by Matthew Kenerly
San Jose State Spartans (3-8, 2-5 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (1-10, 0-7 MW)
November 26, 2016 – Bulldog Stadium (41,031) – Fresno, California – 12:30 PM PT
Nothing lasts forever, not even unparalleled humiliation. That such embarrassments on occasion come to an end under the threat of a late November downpour, as Fresno State’s football season now appeared set to do, only adds insult to injury. The city, by and large, had already turned its attention span elsewhere – to the revitalized Oakland Raiders, led by former Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who were in the midst of surging toward their first NFL playoffs appearance since 2002; to Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and the Golden State Warriors or to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – to any form of entertainment over which you wouldn’t have to agonize.
If only I could have done the same. Four hours before kickoff on this dreary Saturday, possessed of rare fatalistic certainty about everything that would happen in the afternoon to come, I began to prepare for the absolute worst one last time instead, rubbing the sleep from my eyes in bed.
Gilliann held her phone aloft next to me, arms extended above her resting body, browsing Facebook, more clearly ready for the day.
“Last one?” she asked, scrolling through her timeline with an idle finger.
“And you’re really going to go out there?”
I rolled to my side and threw an arm around her, allowing myself a deep sigh. “Already have the tickets,” I answered, “So I might as well. Still not too late to change your mind, though.”
She loved nature, but she also possessed no desire to entertain the threat of even a light drizzle without so much as an umbrella to protect her. Those were a prohibited item, right there with video cameras and artificial noisemakers, a much more sensible ban in sunnier times, so she flashed her most loving “yeah, no” smile.
A day earlier, I’d also asked a friend of mine if he wanted to tag along as a birthday gift and, at first, he seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of tailgating and attending the game at no cost to him. Then he saw the weather forecast, too, and texted me his response.
“I’m gonna have to pass on attending. Sitting in the rain for that game doesn’t sound enjoyable lol”
Well… yeah. Enduring the game would be an act of devotion for the rarest breed of Bulldogs faithful and, clearly, our numbers had dwindled. That realization crystallized when I prepared to buy a ticket online, mere hours before that first polite rejection, and instead stumbled across a mammoth steal. Whether inspired by the holiday spirit or by desperation, the Bulldog Shop near campus had made a quiet promise to bargain hunters on Twitter: Buy something at our store today, anything at all, and we will give you two free tickets to the Bulldogs’ season finale. Anything. On the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. The value of experiencing Fresno State football in person had cratered to Bandcamp territory, to “pay what you want”.
If you’ve ever been to a campus-affiliated apparel store anywhere in America, you can picture the Bulldog Shop already: A wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling explosion of licensed red and blue kitsch, the primary color rush broken here and there by racks of Nike “Blackout” Davante Adams replica jerseys and rows of green ag-themed baseball caps, prices slashed to move product, with just enough room between racks to navigate the space. When I visited the store at twelve o’clock on the busiest shopping day of the year, the space sat empty save for two glazed employees and me. The average American had dropped $935 on a legion of gifts before dawn that day, but it looked like no one else in this metropolitan area of 600,000 people felt the subsequent need to take advantage of a literal giveaway. I stood in front of a partition stuffed with keychains and magnets and debated the ethics behind basic economics, how best to exploit and then justify that rare imbalance of high supply and low demand.
Buy a New Era 59Fifty baseball cap, $34.99 plus tax, get two free tickets.
Buy a Bulldogs fleece blanket, $24.99 plus tax, get two free tickets.
Buy a Fresno State script lanyard, $5.99 plus tax, get two free tickets.
I stood there for twenty minutes.
Across the street at Bulldog Stadium, some players took part in one of the program’s longest-running traditions, the Senior Tackle. Since Pat Hill’s first season as head coach in 1996, graduating seniors have received the opportunity to address their families, peers and coaches and then tackle a padded dummy one last time. If the nine-game losing streak diminished their enthusiasm to take part, you needed to look hard to see it. Linebacker Jeff Camilli exhibited the textbook form, wrapping up around the middle, that had enabled him to rack up 96 tackles to that point; receiver Michael Martens mustered an “RKO outta nowhere”, flying past the dummy and reaching back over his shoulders for a Randy Orton-style takedown; cornerback Alan Wright offered a pre-tackle shimmy. Even at the end of a crushing year, they continued to believe that the season could end on a high note and carried themselves with confidence. And why not? The bill for a San Jose State beatdown was long overdue.
