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Fresno draws a Latino fan base The logo stands

Fresno State, which has built its pride in football, won't let its symbol be co-opted

September 27, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO -- The Fresno State Bulldogs logo is a fierce-looking creature, even with a collegiate red sweater with a green "V" on his chest.

The "V" represents the Central Valley and its blue-collar workers -- among them hardworking Latinos, many of whom came to the valley to work in the agricultural fields and who have adopted the Bulldogs as their athletic team of choice.

"Whether you went to Fresno State or not, up here you root for Fresno State," said Jose Plascencia, incoming president for the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Plascencia received a master's degree in business from Fresno State but said that even if he didn't, "I'd still wear the Bulldog with pride. It stands for the community."

It also has come to stand for something else:

Membership in a large and notorious Central Valley gang called the Bulldogs.

Beginning in the 1980s Fresno State's fearsome mascot became a symbol of gang violence.

About two years ago, city officials and the police department began a public crackdown on the gang and even now grade school and high school students here can't wear Fresno State gear to school.

It isn't a subject Fresno State coaches or officials shy away from.

"We'll help the police in whatever they need to do," football Coach Pat Hill said, "but since the time I came here my point has been to make Fresno State the team for everyone in the Central Valley, whether they are white or black or Hispanic or Hmong."

Hill, who brings his 25th-ranked Bulldogs to the Rose Bowl today to play UCLA, has always had grand visions for his used-to-be-easily-overlooked football team.

When he came to Fresno 12 years ago, Hill promised to "play anyone anywhere any time" and eventually get the Bulldogs into a major bowl game even though they play in the Western Athletic Conference, which is not part of the Bowl Championship Series.

That mission isn't totally accomplished, but it no longer seems impossible.

And Hill has other visions now.

As he drove his red Hummer to his Monday radio show at a local kitchen and bath display showroom -- pizza and salad served on display counters while questions arose about the defensive line and last week's dramatic 55-54 double-overtime win at Toledo -- Hill was excited about a new spin on an old idea.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, Hill said, if Fresno State football could mimic Notre Dame football?

"What if we became the national program for Hispanic fans, like Notre Dame is for Catholics," Hill said. "What if Telemundo or Univision became our television station, like NBC became Notre Dame's television station. I think it would be great if Telemundo or Univision wanted to televise all our games, buy naming rights to our stadium.

"Of course we don't condone any gang behaviors or affiliations, but that Bulldog logo has been with us forever."

Hill suggested that the living school mascot, a real bulldog named Victor E. Bulldog who wears a Fresno-red sweater with an "F" on it at athletic events, add a dog tag to his collar with a green letter "V" to represent the valley's agricultural workers.

Paul Ladwig, associate athletic director in charge of broadcasting and external relations, said the school is always in discussions with Fresno police and gang experts.

"No one has ever suggested we get rid of the Bulldog," Ladwig said. "What we've been told is that if we changed, the gangs would just change."

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, who played football at University of Pacific with USC Coach Pete Carroll, said the city and the university have "declared war to get that logo back."

Autry said because of his love of sports, particularly football, the idea that a gang would appropriate a college logo "hit close to me, to my heart, and to have it especially in this city, it's not right."

In Fresno and the surrounding Central Valley, there are no pro sports or other major-college football teams, so Autry said, "That kids can't wear the colors of their college team to school, that's just not right and we have to keep working on that."

Fresno State Bulldogs gear is ubiquitous around the city. Inside a local convenience store this week there were six customers -- five wearing Fresno State caps or T-shirts. At a Chinese restaurant, there were 15 customers -- eight wearing Fresno State caps.

"It's my team," Eduardo Villareal said. "I didn't go to college, but the Bulldogs stand for winning in the valley."

Plascencia said that the Fresno State program was a point of pride for most Latinos in the area.

"Our [Chamber of Commerce] figures show that on a football game day the crowd is about 30% Hispanic," he said. "When immigrants come here I find they very quickly start to associate themselves with Fresno State.

"When the baseball team won the NCAA championship last summer, the excitement was everywhere. I think the entire valley was wearing the Bulldog with pride."

Plascencia said he understood there was some pressure on the university to alter the logo in an attempt to distance it from the Bulldogs gang affiliation.

"But that doesn't make sense either," he added. "That logo is a point of pride with a lot of good people."

Fresno State President John Welty said that the university is proud of the Bulldog and of its relationship with the diverse community.

"We have a problem in our community that is not unlike problems in other cities," Welty said. "And we've got a great athletic program that is a uniting force in the area. The Bulldog means pride for a lot of people."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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NO. 25 FRESNO ST. VS. UCLA

Today at the Rose Bowl

12:30 p.m., Channel 7

Get in the game live! Go to latimes.com/sports before the game to get up-to-the-minute team and player statistics, play-by-play and more.

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