Before he ever coached a game in Memorial Stadium, Jeff Tedford said he planned to take his inaugural season “one day and one week at a time.”
Before he ever coached a game in the newly renovated Memorial Stadium, Tedford said that same exact thing about his 2012 campaign.
In 11 years at the helm of the Cal football program, Tedford hasn’t changed much in what he says.
There’s a stark contrast between the fearless Tedford of 2002 and the cautious deer caught in the headlights of today. Tedford’s mantra is about as sturdy as a stadium built of sand.
And his current position as head coach isn’t much sturdier.
When Tedford took the reins in December 2001, he inherited from Tom Holmoe a program that went 1-10 and hadn’t posted a winning season since 1993.
Prior to the fall of 2002, he called every single player into his office and asked each to identify the team leaders.
“They couldn’t give me one (name) at times,” he said in an interview in 2002. “I realized there was a problem.”
And he turned the Bears around. Cal went 7-5 in 2002, and Tedford earned the Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
Tedford hedged his bets on risky offensive calls because he was a coach inheriting a program with nothing to lose, and then he was a coach who had nowhere to go but higher. He apparently spent late nights sleeping on an air mattress in his office. He probably watched years’ worth of tape.
In 2006, a third-string quarterback named Steve Levy claimed that he could look at his coach and tell whether he’d been sleeping. “He looks at himself in the mirror,” Levy said back then. “He blames himself before he blames anyone else … You can see it in his eyes.”
These days, Tedford just looks old. He’s a weathered and wizened coach with 20 years of experience. The stress of his position has transformed him before the public eye the way it does a president.
In a rare moment of jocularity in a Sunday press conference two weeks ago, Tedford confessed that he “used to look a lot different.”
“I’m thinking right now, I may take five minutes after practice and jog … People keep telling me if I do that it will relieve a lot of stress.”
Tedford molded Cal the way Pappy Waldorf or Andy Smith did. More so than any player, he became the face of the program. He took ownership of the team he needed to radically transform, and it paid off in those first few years of glory.
Pappy got the bronze statue. Andy Smith got the memorial bench.
Tedford got the stadium.
In 2002 Tedford rattled off a list of goals he had for the Bears. He wanted to see the facilities change and see pride and tradition restored to the Cal campus.
“I’m here for the long haul,” he said. “I’m here for the duration.”
Tedford certainly saw the facilities change. Memorial Stadium is his monument on the Berkeley campus — the structure that will remain long after he’s gone.
Before his first game in the new Memorial, Tedford even confessed to getting butterflies in the pit of his stomach.
An admission like that, coming from the winningest coach in Cal history.
A 63-12 blowout in the third game of the 2011 season clinched Tedford’s spot at the top of the Cal record books. He’s amassed an 82-55 record in nearly 11 years.
“He’s dear to all our hearts,” said receiver Marvin Jones after the Presbyterian win. “He downplayed it, but I’m pretty sure inside he’s pretty happy and feels very accomplished.”
The only thing missing is a Rose Bowl.
Cal used to be a contender, right up there with conference juggernauts USC and Oregon. In 2007, for about an hour during a tilt with Oregon State, the Bears were the top team in the nation.
Then Kevin Riley scrambled, and as the clock expired, so did Cal’s last shot at national prominence.
Maybe that spooked the team — that risk that didn’t pay off. The Bears skidded to a 2-6 record to finish out the 2007 season. And ever since that one play, the team has gone 34-35.
Take out the easy FCS wins, and the Bears are 30-35.
But the numbers don’t stand alone. Since then, Tedford has slowed. He always seemed like a man of tradition when it came to the game. Yet tradition comes at a cost; while programs like Oregon or USC continue to evolve with speed and strategy, playing the game the way it’s always been played eventually turns into playing it safe. And playing it safe doesn’t keep a team near the top; it precipitates a floundering fall.
2007 started with a few warning signs, a few cracks in the sand stadium. But in the last three years those cracks have widened considerably to expose the glaring problems.
Cal used to play to its opponents’ levels when it mattered. It didn’t matter who was on the other side of the line of scrimmage: the Bears truly took the season one game at a time.
In the last three years, there’s been a trend with the program. Cal can still play to its superior opponents’ levels, as when the team held eventual BCS national title contender Oregon to its slimmest margin of victory in the 2010 season.
But performances like that are juxtaposed with the worst Big Game loss in 80 years (2010); or a blowout to a UCLA squad depleted of six stars (2011); or a season-opening loss in the brand-new Memorial Stadium to Nevada (2012).
This year’s record, in the immediate scheme of things, could look like an anomaly in the Tedford era.
To go 3-7 while on the hot seat isn’t commendable, but perhaps it’s understandable. Murphy’s Law has to push Tedford against the wall while the pressure mounts and grows.
“The state of the program is fine,” Tedford said after last week’s loss to Washington assured Cal of its second season without a bowl in three years. “We had a down year.
“I am very committed to getting the program back where it needs to be,” he said later, the closest he came to admitting there were faults in the system.
But this year isn’t an anomaly; it’s the rock bottom that a gradual descent has careened toward the last three years. And the way some of the seven losses have occurred this year are inexcusable.
Cal couldn’t muster a single touchdown in the 115th Big Game. The next week, the team fell to a Utah squad that hadn’t won a Pac-12 game this season.
The blame could fall on the offensive line, which has given up 39 sacks this season — the most in the entire FBS.
Perhaps the injuries that riddled the depth chart — and plagued names like Matt Summers-Gavin and Marc Anthony — should shoulder some of the burden, though Tedford never likes to divulge injuries.
“I’m not gonna put the blame on one thing,” Tedford said following the Utah loss this season. “You can’t put your finger on one thing.”
But with nobody willing to offer up one solid explanation, the blame inevitably falls on the coach. Faith and pride in Cal’s leader have rapidly disintegrated to schadenfreude and rancor.
And Tedford doesn’t seem to accept the gravity of the situation. He claimed that the state of the program was fine after the Washington loss. A few weeks before that, he refused to reassess his expectations of Cal’s potential.
“What do you expect me to reassess and hope for?” he said. “Reassessing — I don’t know what that means.”
For 11 years now, Tedford has taken his life one day and one game at a time.
But after Saturday, there could only be one game left.
Annie Gerlach is the sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]