BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 09/15/2017

Thiel: Fresno St. bullies, then twice gets bullied

The Huskies have another lollipop Saturday in Fresno State, which has the weirdest non-conference schedule. Last week, it played Alabama. The week before: Incarnate Word.

The glamor and money of big-time college football is worth a steady pummeling for schools such as Fresno State. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

It’s probably one of the more astonishing factoids in college football this season, but because it doesn’t reflect well on anyone, it isn’t brought up much: The first two seasonal opponents for Fresno State, which plays Washington Saturday at Husky Stadium (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) were Alabama and, ahem, the University of the Incarnate Word.

For those few of you who haven’t heard of the Cardinals of UIW (who said there was no I in UW?), the small, private Catholic school was founded in 1881 in San Antonio by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word as a women’s college. Things went downhill from there.

Skipping ahead quickly, the school is now an NCAA Division I member of the Southland Conference. In the opener of their first season in which they are eligible for NCAA championships, the Cardinals were throttled by Fresno State 66-0. In their second game, Sacramento State beat the In-Words 56-22.

Regarding the schedule of Fresno State, the slaughterer of the Incarnate innocents, the Bulldogs stepped up a bit to face No. 1-ranked Alabama. The 41-10 rout was kept close mostly by the Crimson Tide’s use of third-stringers inserted somewhere between “Oh say can you see” and “by the dawn’s early light.”

And now Fresno State gets to play sixth-ranked Washington, one of the other semifinalists in last season’s College Football Playoffs.

The industry perhaps looks at it like this: For smiting Incarnate Word, Fresno State must be twice punished.

That assessment, however, implies someone would care about competitive integrity. That concept evaporated about the same time as the disappearance of the raccoon coat.

These non-conference mismatches, called paycheck games, provide the smaller school with large cash in exchange for use of their players as tackling dummies in the larger school’s need for a scrimmage game in which they can charge customers full price.

Fresno received $1.4 million to doormat for Alabama, and the Huskies will pay the Bulldogs $1 million for same. No word yet on how much Fresno put in the collection plate for the In-Words.

For Fresno to climb college football’s incredibly lengthy ladder from bottom to top in one week must have induced oxygen deprivation, or the bends, or something. But no, according to their first-year coach, Jeff Tedford. He claims it is a great experience.

“To play two of the top four teams in the playoff last year, back-to-back on the road, I don’t know how many people are doing that,” Tedford told The Athletic. “But it is what it is, and it’s a good experience to put our kids on the big stage and play big-time football.”

As with most industries and nations, massive wealth disparity causes social disorder and dysfunction. Except in college football, where it is blithely accepted as the cost of doing business, as Tedford indicated. The mismatches happen every year; it’s just that in this preseason, Fresno gets to be bludgeoner before twice being bludgeonee.

Huskies coach Chris Petersen doesn’t particularly like taking questions about the subject, suggesting it is all above his considerable pay grade.

“These are tough questions,” he said this week. “I just don’t have any influence in those areas. I haven’t spent a bunch of time thinking about it. I’ve talked about scheduling a lot, about how important those games are to the FCS schools, paying bills and those type of things.”

Sort of in the way prostitution allows women to pay the bills.

Petersen did allow as to how he likes the NFL’s method of leveling the field with payroll minimums and maximums to at least make a head fake toward competitive equality.

“I look at the NFL and admire that situation,” he said. “You have 32 teams, and they’re all on the same page. We have (in NCAA Division I) 120-some teams, all different levels of teams, and they’re making rules for (the biggest schools) and (with smaller schools) they want different things. It’s complicated.

“I do think it’s something everyone needs to be on the same page about. It’s one of the frustrations about college football right now. We don’t get on the same page about most anything.”

And it’s not going to get better. Big-time college football is inexorably pulling apart. The industry has already divided between Power Five conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12) and Group of Five (FCS) conferences (American Athletic, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA, Sun Belt).

Athletics departments in nearly all schools in the Group of Five are running annual deficits because television revenues are meager compared to the big boys. So the colleges need to schedule wallopings in order to keep the various chancellors and regents from shutting down programs that are draining general-fund budgets dedicated to pay for, you know, school.

