Obituary: Bob Van Galder, Fresno State ties for five decades

Nancy and Bob Van Galder in a 2017 photo at their Fresno home.

Nancy and Bob Van Galder in a 2017 photo at their Fresno home.

Fresno Bee file

Bob Van Galder, who played basketball and football at Fresno State and went on to spend five decades at the university as a coach, professor and athletics administrator, died Monday. He was 83.

A virtual memorial service for Van Galder is being planned, and flags on campus will fly at half staff on Friday in his honor.

“He was just an amazing person,” Fresno State athletics director Terry Tumey said. “I was honored to meet him, he and his wife Nancy, at a reunion of the undefeated Mercy Bowl team where a lot of the greats of the past were able to come together and celebrate those achievements and what that team meant to the university. He was extremely gracious, a great educator and beloved by his community and by the men who were in that room.”

Van Galder played basketball for the Bulldogs in 1957 before transferring to Stanford for one year, then returned to Fresno State and played football for the Bulldogs in 1959 and ‘60. In his final season Van Galder led a star-studded team that included Dale Messer, Larry Iwasaki, Sonny Bishop, Doug Brown, J.R. Williams and John Webster that went 9-1 and won a California Collegiate Athletic Association championship.

All seven were selected first-team All-CCAA, at the time the most all-conference selections in school history.

From player to coach

Van Galder, the son of former Fresno State football coach Clark Van Galder, joined the Bulldogs’ coaching staff the following season under coach Cecil Coleman when the Bulldogs went 10-0 and beat Bowling Green in the 1961 Mercy Bowl, played in remembrance of 17 Cal Poly football players killed in a plane crash a year earlier.

“That was quite a team,” said Tom Sommers, a quarterback on that Mercy Bowl team. “No one expected that team to be that good, but we just got better and better with each game – I think it’s the only team in the history of Fresno State football that played 10 games or more and was undefeated and untied.

“That has a great deal to do with our whole coaching staff that Bob was a part of with Cecil Coleman, Kenny Gleason and Bob Burgess and all those guys … He connected so well with the players, but also connected very well with all of the older coaches, too. He was just a first-class man in all ways and the Van Galder name, just a great name in our community and the athletic community. But it wasn’t just in athletics. He got along with everybody and people had great respect for him.”

Van Galder also taught at the university while an assistant coach before moving full-time into athletics administration at the university in 1970. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fresno State and a PhD from the University of Northern Colorado.

“Coach was just an amazing person,” Tumey said. “As a new person here, trying to understand this community, he was great. He still attended games – I was able to see he and his wife at a game once and give them a ride up to their seats in the stadium. He really epitomizes what makes Fresno State special and how this community makes Fresno State great.

“He was one of a kind. I will miss him, just a really nice man. His wife, she’s a gem, too. My heart goes out to the Van Galder family. They’re wonderful people.”

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