We were going through and doing a general cleaning and we came upon a practice jersey from my days playing football at Fresno Sate. We also came upon a t-shirt from my 1977 track & field team at Santa Barbara High School. Those triggered many memories and thoughts about coaching and athlete development as I lived them. Today I am going to write about my college football experience. Latter I will write about the 1977 Santa Barbara high track & field team, a special group of young athletes.
I started playing football at Fresno Sate as a 17-year old freshman in the fall of 1964. For those who don’t know Fresno is a city in the San Joaquin valley. It is an agricultural area, one of the richest and most productive agricultural areas in the country. It is extremely hot there in the summer and fall, days over one hundred degrees are not unusual. Fresno State at that time was around 8,000 students and primarily an agricultural and teacher preparation school. There was a strong tradition in football in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In those days there was no DI, DII, or DII, there was just large school and a small college division. Fresno Sate played in the CCAA conference, a strong conference that included San Diego State who was a national power under future Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell.
I was not recruited. I was a walk on who had been an average player in high who had a dream of playing college football. I was told I could earn a chance to play varsity in my sophomore year. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity in those days. The main source of talent was junior college transfers. The freshman team had twenty-seven players, none of whom were on scholarship. We had two coaches, a head coach and a line coach. We played four games and lost all four. We were outscored something like 120 to 7 – in short we were awful, it was not a talent hotbed of future prospects for varsity. I played offensive center and defensive tackle. I averaged 58 minutes a game playing both ways and on special teams. Physically it was the hardest thing I have ever done, much tougher physically than decathlon that I did after college. It took me three days to get over the soreness after each game.
There was no organized off-season program; we were totally on our own. We had four weeks of spring practice that consisted of four evening practices and a Saturday morning intra squad scrimmage. Spring practice culminated in an alumni game. I was awful in spring practice. I was out of shape after pulling a hamstring (I did not even know what a hamstring was then) the week before practice started, I was overwhelmed and intimidated, but I must have done something right because I made varsity and earned a $50.00 a semester tuition scholarship. Yes you read that correctly tuition was $50.00 a semester.
Fall two a day practices started after Labor Day the first week in September. In those days we only played ten games. I was third string offensive center. I did not make the travel squad for our first game an away game against University of Colorado. My goal was to make the traveling squad especially for the last game against University of Hawaii in Honolulu. I worked my up to second string center and made the travel squad. I played in one game that year about three minutes in a 56 to 0 route of Washburn University. I got to go to Hawaii. It was the first plane flight I ever took. We played them over Thanksgiving. I was three years younger than anyone on the team so I was pretty much on my on when I was there. I walked all over Honolulu. The memory of Punchbowl Military cemetery and the Arizona memorial are etched in my mind. We visited both sites as part of a team tour. We played in the old Aloha stadium on a bare field of red volcanic soil in a rainstorm. We won 10 to 7. We stayed at the Reef hotel on Waikiki. I saved on my per diem so I could take a catamaran ride on the Sunday after the game.
In spring I got my scholarship increased to $200 a semester. It was like I had won the lottery. I actually had a few bucks a week spending money now. We had a coaching change and the new coach, who fancied himself a Bear Bryant disciple, wanted us lean and mean. The previous coach wanted us big and strong. For the first two years I had worked on gaining weight, sometimes eating up six meals a day during the summer. I got my weight up to a peak of 220 for the start of my sophomore season, but since we did no in-season strength training I lost most of what I had gained by the end of the season. That was typical in those days. My junior season under the new coach I was second-string center again, I played in one game that season against Montana Sate, we lost 50 to 0. The quarterback for Montana Sate was Dennis Erickson, who went onto fame as a coach at University of Miami. The kicker, a refugee from the ski team, was Jan Stenerud who went on to along illustrious career in the NFL.
After the season I asked to change positions to offensive guard. I felt that if I was ever going to play I needed to play a position where I could take advantage of my speed. Offensive guards in the offense we ran did a lot of pulling and trap blocking so it was good for me. I earned a starting position that spring and actually graded out as the top offensive lineman. Looking back I realize that I played the best football that spring because we had a new line coach. He was calmer he was a teacher. He cared about you as a person. He took the time to explain things. It made a huge difference and I responded accordingly. Instead of manipulation, domination and control mind games it was motivation and learning. It was actually fun because I was actually being coached. He helped make me better by teaching. That was a bright spot in the whole foootball experience. I had my scholarship increased to $350.00 a semester. In the spring alumni game near the end of the game on a downfield block I got a severe stinger. I lost feeling in my right hand for a week and had terrible headaches all that spring. I was told to suck it up, it would get better, it was just part of the game.
I came into fall practice of 1967, my senior year as the starter at right guard. I was actually mentioned in the Street and Smith College Football preview magazine. I had hit the big time; except for one thing my neck was a mess. I played OK during two a day practices. I was now down to 192 pounds. I certainly was not playing anywhere near as well as I had in spring practice but I held my starting position. Our first game was against University of Santa Clara. I played awful, on the second play from scrimmage their defensive tackle hit me on the side of my head and my arm went numb. I played the first half and was benched in the second half. That Monday I quite the team, that was the end of my football career.
As look back on the experience I learned a lot. Unfortunately many of the lessons learned were negative, what I would not do if I ever became a coach rather than what I would do. It was a brutal experience in many ways - One water break during practice, not being allowed to take our helmets off on 100 degree days, full contact four days a week all season, no regard for injuries, overt racism, constant physical and mental intimidation. I think the sum total of the experience was that it made me want to coach, to give any athletes I worked with the positive experience I did not have during my college career. The only way I could play was to improve my athletic abilities, get stronger, faster and more agile. So I started a quest then to learn everything I could to make myself a better athlete. I read and talked to everyone I could about conditioning. I think the lessons I learned through trial and error about conditioning helped make a better conditioning coach when my career took that path. It was a different time and place, but definitely a formative experience in my career.