Fresno, California, is a Class B drive-through town. Class A drive-through towns are located on an interstate highway. Think Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup, and all other cities in the Class A category, offer the innocent pilgrim an easy, undisturbed passage through their dominion. To get to Fresno, traveling north to south, requires the driver to exit I-5, turn east, travel over farm roads until reaching the outskirts of the aforementioned metropolitan area where one is forced to crawl, stoplight to stoplight, until downtown is reached, assuming downtown is where you want to go. From the south, merely exit I-5 at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade onto crowded, potholed Highway 99, and do your best from there.
Last month the Brookings Institution published a report, based on the 2000 census, that said Fresno has the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. In other words, there are more neighborhoods in Fresno where 40 percent or more of its residents have incomes below the federal poverty line than any other city in the nation. To give you an idea how bad that is, city number 2 is New Orleans.
Fresno is big for a Class B drive-through town: 460,000 municipal population, 1,000,000 metro, yet no one you've heard of was born there or lives there now. Fresno's major university, officially known as California State University, Fresno, plays Division 1-A football in the Western Athletic Conference, a Class B athletic conference.
And yet, from this improbable place, comes a team that has a chance to change its world in one afternoon. I'm talking about the Fresno State Bulldogs versus the No. 1 ranked defending national champion USC Trojans, this Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
It's all been going along so smoothly for college football. Undefeated USC. Undefeated Texas. Two undefeated teams, ranked No. 1 and 2 all year, playing each other in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
It will be cliché heaven. Media loves cliché heaven, as do corporations and consumers. "Match-up of the century." "Collision Course." "The Granddaddy of them all." The despised Bowl Championship Series (BCS), is rehabilitated, the status quo is reinforced, and best of all, everybody keeps their job for another year. Go TroHorns!
But, there is, if you squint and look to the north, a diminutive rain cloud on the horizon. By golly, it's a class-B-drive-through-town kind of a rain cloud. The malcontents at Fresno State, led by head coach Pat Hill, have built a national football program that has a chance, on any game day, to beat any other team in the country. Let us break for a moment and consider how hard it is to belly up to the bar and drink with the likes of Ohio State, Miami-Florida, Okalahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida State, and Alabama.
In order to hang with those programs, you have to recruit the best high school players in North America and do it year after year, decade after decade. The upper ranks, say the top 15 college football programs, play semi-pro ball. No freshman quarterback, running back, or wide receiver is attending that college in order to become a doctor; they're coming on board to try out for the NFL. This is a bonus in some ways because once your college is in the fraternity, no matter how obscure your location, you'll stay a member until things change. Which explains why Norman, Okalahoma, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tallahassee, Florida, and Columbus, Ohio, are home to top-tier collegiate football programs. Once you're in the fellowship, prospects are eager to sign because you're a known NFL farm team.
But getting there, that's the rub. It must have been fun, back in the beginning, to watch Coach Hill sell, say, the top high school quarterback in Los Angeles. "Come to Fresno and enjoy our wide boulevards and urban nightlife. Proudly tell future employers that you've earned a degree from California State University, Fresno! Glory in competitive college football with yearly match-ups against the likes of San Jose State and Idaho. Get noticed by NFL scouts by way of Fresno community access cable television!"
But, the Bulldogs have arrived. Fresno State is ranked 16th by the AP and USA Today. They're 8--1 this year, their sole loss, by three points, was to No. 10 Oregon. By the way, being ranked is not a new thing. Last year Fresno reached No. 17 and they climbed to No. 8 in 2001. They've been in or near the top 20 long enough so they can recruit by saying they're a top-20 program. A virtuous circle.
USC is favored by 24 points, but Fresno has absolutely nothing to lose. They play, and beat, nationally ranked teams every year. They could flat-out win this one. Or, perhaps, USC will look toward the Rose Bowl and ignore a Class B drive-through town's state college to the point of defeat? I wouldn't bet on either proposition, but you gotta watch.