POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 1, 2012
FRESNO, Calif. » If you peer closely at a section of the sidewalk behind the Duncan Athletic Complex at Fresno State, you can make out a message long ago scratched in the cement.
"Play hard! (signed) Pat Hill" it reads near the spot where he used to park his Bulldog-red Hummer.
Hill, then the Bulldogs' tenacious head football coach and an architect of its national visibility, showed it to a visiting reporter in a melancholy moment nearly a decade ago, saying he wanted to leave behind something to "someday show that I was here" while urging future teams on.
These days, barely 11 months after Hill was let go in the wake of a 4-9 finish, change has been so deep and sudden that the message sometimes seems like one of the few reminders that Hill not only called the shots for 15 seasons but was the determined face of the program.
Hill, with his trademark Fu Manchu and creased ball cap (with game scores written on the visor), has been succeeded by clean-shaven Air Force Academy graduate Tim De Ruyter.
The rookie head coach has put his graduate degree in marketing strategy to use, changing the offense, overhauling the defense and slapping his own brand on the program's turn toward revival.
At 6-3 (4-1 conference), bowl eligible and still in the running for the Mountain West Conference title, the 49-year-old DeRuyter is, by far, the most successful of the four new head coaches in the conference this season. It has been a transition so seamless as to be remarkable.
That Hill, now an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, bequeathed him a proven quarterback, Derek Carr; a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, Robbie Rouse, and 15 returning starters hasn't hurt.
De Ruyter has complemented the considerable talent he inherited with schemes designed to showcase their abilities, challenge for championships and bring back fans.
The knock on Hill, who was a solid 112-80 in 15 seasons, was that he was too conservative on offense. The feeling was that even though the Bulldogs rarely had a losing season, they were too often stuck in a 7-5 rut. And for the feisty "anybody, anyplace" scheduling of nonconference goliaths, the Bulldogs didn't take care of business where it mattered, sharing just one conference title (1999) in his tenure.
So DeRuyter, who was not the favorite for the job, captured the position selling the Bulldogs on a 180-degree shift in schemes and philosophy. The pro-set offense has been replaced by the no-huddle spread; a 3-4 attacking defense has succeeded the 4-3; conservatism has given way to a fourth-down fearlessness and a vow to compete for titles is Job One not a secondary target.
"To me, if I'm a head coach in any league, the primary goal is to win your own conference," De Ruyter said. "I just want to make it very, very clear that as long as I'm here that is going to be our No. 1 goal."
The offense, averaging almost 80 plays a game, averages 37.6 points and 475.4 yards per contest with Carr throwing 26 TD passes. The defense is tied for the NCAA lead in interceptions with 16 and has run back five for touchdowns.
For all the statistical high points, the turnaround was best illustrated in many Bulldog minds last week in Albuquerque, N.M., where the Bulldogs rallied from a 21-0 deficit to win, 49-32, marking one of the biggest comebacks in school history.
Now we wait to see how De Ruyter might write his name in Bulldog lore on the foundation Hill helped build.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com or 529-4786.