When the Cal Poly and Fresno State football teams play today, it will be the first meeting between the two since 1985.
One man was around for both the death of a once-heated rivalry and the current resurrection, which is scheduled to continue with another nonconference meeting in 2013: Fresno State head coach Pat Hill.
Prior to stints with Arizona, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens and eventually becoming Bulldogs head coach in 1997, Hill was an offensive line coach in Fresno until 1989.
The Mustangs’ last two games with the Bulldogs came while he was an assistant under Jim Sweeney.
“We played them in 1984, my first year,” Hill said. “It was a heck of a football game. It was a big game The Cal Poly-Fresno State game was a traditional rivalry forever. It’s been a long time coming, but I think it’s going to be a heck of a game.”
Fresno State edged Cal Poly 14-0 in 1984. A 59-10 drubbing the following year by the Bulldogs, which finished as the only undefeated Division I-A team and 16th in the final polls, signaled the end of a period in which the two teams had met 31 times in 33 seasons.
Fresno State holds a 30-10-2 all-time edge, but Cal Poly had its dominant period, when the Mustangs won six of seven through 1979.
One reason why the games stopped was the changing of each school’s financial commitment to athletics.
Since then, Fresno State has built and expanded a stadium that now accommodates more than 41,000, constructed a 17,000-seat on-campus basketball arena, has won national championships in baseball and softball and gained national notoriety for helping pioneer the idea of busting the Bowl Championship Series.
Perhaps more in line with San Luis Obispo’s slow-growth policy, Cal Poly’s athletic department, meanwhile, remained in Division II until the mid-1990s, and the university recently decided to stay in the Football Championship Subdivision by making a commitment to join the Big Sky Conference for the foreseeable future.
Because of the difference, Fresno State by and large is now expected to win with no exceptions. By the same token, Cal Poly is expected to lose and lose big.
But as recent Mustangs opponents San Diego State, San Jose State and Wisconsin can attest, expectations don’t always pan out.
This current series was scheduled when Rich Ellerson, who worked briefly with Hill under Dick Tomey at Arizona, was still the head coach.
Ellerson, now the head coach at Army, never got to play his old colleague; current Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh goes into the game with plenty of experience against Hill and the Bulldogs.
As the head coach at Portland State, Walsh led the Vikings into Fresno four times. While piloting the heavy underdog in each of those games, Walsh suffered the equivalent of four-touchdown losses in 1997, 1999 and 2003.
Portland State gave Fresno State a scare in 2004, though.
“The teams that we had there, we made progress,” Walsh said. “Every time we played them, we played them better until the last time. We lost 27-17 and we actually died with the ball on the 1-yard line.
“When we play any FBS team, we want to be competitive and see if we can get it to the fourth quarter, and once we get it to the fourth quarter, anything can happen.”
Can Walsh finally break through and get a victory over the Bulldogs? Though still a longshot to most, the possibility seems much more plausible after Cal Poly’s 40-14 win at McNeese State than it did after the prior week’s disappointing 21-12 loss at Texas State.
This game is as close to a home game as the Mustangs will get in the current five-game stretch that includes trips to Texas State, McNeese State (Louisiana), Old Dominion (Virginia) and Southern Utah.
Now that Walsh has won his first road game at Cal Poly and snapped the program’s overall eight-game road losing streak, the pressure is off this week.
“It would have been a pretty difficult challenge if we had two losses in a row on the road going into Fresno State,” Walsh said.
“That would make it more difficult, but it was a huge win for where we want to be period in 2010. That would have been a critical loss.”
Though it’s been so long since the Mustangs have played the Bulldogs, one Cal Poly player does have experience playing against Fresno State.
Cal Poly receiver Dominique Johnson, a UCLA transfer, took on the Bulldogs as a Bruin in 2008 but went without a catch as the Bulldogs beat UCLA 36-31 behind 166 yards and a score by Ryan Mathews.
“Even if some players don’t admit it, I think they do look at this as a bigger game,” said Johnson, who leads Cal Poly with 12 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. “It’s a bigger opportunity to get Cal Poly out there.
“We just look at it as a big opportunity to show everybody that we’re not afraid and we can compete.”