And the big schools like it because, well, their $4 million coaches don’t like playing Alabama or Washington every week. Unless you’re Fresno State.

Tedford isn’t complaining. He was Cal’s head coach from 2002-12, and spent last year with Washington as a consultant, mostly because of his friendship with Petersen. He knows the paycheck-game cruelties from both sides, but is not paid to care.

“We want to play good teams and compete with them,” he said. “The money piece, I understand the business, but it’s not my job to figure that out. Now that I’m here, hopefully I’ll have more say in what we do with scheduling, But I understand the business and I understand what it’s all about.”

Unfortunately for him, Fresno State and many others in the Group of Five, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay in business. As the Power Five edge closer to complete professionalization, and budgets at smaller schools continue to shrink, there likely will come a time when even annual bludgeonings won’t provide enough green to stem the red ink.


  • Kevin Lynch

    Some very funny lines in here! I chortled through my coffee. Very good summation on the issues, the problems.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for chortling, Kevin. My next goal: Guffawing.

      • Ken S.

        Art – I’ve been reading you since you arrived at the P.I. somewhere back in the late 70’s(? CRS!). I was a long time P.I. subscriber. I was amongst the two or three subscribers in the Everett area back then! Please, don’t quit with the ‘Art-isms’ as I call them. I’d quit reading if that happened! I coined that phrase at an early age – my dad’s name was Art too. My dad’s art-isms were of a different stripe – he was famous (in our family, anyway) for mispronounced names. Like La Jolla Ca or Hors d’oeuvres. He was good with words – IF you liked fonetically pronounced names & places.

  • David Hurth

    Very true observations, although Fresno State has a history of liking these types of games staring with Pat Hill. They even nearly knocked off number 1 USC in 2005, but it seems that the gap is widening between the haves and the have nots since then. One correction in the article is that Fresno State lost to Alabama 41-10 instead of 41-6.

    • art thiel

      We love our little-guy upsets, like Howard over UNLV, but they happen about once every 200 mismatches.

  • Effzee

    Profit uber alles.

    • art thiel

      The mission statement of every Division I school.

  • James Babb

    Terrible article with at least two examples of total ineptitude. You got the Fresno/Alabama score wrong for starters. Secondly, you write your ignorant assumptions as fact… which is as surprising in sports “journalism” as it is in any other sort of journalism in this day and age. The fact is that Alabama and Fresno essentially cleared out their benches at the same time. Alabama gave a series to their backup QB in the 3rd quarter (with the regular rotation intact pretty much at every other position) and quickly pulled him after a single series when Fresno shut down the offense. The truth is that the Alabama starting defense scored a TD on a pick 6, and Fresno’s very classy head coach letthe clock bleed in the red zone at the end of the game after both teams had been playing their third stringers for most of the fourth quarter. The score of that game could have very easily been 34-17 – which still isn’t a win… but it does illustrate that you’re writing your assumptions from reading the box score on or some such rather than your actual game analysis.

    But perhaps most egregious, you have a complete lack of understanding of what FCS means, which means you are defrauding your readers into the implication of personal credibility. Articles like this are an enormous part of the haves/have-nots dichotomy in major college sports. Perception is enormously impactful on fan base enthusiasm, donor support, recruiting, ability to hire quality coaches and admin, etc.

    Fresno had something like 18 first downs in that game. In the early part of the game, they held Alabama to a field goal in the red zone twice if I recall correctly. Their all-world defensive end didn’t have so much as a QB hurry, pitted against Fresno’s Juco transfer guard. Etc, etc. It’s simply nowhere near accurate that Alabama cleared their bench anywhere before late third / early fourth quarter (the same time Fresno did).

    Fresno could never have beaten that Alabama team, but anyone who cares even a little bit about the health and future of college sports should do a better job of (a) knowing the subject about which he’s writing and (b) at least trying half heartedly to conceal his own biases.

  • ll9956

    Great piece, Art. I too had a few chortles.

  • boomerangdad

    The group of five are not FCS, they are FBS just like the power five.

  • boomerangdad

    The group of five is FBS not FCS like, just like the Power five.

  • Howie Seago

    … somewhere between “Oh say can you see” and “by the dawn’s early light.”
    Another classic Arty-fact. Yo!