Remembering the great Jim Sweeney

The weather was a little blustery and temperatures seemed to be dropping, likely because of the bite from the wind.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade of 1989 was lining up on East Park and onlookers clutched their coats to keep warm during the bustle of preparations. Parade Marshal Jim Sweeney asked a wandering reporter if he had, perhaps, been searching for him.

Sweeney was the head football coach at Fresno State, second term, at the time and so successful the school named the stadium after him. The Butte native, a bona fide Hall of Famer in several shrines, was also well-liked and a top-of-the-line storyteller. Noted sportswriter John Blanchette once described in the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane when asked if Sweeney had been a popular coach at Washington State in the hard-to-win reaches of the Pacific 8 or 10 Conference: “Is port popular on Skid Row?”

The not-afraid-of-the-grit Sweeney probably liked the story. On this day, though, time was chipping away off the clock in rapid ticks, it seemed, as the reporter struggled to keep his notes dry on a legal pad exposed to the elements.

“Bruce, Jim,” came a call from over my right shoulder. “Come over here.”

Sweeney and I walked to the sidewalk from the middle of Park Street where we’d been standing.

“Here, let me unlock the door,” said Tony the Trader as the shiver from the cold caused his fingers to tremble and fumble for the keys to the door of his building located on the intersection where the parade as to begin. “You can do your interview in my store.”

Sweeney passed away last Friday at age 83 and was one of the more famous sports figures from Butte, a town proud of such prodigy. The Fresno State stadium is named for Sweeney, the Colorado State field for Sonny Lubick, making Butte probably the league-leader in the Mountain West Conference for such a category.

We talked easily that day. He could have that kind of effect. A few years earlier, Sweeney had been a rumored candidate for the head coaching job of the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. Between stints at Fresno State, Sweeney spent two years coaching Oakland Raiders special teams and one in the same position with the Cardinals.

“Coaching in the pros is the easiest coaching there is,” Sweeney said in that St. Paddy’s Day interview. “You don’t have to teach anything. Everybody there already knows how to play.”

Sweeney took himself out of the running because, “I didn’t want to live in the East anymore,” he said. “I like the West.”

So, the Fresno State job had become open again and the Bulldog faithful still loved Sweeney, too. He took their offer. Not too long after, the Cardinals announced they were moving to Phoenix and becoming the Arizona Cardinals.

“If I’d have known they were going to move to Arizona, I might’ve taken it,” he said.

Sweeney was highly successful at every level of football he coached, beginning with Butte Central in the early 1950s and continuing on to Class AA Flathead High in Kalispell, then Montana State at the NCAA Division II level, Washington State, Fresno State and the NFL.

Retired Montana coach Don Read was a devout Sweeney fan. He said they often spoke at clinics together and popped into each other’s football camps to help one another. They crossed paths on the recruiting trail often.

Read was coaching college ball in Oregon, at Oregon or Portland State, I can’t remember which now. He was at both before signing on with the Griz. This particular job, however, took him to California and into Sweeney’s Fresno neighborhood. Read contacted Sweeney and Sweeney invited Read to his office. It was a new one, part of a new or renovated complex in Fresno and the fresh coats of paint were barely dry.

Read said Sweeney’s office was painted white. They sat in the office and talked football and it was summer, a more relaxed atmosphere and Sweeney kept a few beers in a dorm fridge in his office just in case old friends might stop by, Read alluded.

They discussed offenses, defenses and X’s and O’s. Then they went a step farther as they explored the intricacies of the various sets and alignments. Sweeney opened a drawer to his desk and pulled out a black marker.

By the end of the afternoon, the freshly painted white walls in the office were covered with diagrams of football plays.

Sweeney was a noted Grizzly-beater in his stay at Bozeman. A couple of years back, Ray Ueland played host to a Butte coaching legends gathering at the Metals Sports Bar & Grill. I was fortunate to also be invited.

While I talked with some of the other living Butte famous, all of a sudden I heard the Grizzly Fight Song being belted out from the middle of the restaurant. I turned around and spotted Sweeney, the Bobcat royal, keeping the tune and not missing a lyric as he sang the verses before rows of smiles, and audible above the laughter.

Sweeney had won again.