Among the three California State Universities still playing football at the FBS level, the San Jose State Spartans have never enjoyed the same peaks that its brethren in Fresno and San Diego have reached. While the program never fell below .500 from 1932 to 1950, enjoying its best year ever with a 13-0 record in 1939, their longest streak of winning seasons since the Second World War lasted just five years, from 1978 to 1982. Even worse for the boys in blue and yellow, the advantage they enjoyed over the Bulldogs in their rivalry, which stretches back to 1921, evaporated when Fresno State won eighteen of twenty games from 1988 to 2010.
In Fresno, the most common attitude toward the “Hosers” is a dismissive one, even in spite of the inconvenient fact that recent fortunes favored the Spartans. Mike McIntyre, hired in December 2009, improved the team from one win in 2010 to five in 2011 and eleven in 2012, engineering the program’s first Associated Press Top 25 finish ever. His successor, Ron Caragher, won the Valley Trophy, a silver-colored and reflective “V” engraved with grapevines on one half and circuit board traces on the other, when the programs debuted it in 2013, derailing the Bulldogs’ last best chance at a Bowl Championship Series berth in an infamous 62-52 shootout.
Then, two years later, San Jose State running back Tyler Ervin ran for a school-record 300 yards in a second dismantling of the Bulldogs. Even if the Spartans had not yet claimed a conference championship or even a winning season since joining to the Mountain West in 2013, having a rival’s number always counted for something. And even if coaches hadn’t hurt themselves vying for these bragging rights lately, as Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney had pulled his hamstring in a sprint from the locker room to the field in 1987, losing this game yet again would represent the Bulldogs’ worst stretch in the series in 30 years, a shameful ignominy.
It appalled, then, how the weight of that history proved remarkably easy for too many to shrug off. Lots of people remembered Ervin and David Fales and Keith Smith and Tyler Winston but it did still sting?
A host of studies have suggested that those who spend money on experiences tend to be happier than those who spend money on things. I had anecdotal evidence to suggest the return on investment for a win, any win, is immeasurable. And Cornell researchers have noted that anticipation carries surprising intrinsic value to experiential investors, but cheapening an experience that no one else wanted still felt wrong. I wanted a good value, but not too much, but I wanted take advantage of this unique situation, but I also wanted to give the program more than the most negligible support.
Guilt and competitiveness finally tag-teamed pragmatism and I purchased a thirty-dollar long-sleeved shirt. At the checkout counter, several stacks of several hundred tickets sat idle and I wondered whether anyone would stop me if I felt bold enough to steal one or two. Then I wondered whether the spirit of generosity, perhaps a mutual understanding of how things were, would compel the cashier to slip a couple extra tickets into my bag “just because”.
No such luck. Section 6, Row 32, Seats 5 and 6. They couldn’t even give me good seats.
On campus, there was little on the walk north from the library parking lot to the allotted tailgating area on Jackson Avenue that distinguished the gameday atmosphere from a sleepy offseason Saturday. El Sonidito, Led Zeppelin and Kendrick Lamar had vanished from the air, replaced by distant conversations and the sound of maple leaves scattered in the wind on the asphalt. Only the hardiest remained and many of these gathered under the lone red tent which marked the BarkBoard’s last get-together of the year.
Aside from the usual crowd – Steve Burnes and his wife, Harry, Jackson and Lucio – and the usual smorgasbord of tri-tip, hot dogs and apple-cinnamon biscuit cobbler, I met Daniel for the first time. He and his son, who couldn’t have been older than six or seven but shared the same shock of red hair, had made a holiday trip to Fresno from their home in North Carolina, making time to see the Bulldogs in their short stay as they had for several years.
“So you’re the infamous Matt, huh?” Daniel said.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Harry interjected. He clasped me on the shoulder in jest. “I don’t agree with what he said about Jeff Tedford, of course, I think the team will be fine next year as long as they can get a quarterback and get the running game going again a little bit.”
It felt good to know that the past two weeks at least hadn’t made me a total pariah. Calling Tedford’s hiring the dumbest move in Mountain West football history might have been the honest and white-hot take, but it had cost me the precious little access I had to the team as a writer and even having readers on my side couldn’t erase the dull remorse I felt by not calling it, say, the riskiest or the most perilous hire. I think everyone there understood better than the fairweather rest, though: Every decision, from coaching searches to play-calling on second and long, either brought you to life or killed you. I’d drawn my line in the sand, so to speak, and others had found their places on either side and that was that.
