COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’86 : Can a Valley Boy Attract the City Slicker Vote? : That’s the San Joaquin Valley and It’s Pride, Kevin Sweeney, Who Is On to Something

Times Staff Writer

Kevin Sweeney’s people tried to get him some time on “Good Morning, America,” but were told it was a little too early in August to start interviewing college football players. They plan to try again later.

The effort alone brings up an interesting question. If Kevin Sweeney were to say, “Good Morning, America,” would Americans even bother to look up from their Wheaties? Good Morning, San Joaquin Valley, maybe. But America ?

Sweeney plays quarterback at Fresno State. He does this quite well. If he passes for 2,320 yards this fall--and he has exceeded that figure each of the past three seasons--he will become the NCAA’s all-time leader in career passing yardage, breaking the mark of 10,579 set by Boston College’s Doug Flutie. The names he hopes to pass along the way include Jim McMahon, John Elway, Chuck Long and Robbie Bosco.

But unless you are from Fresno or own a satellite dish, chances are you’ve never heard of Kevin Sweeney until now. Outside of central California, the Bulldogs suffer from something of an identity crisis. They were the only NCAA Division I team in the country to finish unbeaten (11-0-1) in 1985 but were nowhere to be seen in the final Associated Press Top 20 poll. The United Press International’s final poll of coaches ranked them 16th, perhaps prompting some to wonder just which state Fresno State is in.


Said Jim Sweeney, Kevin’s father and coach: “When we wear ‘FSU,’ they think it’s Florida State. When we wear ‘Bulldogs,’ they think it’s Georgia.”

With that in mind, Fresno State officials teamed with the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. in organizing a whirlwind, East Coast publicity tour designed to promote Sweeney as, get this, a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Now, if you want any chance at all of putting a Heisman Trophy on your mantle, you’ve got to get the Eastern vote. At the very least, you better make sure the Eastern vote knows you exist.

So, Jim and Kevin Sweeney, PCAA Commissioner Lewis A. Cryer, Fresno State Athletic Director Gary Cunningham and Sports Information Director Scott Johnson embarked on a promotional tour that Johnson began working on last February.


It was a feast of media alphabet soup. They met with ABC. They met with CBS. They met with AP, UPI, SI, and spent half of a day with ESPN, which helped them get two of their games on TV.

“We’re selling two or three different angles,” Johnson said. “The father-son thing is new to the East Coast people. There’s the Flutie record, and the unknown, All-West Coast quarterback. Those are mainly what we sold when we went back there.”


So tell us, Kevin, what’s it like playing for your dad?


The Fresno State media guide has a entire page entitled “The Most Asked Questions of Kevin Sweeney.” This one is at the top of the list. Sweeney has spent the past three seasons answering it and has run out of original answers.

No, he doesn’t get treated any differently from the other players on the team. Yes, he’s able to separate the roles of quarterback and son. Yes, Dad still keeps after him about his grades.

But as old-hat as it may seem to the parties involved, this is an interesting relationship. When Jim Sweeney speaks of his quarterback, he calls him “Kevin Sweeney,” as if the last name was merely a coincidence. “I think that makes it easier for him,” Kevin said. “He doesn’t want to sound like a proud father whose son has hit the most home runs in the Babe Ruth League.”

When Sweeney was being recruited out of Bullard High School in Fresno--where he had broken Pat Haden’s state record for regular-season touchdown passes with 35--it came down to staying at home and playing for Dad, or leaving the nest for the University of Washington. Other schools had expressed an interest but backed off, figuring that Father knew best. “And looking back, I understand why they were worried,” Kevin said. “When you’re 18 years old, how do you tell your father you’re not going to play for him?”



Kevin Sweeney vividly remembers Flutie’s Hail Mary pass in Boston College’s nationally televised upset of Miami in 1984. “I was watching the game,” he said. “Unbelievable. The first thing that went through my mind was how those guys (Miami) could let that happen. But I guess that was the magic and mystique of Doug Flutie. It was meant to be.”

The odds of Flutie completing that pass were about the same as, oh, Kevin Sweeney winning the Heisman Trophy. But Sweeney is a much safer bet to pass the thrower of one of college football’s most memorable passes.

Sweeney averaged almost 237 yards passing per game last season. At that pace, he would pass Flutie on Nov. 15 at Hawaii, in the Bulldogs’ 10th game of the season. But as a sophomore, Sweeney averaged 271 yards per game, so it is safe to say the record could fall sooner. Sweeney has yet to take his first snap of the 1986 season, but the countdown has already begun. The Fresno Bee has started a “PASSING FANCY” contest, in which contestants are to guess the game, quarter, and minute of the quarter that Sweeney breaks Flutie’s record. Grand prize is a trip for two to Super Bowl XXI.


Said the subject of all this nonsense: “I’m going to try as hard as I can just to play my game and not worry about it. I don’t want to be thinking, ‘Geez, that was an 18-yard gain, so now I’m at 113 yards and I’ve gotta average so much.’ I’m just going to have to let the media do what they want with it.”


Fresno State is about 190 miles southeast of San Francisco, 220 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and about as far as you can get from the media limelight. This year, that limelight may be attracted to the San Joaquin Valley, and people there plan to soak up as much of it as possible.

It is Jim Sweeney’s hope that whatever attention his son can create by his pursuit of Flutie’s record--or by being considered a longshot in the Heisman derby--will trickle down to some of his other players, and make more people aware that Georgia isn’t the only school with a bulldog for a mascot.


“Kevin Sweeney is serving the football team not only as a leader and a great field general and passer, but also, by his accomplishments, is bringing attention to his teammates and to the football program,” he said.

The younger Sweeney admits that he’s being used. He says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I was skeptical about all the attention at first, because we’ve got some good football players who deserve notoriety,” he said. “Hopefully, with the record and the things coming up, there will be people in here who will give those guys some attention. I know that’s the proper answer to give you, but that’s really what I hope comes out of it.” And, along the way, he probably wouldn’t mind if America became acquainted with Kevin Sweeney.




Player (School) Years Cmp Att Int Pct Yds TD Doug Flutie (Boston College) 1981-84 677 1270 54 .533 10579 67 Brian McClure (Bowling Green) 1982-85 900 1427 58 .631 10280 63 Ben Bennett (Duke) 1980-83 820 1375 57 .596 9614 53 Jim McMahon (BYU) 1977-78 653 1060 34 .616 9536 84 1980-81 John Elway (Stanford) 1979-82 774 1246 39 .621 9349 77 Chuck Long (Iowa) 1981-85 692 1072 46 .646 9210 64 Mark Herrmann (Purdue) 1977-80 717 1218 73 .589 9188 62 Joe Adams (Tennessee State) 1977-80 604 1100 60 .549 8649 81 Robbie Bosco (BYU) 1983-85 638 997 36 .640 8400 66 Kevin Sweeney (Fresno State) 1982- 571 1052 39 .543 8260 51