A sad day

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By Ted Lee
Posted Nov 20, 2012
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Jeff Tedford bobblehead
Early into his career as Cal head football coach, a promotion was held where fans could get a bobblehead of Jeff Tedford. And this was after a tie-dye t-shirt with Tedford's head was available for sale at the Cal Student Store.

This level of idolatry for a football coach who hadn't taken Cal to a Rose Bowl, hadn't won a championship, but had simply elevated the Golden Bears might from awful to pretty good might have been viewed by outsiders as disproportionate gratitude.

But after having brought to Bears back to respectability after a 1-10 season in 2001 and assorted NCAA probation-related penalties, Tedford guided the Bears to defeats of ranked teams in his first year on the way to a 7-5 record, Once he had the team full of his recruits who would be accustomed to Cal football's new expectations, there was every since that this was just the beginning.

There was a sense that the Rose Bowl would come, later if not sooner, and there would be many of them.

But now, in a November, following a 3-9 season, where the distance between Cal and top teams is larger than at any point since 2002, the Jeff Tedford era ends.

There wasn't any surprise to this decision. The one potential stumbling block was finances, but money always has a way of working itself out as a decision has to be made. Yet given the way the season unfolded, there was a sad inevitability that this point would be reached.

Maybe more so than the losing record, Cal football had descended to the point of irrelevance locally.

Attendance had been starting to dip – and while some of that can be attributed to night games and a game being played on Friday, the fact is that if a team's doing well, the fans will show up. Yet when Cal is still paying bonds pertaining to the stadium's finance, the sight of empty seats wasn't going down well.†

It wasn't all that long ago when the A's, Giants, 49ers and Raiders were all struggling and the Bay Area's quest for winners took fans, loyal and casual, to Berkeley. The local papers and all the broadcasting stations would send reporters and columnists the games – not just the major papers but the regional ones as well.

Back in the 2004, following the Big Game, the sight of Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch standing side-by-side in Memorial Stadium waiting to fulfill their various media obligations – Cal football was the hot story in town and everybody wanted a piece of it.

That was a long time ago, and the end of 2012 left Cal football much like it was when Jeff Tedford found it, belonging primarily to the diehards whose loyalty knows no end without much room for optimism.

The bowl victories were great, seeing Cal appear in the national rankings is a kick, and those heady days of 2004 when the Bears were ranked in the top five seems hard to believe, looking back.

But the best of those times took place a long time ago, and if you lay them side-by-side, 1-10 doesn't really seem all that different from 3-9.

Yet, less than a year ago, it seemed that the Bears were on the verge of turning a major corner, with a new facility about to open and a big recruiting class on the way, yet that turned out to be a false spring.

Although the similarities will be made between Tedford and former men's head basketball coach Ben Braun, both who rescued programs that were initially salvage projects, achieved early levels of success, then struggled to match that success as their teams gradually descended into mediocrity and found them selves passed up by other teams in the conference, perhaps a more appropriate comparison might be between Tedford and former head coach Lou Campanelli.

Campanelli arrived after the men's basketball team underwent a series of decent but undistinguished years under Dick Kuchen. It was under Campanelli's watch that Cal basketball began its ascent – Harmon Gym went from being sleepy to sold out, postseason play became an expectation instead of something that belonged to other teams, and the next big step up became a possibility once showed it could land a breakthrough recruiting class.

Ultimately, both were undone by impetuous assistants. In Tedford's case, it was current Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. Lupoi, who played under Tedford, was a graduate assistant under Tedford and became a position coach, played a key role with Cal's recent recruiting classes, and the Bears seemed poised on the verge of a national top ten recruiting class – almost unheard for a program that hasn't undergone a head coaching change and was coming off of a 7-6 record. Yet Lupoi's relationship with Tedford was such, that not only did he change schools while the Bears were in the middle of recruiting season, he was also acting to dissuade Cal commits from attending Berkeley.

For Campanelli, it was Todd Bozeman, who was instrumental in putting together two solid recruiting classes, including local high school All-American Jason Kidd, yet the composition of the recruiting classes were at odds with Campanelli's style. Eventually, Campanelli was fired in the middle of the 1992 season for the flimsiest of reasons – Bozeman took over the team, led it to an upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament, and Cal's last Sports Illustrated cover in a major sport.