“I’m telling you, man, the ‘QB guru’ thing is overblown,” I said, “I’m just not seeing it.”
Harry launched into a thoughtful monologue about the incoming recruiting class, which would undergo some transition with a new coaching staff incoming, sure, but would surely hold some appeal to local athletes because they’re actually trying to recruit locally for a change – this staff, DeRuyter’s staff, let Josh Allen leave their backyard and look at what he’s doing in Wyoming now, see? – and that with a little more pro-style offense and a little less of the dang spread, letting the offensive line hit people in the mouth for a change, and that letting Tedford bring in his guys would help everything work out.
“Okay, okay, let me ask you this. What do you think is going to happen today?” I asked.
Harry, optimistic as ever, adjusted his glasses before he answered. “Well, you know, I think Zach Kline is ready to have a big game. Even with the rain, I think. The defense should be able to bottle up that San Jose offense, too, they really haven’t been any good all season, you know, they want to throw the ball but they just can’t protect the quarterback.”
While he spoke, Daniel and his son had a catch with a miniature Nerf-style red and blue football. I watched the younger one’s throws wobble with a high arc, but after several attempts he mustered a near-perfect spiral that hit his father right in the hands. It occurred to me that I might have forgotten about the depths of faith. Football writer Chris Brown once noted that sports can define people in a given culture and we hardy few gathered near the corner of Cedar and Barstow had long ago opened ourselves to a particularly potent vein of joy and outrage and exasperation and discontent. We passed those emotions and allegiances on, as well as our inferiority complexes and our attitude – anyone, anytime, anywhere forever and ever. To be Bulldog born and Bulldog bred ‘til the day you’re dead meant pledging your wallet, your heart, your time, your blood, your clenched fists, your stinging palms, your hoarse voice, to the red and blue that you might someday be validated. If it also meant three or four more hours together in a valley of misery that none of us had ever experienced, so be it.
Section 6, located in the northeast part of Bulldog Stadium, has a capacity to seat almost thirteen hundred fans. Seven people had beaten me to their seats by the time I arrived at the top of the concrete stairwell. Two young men in camouflage hoodies carried on in animated fashion several rows in front of where my seat was located, while a pair of young parents made occasional half-hearted attempts to wrangle their two small children a few rows behind me. Those children contented themselves to reign over the empty bleachers, milling back and forth across the empty stands until plied with hot dogs and funnel cake. The last, an Asian man, sat upright in the cushioned seatback he’d brought with him, arms crossed, staring in silence at the empty pre-game field and the scoreboard which counted down to kickoff. It had the feel of a Mitch Albom knockoff, The Seven People You Meet When Others Want to Believe In A Long-Lost Cause As Much As You.
A panorama of the stands in that moment would have been a grim sight. The crowd, announced at 20,991, looked like a tenth of that if I felt charitable, diminished in the cavernous concrete bowl. San Jose State fans, decked out in Spartan blue and yellow two sections over from me, got loud in the polite silence.
The home finale marked Senior Day, exemplified by a roll call of the team’s graduating seniors before kickoff, and as they trotted down the ramp one by one in the team’s all-black uniforms, they received roses from family and loved ones at midfield and a smattering of applause from the rest of us. No one looked disheartened, so far as I could tell, by the community’s near-total abandonment of them.
And for a time, the Bulldogs played inspired football, stalling San Jose State’s first drive at midfield. Then, on offense for the first time at their own five-yard line, wide receiver Keesean Johnson slipped past a defender and raced to the middle of the field for a 53-yard gain. Though the ‘Dogs fell behind early thanks to a blocked punt, the spread offense that Harry had bemoaned earlier continued to piece things together behind Zach Kline, the graduate transfer quarterback who, as in his time at Butte College, Indiana State and two stints at Cal, had failed to seize the starting role all season. Perhaps no one symbolized this team’s journey better, though: The #3-rated quarterback in the recruiting class of 2012, Kline first lost Jeff Tedford, the Cal head coach that recruited him, before setting foot in Berkeley and then fell short in competition to future number-one overall NFL Draft pick Jared Goff. Then he’d led the defending California Community College Athletic Association champions to a bitter first-round exit the following year and thrown just 13 passes the year after that, returning to Strawberry Canyon in the spring of 2016 just as the Golden Bears brought in another transfer, Davis Webb, who proved a better fit for the Air Raid passing attack like Goff before him.
