Fresno State Athletics
Steve Cleveland is in his second rebuild project.

FRESNO Steve Cleveland never foresaw his role as a basketball coach as The Fixer.

But that's what he's become after jumpstarting BYU's program a decade ago and now reviving Fresno State basketball on and off the court.

Cleveland's Bulldogs host BYU Saturday in Fresno and will reunite Cleveland with his former BYU chief assistant, current Cougars' head coach Dave Rose.

Back in 1997, President Merrill Bateman hired Cleveland from Fresno City Community College to bring BYU back from a disastrous one-win season. In little time, he won two conference titles.

Five years ago, Fresno State was fresh off a run of several head coaches, including Jerry Tarkanian, who placed Fresno State in hoops hell. It became a tumultuous program where players got involved in off-court criminal behavior, everything from drug abuse and alcoholism to robberies, assault, suspensions, academic issues and recruiting violations.

Fresno State's administration called Cleveland five years ago. He had coached the local community college and at Clovis West High before going to BYU. The pitch: If Cleveland returned to Fresno, he could regain his tenure as a California educator and his retirement could be based on his future salary of more than half a million dollars.

All Cleveland had to do is just fix basketball hell.

The two jobs (BYU and FSU) couldn't have more opposite issues. They were set in different cultures and universes. But Cleveland found a way to get the Bulldogs through NCAA probation, a reduction of scholarships, a multi-year ban to postseason play, reduction of practice time and a wreck of a program. After one season, FSU won 22 games — despite NCAA probation.

"It was pretty dysfunctional," Cleveland said of a program which was once the pride of the city under Boyd "Tiny" Grant 20 years ago, when Selland Arena became "Grant's Tomb" to visitors.

Shortly after leaving Provo, the NCAA summoned Cleveland to San Antonio for a formal investigation of Fresno State's program. There he had to answer for former coaches and give testimony on how he'd sweep clean the porch of Dante's pit.

"I walked into the room and I'd never seen so many lawyers and NCAA people. I felt like I was in Washington, D.C., before a congressional hearing. It was then, I wondered what I'd got myself into," said Cleveland.

Since that time, his team's Academic Progress Rate went from a paltry 600, where nobody graduated and players were transferring, to a level which was 104 points higher in one year. Fresno State's APR is now over 925 and, for the first time, he has 13 scholarships to recruit with and has graduated 10 players.

"I think the challenge now is to move from off the court to on the court and focus our needs there," said Cleveland, who is 67-67 overall at Fresno State and says that isn't good enough.

At BYU, Cleveland went door-to-door in student dormitories drumming up support. He then recruited the likes of Mark Bigelow, Travis Hansen, Rafael Araujo, Terrell Lyday, Trent Whiting, Mike Hall and Jared Jensen and later, Lee Cummard, Trent Plaisted and Chris Miles. It all led to four 20-win seasons and postseason appearances in the NCAA Tournament and NIT.

"He's done a terrific job of really building that program," Rose said of his former boss.

The two first met as junior college coaches doing camps across the country, including BYU.

"When he got this program, we had a lot of issues," Rose said, "but you can multiply those by 10 with the situation he had (at Fresno State) because it was just a tough time to go for him."

Cleveland said the last five years have taught him to not to feel sorry for himself or look back.

"I left a great group of coaches at BYU," he said, "players and people that I loved, and when I encountered this challenge, I had to realize this was a different chapter. I couldn't get down."

Cleveland, 56, said, "This is a whole different level of adversity."

He also declared he doesn't have all the pieces yet.

"It taught me to not give up and make sure people in the community don't give up," he said. "I left a completely different culture in Provo. I had to establish hard work and integrity and it's been hard.

"I've got more gray hair and had sleepless nights; it's taught me the value of hard work, being patient, humble and looking at small details.

"Even last week, I realized I had to be a better coach," Cleveland said. "It's made me a better person and coach."

Cleveland said his team is coming together. He's had to shift from junior college players to high school recruits, and his team is young. He didn't fill his full allotment of 13 scholarships because he didn't want to load up on one class. Two of his team's four losses this season have been in the final possession where things didn't go the Bulldogs' way. Fresno State could easily be 6-2 or 7-1 instead of 4-4.

His sons, Casey and Skylar, live in Fresno, and each has two kids, so there are four grandkids for him to enjoy. His daughter is attending cosmetology school in Provo.

"I don't know how things will end. Someday, depending on where my kids and grandkids are, I'd love to come back to Provo and live in Utah. I'd do it in a heartbeat," said Cleveland.

But today, he's got this mission to perform in the Dog House.

Next up is to beat BYU, a program that still carries Cleveland's fingerprints.

e-mail: [email protected]