The promise of big recruiting class figured to help give the Bears momentum as they moved into a renovated Memorial Stadium. And while Cal had a decent recruiting class, the loss of two five-star recruits hurt, as attention was paid less to the future and more to the present.

The present was a team that missed a bowl game on the last play of the 2010 season and scraped its way to a 2011 season with a 7-5 record before being thumped by Texas in the Holiday Bowl.

It was at the postgame press session that it was evident how far the Bears had fallen. While head coach Jeff Tedford and the other players were lamenting mistakes and missed opportunities, as had been the case far too often in recent years, after the Cal contingent left and Texas' Mack Brown and his players entered, the Longhorn players spoke with belief and confidence, knowing that they had come into the game with a plan, had faith that the plan would work and that it would lead to victory.

The juxtaposition of the two teams was jarring considering that in 2004, it's been largely perceived that Brown's machinations led to the Bears being denied the chance to play in a BCS bowl – which would have been the most significant game of the Jeff Tedford era.

It was exactly how the Bears sounded in 2006, after they defeated Texas A&M 42-10 at the very same Holiday Bowl. That win may well have been the high water mark of the Jeff Tedford era; Cal had tied for the Pac-10 title, something it hadn't done since 1975, and the memories of a bitter 45-31 loss to Texas Tech in the 2004 Holiday Bowl still resonated.

For the Bears, it was about as close to a perfect game. The Cal defense hit Aggie quarterback Stephen McGee with such ferocity that towards the end of the game, he was struggling to get himself off the field. Nate Longshore was still healthy, and with Marshawn Lynch and DeSean Jackson, the Bears had not just a balanced offense, but a balanced offense with star quality all around and it seemed that Cal football was positioned to be a power for years to go.

Then game the 2007 season, the bipolar year that saw the Bears climb all the way up to #2 in the polls after a resounding road win at Oregon, and then the ill-fated game against Oregon State, where a last-minute drive fell short, denying Cal a chance at either the game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal that would have put the Bears in a position to be the #1-ranked team in the country.

Yet while the game was close to being one of Tedford's crowning achievements as head coach, it also proved to be the beginning of the end. Against Oregon State, Tedford used Kevin Riley at quarterback, but following that game, he decided to go back to Nate Longshore, who missed the game with an ankle injury.

As the Bears began to lose, questions arose about whether Longshore was brought back too soon. And while the common thinking is that Longshore was a disaster down the stretch, the truth was that for the first couple of games following his injury, for the three quarters, he was fine. The problem is that in the fourth quarter, he'd start to struggle and his performance fell off considerably.

And for Tedford, who's known to be patient with his quarterbacks, this had to be difficult. Longshore was the quarterback who helmed Cal's offense to its most successful season in more than three decades, was still capable of playing at a high level, and every bone in Tedford's body must have been telling him to be patient and let Longshore work through his issues. But at the same time, it was clear that he wasn't 100% and that the injury and the late-game stumbles were having an issue on his confidence.

It could well be that Tedford's patience in willing to stick with Longshore was tempered by with what he saw in Riley in practice. He's long held that players earn playing time through how well they practice. When results start going badly, it's tempting to panic and change how you approach that, but Tedford, noblely and stubbornly, clung to his approach.

While the Bears had largely been on the upswing since Tedford's arrival in 2002, this stretch in 2007, where Cal lost five of six games down the stretch was unprecedented. The issue wasn't strictly the fourth quarter offense – the Bears were beginning to make mental mistakes that they hadn't made before. And each week, they'd work to fix them, and the next week they'd make the same mistakes again.

The 31-20 loss at then 7th-ranked Arizona State that year, was draining. Not only was it Cal's third loss in a row, but it was the third loss where the Bears went into the latter stages of the game with a chance to win.. Afterwards, Tedford was notably frustrated. Media relations was having a tough time finding players who were willing to talk to the media.

Finally, they brought out defensive back Brandon Hampton. A distraught Hampton was ushered into the interview room, was asked a question, and as the small group of reporters waited for an answer he looked up and said, “I'm sorry. I can't do this. I just can't.”