Defeat, rejection, and the will to keep working, anyway. I never convinced myself that Kline’s presence as the starter now made much difference and, in his first start as an FBS quarterback the week before, he wasn’t the reason Fresno State had blown yet another second-half lead, but I envied the ability to withstand “no”.
Early in the second quarter, Kline completed five straight passes and set up a one-yard touchdown plunge from running back Dontel James to even the score at 7-7. Then the defense forced a turnover on downs near midfield and, moments later, Kline found room to run on a read-option play for his first career touchdown, faking the handoff to James and out-hustling the fooled linebacker to the right corner of the red-and-white checkered end zone, diving shoulder-first across the goal-line before accepting the helmet slaps of his teammates.
Just before halftime, the defense again stopped a San Jose State scoring threat cold when senior cornerback Stratton Brown intercepted a Spartan pass in the end zone. In the first thirty minutes of the game, the soon-to-be-departed had made good with the spotlight upon them for the last time.
And then the rain began to fall.
Minutes before the second half kicked off, the expected storm rolled over the stadium with a quarter-inch of rain and gusting winds from the west at 15 miles per hour which dropped the temperature a full ten degrees. Many didn’t hesitate to bolt for the gates. Without umbrellas or ponchos, I watched the less dedicated hold their jackets overhead while they splashed their way out of sight down Barstow Avenue. Others scurried up the stairwells to huddle underneath the sparse awnings on the east and west side of the stadium. The family and their two children vanished, as did the brothers and the Asian man, but I remained, determined to stick it out despite the fact I couldn’t recall the last time I felt such profound cold.
Gilliann, who’d hunkered into 3% on Netflix while I got flogged by the elements, had understandable concern for my well-being. The comparative irony between my plight and that of the young Brazilian protagonists in her binge, who undergo a series of grueling tests for a salvation that may or may not exist, could be construed as a little on the nose. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my hands shook in the struggle to send every short Messenger reply, that maybe I flirted with hypothermia for… what?
Why was I doing this to myself?
I didn’t have a good reason, in the sense that anyone I knew would understand this kind of “good”. I wanted to push myself in a rainstorm when no one else would, for the sake of a meaningless outcome in which I had no explicit say, because there’s a tie that binds those who witness the lowest lows. At a minimum, I could have a place alongside the sad and lonesome UCF fan who held a sign that said “BEAT SOMEBODY” and the Kansas Jayhawks mascot who pantomimed vomiting in a trashcan at the end of their 0-12 seasons the year before, and it wasn’t until later that I heard the term “hedonic adaptation” but it fits: The intrinsic value of a material good depreciates with prolonged exposure, but the experience, even a dive into lunacy, which lets you say “I was there” endures in memory.
I couldn’t do much but huddle into myself as much as I could as my hoodie, shirt, and jeans soaked through, eyes fixed on the field as the performance devolved into a comical mess. With a 14-7 lead into the third quarter, I veered into superstition, not yelling my support as much as tempering my internal screams – “WHY ARE YOU THROWING SHORT OF THE STICKS?” – with mumbled prayers of “come on, come on” under my breath and groaning to no one when the mistakes began to mount and the haplessness settled back in.
It didn’t take much time at all.
On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, the Bulldogs offense was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct following some belated shoving.
On the first play of Fresno State’s second drive, two Spartans and the rain forced James to fumble just before his knee touched the turf, which would have stopped the action.
On the first play of their third drive, the rain-slick football bounced off of Kline’s hands and would have been another turnover had he not picked it up, stumbled a few steps in a lurching half-circle, and fell for a mere 13-yard loss.
In the entire second half, the Bulldogs would run 22 offensive plays and gain just 32 yards of offense.
The irony is that San Jose State didn’t play much better, the Bulldogs defense doing all it could to carry the limp offense. They hit the opposing quarterback hard enough to send his helmet flying in more than one instance, but the Spartans chipped away at the seven-point lead and seized a 16-14 advantage with three short field goals.
Maybe it’s self-serving to say that I knew this would happen, but I’d seen enough to know that the game would never unfold in any other way. In Eric Kiseau’s four games as the interim head coach, the offense faced four teams – Air Force, Colorado State, Hawaii and San Jose State – that would allow a combined 6.19 yards per play to its opponents in 2016, a figure that would have ranked in the triple digits among 128 FBS teams, yet the Bulldogs would muster just 4.38 yards per play in those four games. To say the offense was dead on arrival on this day, as it had been since Halloween, slighted the dead.
