The cell phone signal squawks and Pat Hill is talking faster than Joan Rivers after three cups of coffee.
He says he's on his way to Visalia to preach the power of Fresno State football, the program he's validated the past decade. Before the miracle of Fresno State baseball, there were always Hill's Bulldogs, the "we'll play anyone, anywhere and anytime" team.
"What the baseball team did was a great accomplish-
ment. I hope we can pick up momentum from them," Hill said. "The year after I became head coach (1997), Margie Wright's softball team won the national championship. If baseball and softball can do that, anything is possible."
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As we've known since Hill jumped into the Doghouse, he's the quintessential "anything is possible" guy. He wins with All-Americans and under-recruited prospects. His teams play hungry, like they've skipped two meals. Then again, he coaches hungry.
Hill is barnstorming the valley this week, from Bakersfield to Los Banos to Turlock, on his Bulldog "caravan." He's selling the entire Fresno State brand, Hill's favorite subject.
"We want to make sure Modesto is on board with us," Hill says. "The Modesto area has been very good to us over the years. We want your people at our games."
See what we mean?
Hill's tour couldn't be better timed. The Cinderella baseball team has made the school hotter than Texas chili and, by the way, didn't we see Hill's green "V" for "Valley" stamped on the baseball helmets?
Yes, it's good to be a Bulldog these days — if you bypass Fresno State's usual array of off-the-field administration issues — and Hill is working this smoke-filled room. Unlike many coaches, he craves the preseason attention his team is generating this summer. Non-BCS schools like Fresno must begin with high expectations, in this case a top-25 preseason ranking, to reach their goal — a BCS payday on New Year's Day.
Boise State and Hawaii, Fresno State's colleagues in the Western Athletic Conference, have drunk from the BCS trough. Meanwhile, Fresno State has beaten 12 BCS schools since 2000 (second to Utah's 13 among non-BCS programs) but still hasn't received a BCS bid. Worse, Hill's teams — for all their spectacular success — haven't yet annexed an outright WAC title.
Which is why Hill is pounding the valley pavement.
"In other sports, there are playoffs. In our sport, the playoffs start on Labor Day," he said. "We can't afford any letdowns. We gotta be 1-0 every time we go out there. You've got a three-hour shot. That's it."
Remember, we're in July, 64 days before the Bulldogs' 2008 opener at Rutgers. Hill is only warming up. He's talking about going undefeated, and how winning them all only works when your opponents are legit.
The last time major expectations were attached to the Bulldogs, they came thisclose to upsetting No. 1 USC (2005), then collapsed like wet cardboard. A four-win season followed in 2006 while Bulldogs critics rethought the merits of their coach. But to Hill, the crisis already had passed.
"I don't know if this sport humbles you or it just puts you in the mind-set to improve," he said, "but we won three of our last four in 2006, and now we've won 12 of our last 16."
The 2008 Bulldogs, featuring 16 returning starters from a 9-4 team that won the Humanitarian Bowl, again will try to crash the BCS party. Hill wants you to know about this. He's not about sneaking up on unsuspecting opponents. He's as subtle as a runaway brushfire.
If you seek a local tie this season, you have six:
Quarterback Tom Brandstater (Turlock), the MVP of the Humanitarian Bowl.
Fullback Anthony Harding (Turlock), the most versatile of Fresno's three-headed ball-carrying talent, along with Lonyae Miller and Ryan Mathews.
Will Harding (Turlock), Anthony's brother, who will see playing time at corner and nickel.
Mark Roberts (Modesto), in the rotation along the defensive line.
Linebacker and special-teams regular Ryan Machado (Ripon), on schedule in his rehab from a season-ending knee injury last fall.
Redshirt freshman Austin Raphael (Jamestown), who will enter the preseason as the back-up middle linebacker.
The schedule is Hill-like, which is to say it's in-your-face-right-now. After the ESPN-televised game at Rutgers, they come home for Wisconsin, then jet to Toledo and ride the bus to UCLA. Before their WAC opener at home vs. Hawaii on Oct. 4, they'll either be a national conversation piece or a footnote.
In Hill's world, perfect.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.
THE AREA'S BULLDOGS
Six locals will play on the Fresno State football team this season. They are:
Name Position Class Hometown High SchoolTom Brandstater
Quarterback Senior Turlock TurlockAnthony Harding
Fullback Sophomore Turlock PitmanWill Harding
Cornerback Senior Turlock TurlockRyan Machado
Linebacker Junior Ripon RiponAustin Raphael
Linebacker Freshman Jamestown SonoraMark Roberts
Defensive Tackle Sophomore Modesto Modesto