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Valley pride runs deep in Fresno

FRESNO, Calif. - In his eighth year as football coach at Fresno State, 52-year-old Pat Hill earns more than most all of us. But he remembers the gritty place he came from.

Hell, he cherishes it.

Living in Salt Lake City more than 25 years ago, Hill dug ditches for $4.50 an hour until a better gig came along - riding the back of a garbage truck for $7 an hour. When he was coaching at L.A. Valley Community College, he supplemented his income by flipping burgers on Tuesdays and bouncing in bars on Fridays.

"I didn't come into coaching with a silver spoon in my mouth," Hill bragged.

Today the coach is a million miles removed from his paycheck-to-paycheck days - and, at the same time, not an inch removed at all. The ditch-digger's mentality still burns within Pat Hill, no matter his income level. It still pushes him toward the day when the little guys - the non-BCS guys - come together and shock the establishment once and for all.

That very mentality gave Hill the inspiration that symbolizes the fearless program from the blue-collar belly of California, tucked between the glamour centers to the south (Los Angeles) and the north (San Francisco). It's what set him to traversing the land between Sacramento and Bakersfield, meeting and greeting and embracing players and coaches and boosters. It's what led him to creating the "V."

If you've seen Fresno State play - and if you're a regular college football watcher on ESPN, you've seen the Bulldogs - you've noticed the green V on the backs on the players' helmets, with a red stripe in the middle. The V stands for the sprawling San Joaquin Valley and its agricultural riches; the red stripe in the middle symbolizes the Red Wave of Fresno support (even if we're a long way from the coast and any waves).

This is the talisman Hill created, the symbol that unites a far-flung fan base.

The Valley is the elongated strip of California middle ground that is home to millions of people and billions of dollars in agricultural riches. The Valley generates 10 percent of the world's agriculture, 60 percent of Fresno's football roster and nearly 100 percent of the Fresno State fan support.

On a grand scale, the world couldn't get along without the Valley, where they are ambitiously working to brand that green V as a worldwide symbol of the area's commerce. On a parochial scale, neither could Fresno State football.

"We've got great support up and down the Valley," said senior safety Nate Ray, himself a Valley product from Colfax, near Sacramento, studying Plant Science - which should lead to a career in agriculture. "Coach Hill sees us as being big enough as making this to the valley's team, and it sure is."

Few college football teams, if any, play for such a diverse fan base. You can hear Shania Twain warbling from one tailgate party, Lynyrd Skynyrd from another and an eight-piece mariachi band, singing only in Spanish, from a third.

Fresno is about 37 percent Hispanic, and the university's enrollment is about 30 percent Hispanic. Go outside the city limits and into Fresno County, and that number jumps to about 45 percent.

"We're the only game in town," said Frances Pena-Oldin, who helps run Fresno State's Chicano Alumni Association.

Not just the only game in town - the only game in the valley. Which is why fans from the dairy community of Visalia, 35 miles away, come to tailgate before every home game.

The group eating fajitas and drinking margaritas numbered nearly 250 Friday night, on hand to see the Bulldogs massacre abysmal Hawaii 70-14. The dairy farmers have raised a lot of money for Fresno State football, but they're not your typical well-heeled booster crowd.

In fact, they're part of an inverse game-day migration.

At a lot of places, the well-heeled boosters come in from the cities to the college towns for the football games. Here, the boosters come in from the fields and farms to a city of about 500,000, in a metro area of about 900,000.

Most towns, you call an institution of higher learning a cow college and it's an insult.

For Fresno fans, it's the highest compliment.

At the Fresno State tailgates, the guys wearing the mesh John Deere hats aren't trying for some Ashton Kutcher, faux-redneck chic. They're legit. You get the feeling Fresno fans are much more likely to drive Deeres than Beamers or Benzes.

It's as if a slice of the Midwest has been dug up and transported to the West Coast - and upgraded. The output value of crops in Fresno County alone is greater than that of the entire state of Iowa.

The San Joaquin Valley produces a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, ranging from blueberries to tomatoes. It is home to massive dairy farms. And, yes, they do raisins. There is a glass display case in the Fresno airport honoring Sun Maid raisins.

When the agricultural community wants to play, the sprawling valley comes together over Fresno State football.

"Support the valley - that's why Pat put the V on the helmet," said dairy farmer Roger Fluegel of Visalia. "In the valley, we're a little more prideful of where we come from. In Los Angeles and San Francisco there's a wider variety of things to do.

"Pat Hill's personality fits our group: no excuses, work hard, go after it. That's what he's about."

Hill is a fine coach - but probably a little too gritty, a little too spit-in-your-eye salty for the big-time schools to ever hire. Which is fine with him. The guy with the Orange County Choppers Fu Manchu mustache fits this place snugly.

They play with a chip on the shoulder here in the overlooked middle of California. They play hard and tough and a little nasty - evidenced by the five personal-foul penalties against Hawaii. The Bulldogs lead the Western Athletic Conference in penalty yards.

The fans are part of that hard edge. Two years ago, Hawaii coach June Jones insists that a screwdriver flew out of the stands in Bulldog Stadium and nearly hit him. The implement of destruction was not found, but the athletic director at the time apologized anyway. Serving beer at the concession stands certainly does not diminish the rowdiness.

But the chip extends past the stands and down onto the field. Fresno will never be invited to play in the Pacific-10, and it will never get the in-state big boys like USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford to come play a game here. Most of the players on the team were similarly snubbed by the glam schools.

"We're the second tier as recruits," Ray said. "But guys are proud of where they're from and being able to represent our area. … There are no pro teams here, so the Bulldogs are the biggest show around."