I endured, anyway, hopeful for a favorable bounce or an opportune penalty, willing a break into existence like I possessed The Secret, but as the Spartans forced the Bulldogs to burn their timeouts for one last chance at the win, with ninety seconds and at least 60 yards to go for a reasonable field goal attempt, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time all day and cast a rainbow through the sheets of rain to the east and I remembered an apocryphal quip from football lore.
A reporter once asked John McKay, the first head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, what he thought about his team’s execution sometime in its horrendous early years. The alleged answer? “I’m all for it.” No other fiction could so capture the team’s ineptitude, how far the program had fallen in four short months. Fuck the storybook symbolism, this team had no chance.
On first down, Kline stood in the shotgun at Fresno State’s own three-yard, the running back lined up to his left and three receivers out wide, two left and one right. Isaiah Irving, the Spartan defensive end, forced Jared Rice, who’d stayed in to offer an extra man for pass protection, to lose his footing and sprinted around him, between Rice and the running back, to force Kline’s hand. The quarterback escaped, flushed to his right by the rusher, but he had no choice but to throw it out of bounds toward the sideline.
On second down, three receivers lined up trips left with a fourth to the right. Kline stood in the shotgun once more, this time with a running back to his right. The Spartans rushed four, creating pressure up the middle though they couldn’t put hands on the quarterback. Kline completed just his second pass of the second half, a three-yard hitch that gained nine yards and bled ten seconds from the game clock.
Kline hurried to get everyone ready for third down, the receivers hustling to a bunch formation, and then attempted one of the worst quarterback sneaks I had ever seen. He never so much as lowered his center of gravity before two Spartans collapsed the interior, ensuring he had no place to run, and a linebacker wrapped him up behind the line of scrimmage. That erased another twenty seconds from the clock.
On the season’s last play, the shotgun snap once again went through Kline’s hands. The slick football hit him right between the numbers on the front of his jersey, then skirted away from his fingertips. He picked it up on a bounce but went nowhere, swallowed up by three Spartans who then sprinted off the field with arms aloft, the victory secure.
I can’t say I watched it all in stunned silence. Resignation sounds more accurate. The Spartans knelt in the victory formation, running the clock to zero, and the athletes in white, blue and yellow held the silver “V” aloft on their sideline for their adulating fans while the Bulldogs ambled off their field, the book on their miserable campaign finished, closed, and shelved forever.
One win, eleven losses.
In his postgame recap for the Fresno Bee, Robert Kuwada estimated that the crowd which had stayed for the game’s bitter conclusion numbered about 200, less than half of one percent of the stadium’s capacity.
Two days later, the athletic department distributed an official release on Twitter in the form of an Apple Note:
Head football coach Jeff Tedford met with the current football staff on Monday and informed the group that they will not be retained for the 2017 football season.
A national search is underway to fill all vacancies.
The anticipated date for new hires are in early December.
“I would like to thank Coach Eric Kiesau and his staff for the hard work they put forth during a difficult season,” said Tedford. “Their dedication to their craft and tireless effort to keep their team engaged was commendable.
“As we move forward, I felt it was best for this program to have a fresh start as we start to build for the future.”
I didn’t need a release, though, to know Black Monday was a foregone conclusion on the long on the long trudge back to the parking lot. The rain lightened up and, once I got feeling back in my fingers, I let Gilliann in on the news:
“well that was kind of a given no”
“Need/want anything before I get home?”
“I could use a burrito”
“I’m sure you could, too lol”
Also yes. I got in the car and started the engine, putting my hands up to the vents and hoping it wouldn’t take too long for the air conditioning to thaw me out. Paul Loeffler and Pat Hill aired out their last laments on the local radio broadcast while complimenting the fine young men for all of the work they’d put in during one of the toughest episodes anyone in the Central Valley had ever seen. I couldn’t see in that moment how 2017 would be much better, but the next iteration of the Fresno State Bulldogs football team could not possibly be any worse. And in any case, spicy shrimp could tide me over for the next little while.
Matthew Kenerly is the Reading and Writing Center Coordinator at Madera Community College. He is also a writer and editor for Mountain West Wire, a part of USA Today’s Sports Media Group, and received his MFA from Fresno State, where he served as social media coordinator and assistant managing print editor for The Normal School literary magazine.