FRESNO, Calif. » Amid the shuttered stores, high unemployment rate and economic gloom in of one of the nation’s most depressed areas, the Fresno State football team understands how it plays for more than itself these days.
For 3 hours on a Saturday — like this one when the University of Hawaii comes to town — and beyond, the Bulldogs give the California’s hard-pressed central San Joaquin Valley something to rally around in tough times.
"We play for the valley," Bulldogs’ head coach Pat Hill says. Indeed, along the asphalt path the Bulldogs take from their locker room to the field at Bulldog Stadium is a green wall painted with the slogan, ‘Pride of the Valley.’ On the back of the Bulldogs’ helmets since 1997, when Hill took over, has been a green letter "V" symbolizing the valley and its agricultural base.
But never has Bulldog success meant more hereabouts than now.
Unemployment in the six counties that make up the area is running between 14.3 and 17.4 percent, more than double that of Hawaii and well above the California average (12.4) that is third-highest in the nation, according to U.S. Labor Dept. statistics. The U.S. average in August was 9.6 percent with Hawaii at 6.4.
Two weeks ago, in a painful reminder of the plight, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman told a San Jose newspaper, "Fresno looks like Detroit. It’s awful."
So each victory is cherished and every success taken to heart. Even if it is only until the next foreclosure or layoff hits.
Wherever Hill goes these days fans and just plain folks give testament to the lift the Bulldogs provide when they win. "We’re kind of like Hawaii that way," Hill said, "the people in those two areas feed off what their teams do. You don’t see that a lot of places. But we do. When we do well, people feel it."
When the Bulldogs knocked off nationally ranked Cincinnati in the season opener, it gave a much-needed buoyancy to the area. When the Bulldogs vaulted into some voters’ Top 25 a week later on the way to a 3-1 start, it raised spirits. Even a 38-17 trouncing of Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), a lower division opponent last week, was remarkably uplifting.
When Fresno State was invited to join the Mountain West Conference, it was seen here as a wider indication that things will get better. "It was like, ‘hey, things might not be so bad,’ " said Paul Swearengin, an ESPN 1430 radio host.
This summer the Bulldogs discounted about 800 football season tickets to $100, about half the original price. Still, with the state of the economy, the Bulldogs were bracing for a bruising at the ticket office like the one that resulted in a reported $300,000 deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
But the Bulldog Stadium seats have been filled to a surprising level by red-clad fans. More than 37,000 turned out at the 41,031-seat facility for Cal Poly and a crowd approaching capacity is expected for UH, if the midweek storms clear out, Fresno State officials said.
Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grape Growers said "there’s a lot of pride in the Bulldogs," an attraction people make their plans around and an event they will budget for. The Bulldogs’ popularity and following, he said, cuts across "people in all walks of life, and not just the upper income levels."
Fresno State sociology professor Andrew Jones said "attendance is definitely up" at Bulldogs’ games and interest high. Jones said, "One way you can look at this is that whenever you have bad economic times the kinds of distractions that help people from thinking about the reality of their situations gets ramped up. We call it the bread and circuses effect."
Folks in Fresno understand that people elsewhere are aware of their troubles. Which is why, they say, when the Bulldogs do well it symbolizes how the area is attempting to overcome its challenges, too.
"It is football, but I’ll tell you it brings the community together," said Rick Chacon, an outreach counselor. "In times like this we all need victories."