.
A victory against USC most likely would propel Fresno State (8-1) to a top-10 ranking and to the doorstep of a Bowl Championship Series bid. It would knock USC out of the championship hunt, end its 32-game winning streak and deny it the possibility of a third consecutive NCAA title. It would disrupt college football's order, further exposing what lesser-regarded conferences call inequities in the arrangement. It may augment the argument for a playoff.
That is all part of what Hill dreams.
In NCAA Division I-A college football, 65 teams play in one of the six conferences that are guaranteed a spot in one of the four BCS bowl games and the roughly US$15 million payout that comes with a berth. Another 52 teams, including Fresno State, are guaranteed nothing unless they finish in the top six in the BCS standings, as Utah did last year.
They have to create their own opportunities, forge their own acceptance. Hill's method: "Play on the road, play as tough a schedule as we can and try to go undefeated," he said. "I don't know any other way to do it."
No other team from a non-BCS conference has played, and beaten, so many teams from BCS leagues. Since 2000, Fresno State is 10-7 against them, and 5-5 against ones ranked in the top 25. It has gone on the road to beat, among others, Colorado, Wisconsin and Kansas State during the regular season, and Georgia Tech, UCLA and Virginia in its past three bowl games. It has played before huge crowds, including at Tennessee and at Oklahoma two years ago.
"That's what's great about this program," said Garrett McIntyre, a senior defensive end, "the opportunity to play this kind of a schedule, the `anyone, anywhere, any time' philosophy that Coach Hill talks about."
The Bulldogs have won 14 of their past 15 games, outscoring opponents by an average of 46-16. The loss came in this season's second game, 37-34 at Oregon, now ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. Last week, the Bulldogs ended a four-game losing streak to Boise State, their Western Athletic Conference rival. Combined with the anticipation of this week's game with USC, the victory raised from simmer to boil the long love affair between the city and its team.
Hill, 53, is a fiery former NFL offensive line coach with a keen eye for talent, filling his roster with blue-collar players who went untapped by USC and other Pacific-10 Conference schools. He wears the same red cap all season, writing each week's score under the bill, and by November the cap is faded and stained.
Part of Hill's battle is to convince Fresno State's fans just how far the program has come. It is telling that every big victory is compared to the 1992 Freedom Bowl, forgotten in most circles. Coach Jim Sweeney's Bulldogs, behind Dilfer and in front of an estimated 24,000 Fresno State fans in Anaheim, mauled a 6-4-1 USC team, 24-7.
At USC, it is remembered as the last game for coach Larry Smith. At Fresno State, it is considered the high point, and this week's game is the rematch. It shows how Fresno struggles to balance growth and tradition, even in football. It has not outgrown the good old days.
Today's Fresno, with a metropolitan-area population nearing 1 million, is a diverse and comfortable city of tract homes and strip malls. But it struggles to find comfort in its self-perception. Regional promoters dubbed the area "California's Next Frontier," but the nagging, self-deprecating worry is that Fresno is as close to being forgotten as it is to being found.
It is a three-hour drive to San Francisco in one direction, a little longer to Los Angeles in the other. It is a couple of hours to the Pacific Ocean one way, an hour or so to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks another. Plopped in the immense, fertile and impossibly flat San Joaquin Valley, the land of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Fresno is not a place you find yourself accidentally.
It is a city in the middle of nowhere, yet enticingly close to everything. And, especially this week, the same can be said of its football team.
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