So, the Football team of the California Golden Bears lost yesterday to that university of abbreviations that must include its city. What a bummer. The Bears played uninspired and without a sense of purpose. The only great play came from the special teams, especially the punter, Brian Anger. Otherwise, the play from the Bears on either side of the ball moved to a new all-time low. Shades of Tom Holmoe…
It was thought by many-including me- that the Cal Defense would keep UCLA from scoring. Of the few bright spots in team play, the Defense, which includes freshmen playing at both corners in some games, was always competitive. Not so yesterday: the QB, Kevin Prince, ran with impunity. He got around the corner of the line several times and then headed north without much pursuit. What a bummer. It’s worth adding that UCLA came into the game without 6 players who were suspended for fighting: 4 of whom were wide receivers. So, it should not have come as a surprise that UCLA would keep the ball on the ground.
As was observed by the TV commentators, the Cal Offense was simply pathetic: and that was even more of a surprise, in that the UCLA Defense is already well-known for being blown-out by several teams. There’s not a lot more that can be said.
So, the ongoing question raised by alumni like myself: How much longer will the Head Coach, Jeff Tedford, remain with the team? The lack of preparation by the team is obvious enough. Alumni are increasingly alienated by the play of the team; it’s not as though Cal suffers from a lack of athletes who also can play the game. So, what is up with the ongoing, downward spiral of Cal Football? I need to describe two other factors delaying the inevitable pink slip, and offer a plausible explanation for the excruciating slow decline of Cal Football.
First, Tedford has a contract until 2015 or something like that. That contract includes a huge buy-out clause, and goes into the millions of dollars (Welcome to the world of College Football). At a university with huge deficits and an “every-man/woman-for-themselves” approach to funding, to fire an at-will employee and have to pay them a few years of compensation to leave, no matter how much that money is, will be resisted in the strongest possible way, even though it is well-known that the Head Coach’s salary is paid for by huge gifts made by alumni.
Second, because Cal has a succession of winning seasons under Tedford, last season being the lone exception (a harbinger?), fund raising for improvements to Memorial Stadium and the construction of a new training facility for athletes- not just football- has gone really well. Winning does help raise monies. The facility is beautiful, and the report of those athletes who have got to use it so far, is that it is a wonderful facility for working out, studying, receive tutoring, and having a location that serves them as student-athletes. Furthermore, plenty of the athletes on the Football team were recruited to Cal because of the promise of the training center, tree-sitters notwithstanding. Recruiting players to Cal has become much easier because the facility is simply heads-and-shoulders above any other facility, especially in the Pac-12.
If you believe even half of what I’ve described above, and I’ll let you pick your half, the performance on the field does not aspire to either the compensation of the Head Coach or the quality of the athletes on the field. Put another way: if Cal were leaving it out on the field every Saturday, and were on the wrong-side of some calls by the referees or had some uncontrollable circumstances on how balls were fumbled, tipped, or the weather was the dominating factor throughout a game: and they still had the same record, you could make a case for a team being “snake-bit.” Cal just plays without purpose or intensity.
So, how do I attribute the decline of the Cal Football? It’s worth noting that when Tedford came in after Tom Holmoe, the Bears improved to 7-5 in 2002: first winning season in 10 years. But, to a person, there was a new sense of purpose on the team that season, and you heard athletes saying they wished they had an extra season to play for Tedford.
Then came the season that ancient Old Blues believed would allow them to meet St Peter at the pearly gates: in 2004, the Bears had a 10-1 record, and it appeared that Cal would finally return to the Rose Bowl.
It was a crushing piece of news that that glad-handing and lobbying of the Texas Head Coach, Mack Brown, was successful among the media and coaches in the nation, and resulted in UT (and Vince Young) going to the Rose Bowl. Aaron Rodgers didn’t mince words about how stupid that act was of Brown, and admitted Texas really didn’t have the personnel to play even the Bears; apparently, the Longhorns had enough to win their first Rose Bowl against Michigan.
Of course, Cal got smacked by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, and that was sign that Tedford did not have the persuasive ability or capacity to re-motivate a justifiably disappointed Cal Football team to get up for a lesser bowl and a lesser team. Cal got steam-rollered, by Tech, 45-31. The game was never as close as the score indicates.
Now, Cal continued to have winning seasons, but there were always losses from 2005 onward that everyone everywhere thought to themselves, “That was strange…Cal lost to (fill in the blank)?” At first, the losses were thought to be idiosyncratic. Now, there’s a pattern of unprepared players, lacking for purpose or motivation. Indeed, while no one wants to lose, none of the Cal players or the coaching staff ever gave evidence in the media that they were bothered by losses or the lack-luster performances coming with those games.
Now, Cal has had a few bright spots along the way. Tedford has a winning record in the Big Game (7-2); Cal has won several bowl games under Tedford (5-2), and there’s the upset of USC (ranked #3) in 2003 in triple-overtime. In most universities, if you’ve had a bottom-feeder for several decades and the kind of athletes that contribute toward that kind of record, you’d think a coach like Tedford fell from heaven. Why fire him?
At some point along the way, all of the big business notwithstanding, you’ve got ask yourself: are the players listening to and trusting their coach? That, at the end of the day, is the question that the Athletic Director, Sandy Barbour needs to ask and get answers from the student-athletes. Not the alumni, not the Chancellor, not the students, or other interested parties. Certainly: don’t ask the coaches. Ask the students: are you listening? Do you trust the man to prepare you to win? Athletes know this question: in their bones. When they know a coach challenges them, and invites them to step up against a better opponent, and has prepared them to win, calling them to play to win summons heart, mind, soul: and the body responds from snap to whistle.
In my judgment: the players would tell the Cal AD: No: we’re not listening. Cutting that buy-out check would be hard, but would cost more to ignore the student-athletes who come to Cal, not only for the best undergraduate degree on the planet, but also to develop a winning tradition that parallels the excellence in academics in Berkeley.
After that: the Cal AD would have to get the checkbook ready for Urban Meyer…he’s a natural for Berkeley. I’m serious.