And as much as Hampton's reaction symbolized how deeply defeat stung the team, in recent years there's been an almost matter-of-factness to it. Where in the first six years, Tedford's teams seldom lost by more than two touchdowns, they've begun to lose by bigger margins with more regularity.

A staple of wide receiver Marvin Jones post-game media comments was how the team kept “shooting itself in the foot” and this was said with such regularity that it was hard to remember a time when he didn't use the phrase.

This isn't to suggest that defeat didn't wear heavily on the team – but if something is an aberration, you're bound to react one way and if something isn't, you're bound to react quite another. There wasn't one offseason when the team stopped working hard and each year players would go into the season believing that the team's chemistry had improved. But while the effort was there, the results weren't.

The football team played well in spots against good teams this season – but there was a time when expectations were so much more than that. In 2011, there was at least a sense that the team was making progress, although some of that was due to how the schedule fell. This season, there was never that sense.

Even before the opener, when Allan Bridgford was named the starting quarterback just a couple of days before the season opener against Nevada, even though the coach staff knew for months that Zach Maynard would not be the starting quarterback, the season started on a dissonant note and never seemed to really move off of that.

Mental mistakes were still in abundance, careless penalties came by the bucketful, and while early season sloppiness can be forgiven, one doesn't have to look too far on Saturdays to see that the better teams aren't beating themselves this time of year.

Capping all of this are the team's quarterback issues. Tedford came to Cal lauded for his work with quarterbacks, but the last quarterback who showed significant improvement under his guidance was Longshore in 2006, and that was six seasons ago. Since then the Bears have weathered highs and lows with Kevin Riley and Zach Maynard, and while each quarterback played well at times, neither was able to improve to the point where they were consistent enough to be effective game-in and game-out.

If Tedford has high-end talent at the quarterback position, being loyal and having them work through their mistakes has a pay-off. With talent that's a little bit less, being loyal has a considerably smaller pay-off. Yet the quarterbacks who were waiting in the wings hadn't developed to the point where they were able to challenge for the starting position – and when circumstances provided Brock Mansion, Beau Sweeney, or Allan Bridgford with playing time, they all still needed work before they were ready to take the next step up.

And whether the issue was coaching or whether it was talent assessment, eventually it all comes down to results.

Jeff Tedford will have a special place in the hearts of Cal football fans for the work that he did here. He turned around a program, built an expectation of winning, oversaw the program at the time that Memorial Stadium was renovated, and the legacy that Cal football has of sending players on to the NFL will ensure Cal football broader scale visibility for years to come.

But as it currently stands, the football team needed a change. A lot has changed since 2002, from the financial pressures on athletic departments and the explosion of social media to how recruiting is managed and how to meet the expectations of an increasingly hungry fan/donor base.

And while from the outside, it would appear that the Jeff Tedford of 2012 is different from the Jeff Tedford of 2002, it could be that maybe he hasn't changed all that much, but everything around him has.

Since her hire, athletic director Sandy Barbour has been consistent in her wish for Cal's student-athletes to have the chance to compete for championships. And the fact that is intercollegiate athletics, a strong football program is needed for an athletic program to succeed. One can discuss the fairness of that, but that's a discussion for another day.

If,using her base criteria, if the football program is headed in a direction where it can compete for championships, the answer is clearly no.

Tedford certainly would have wanted another chance to turn the program around. After all, these are the players and the staff that he's brought in, who are working out and practicing in a facility that he's worked to help build. These are people that he's known for years, and when he made home visits to the families of the players, he made a promise that he would take care of their sons if they came to Cal and an honorable man would want the chance to fulfill that promise.

Yet realities and preferences can vary. It doesn't necessarily make one right and one wrong, it just makes them different.

The search for a new football coach will now begin and many names will be considered, some new and some familiar, a candidate will be chosen and the task of rebuilding the team will begin, much like it did following the 2001 season. And there will be optimism, renewal, and the sense of the beginning of something special and it could well be that the greatest era of Cal football is about to start.

But for those who've lived through the highs and lows of the past 11 seasons and hoped that one day it would lead to something better, today is a sad day.

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