It’s the Big Game, but not a Big Rivalry Anymore


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Bitter rivalries tend to bring out the worst in people, pushing them to their breaking points. But in a healthy rivalry, in its rare occurrence, mutual respect for the other party can be motivational, or even inspiring, with each party pushing the other toward greater levels of achievement.

In recent years, however, the Big Game has become more bitter than healthy, at least on the Cal side of things, with Stanford winning the last six contests. And it wouldn’t be surprising if after Saturday the Cardinal will have the Axe back for the seventh consecutive year.

But what is worst about a rivalry is the personal damage it can do. A rivalry can cause its parties to view their success through a limited lens, for a side to gauge its achievement in comparison to the other and vice versa. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Big Game has gotten in the heads of Cal fans recently. Each year, they leave the stadium downtrodden, disappointed at losing to their rivals again without accepting the grand reality that Cal football doesn’t currently have the resources to compete with Stanford.

So I’ll gladly be the one to give them a reality check: This rivalry isn’t healthy anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. The healthy competition is still there in various areas of campus life, ranging from faculty achievements to other, smaller sports. But not football, as of late. Cal has fallen from its golden days of the 2000s, in which they won seven of 10 Big Games, including five in a row. The Bears have slipped into football mediocrity from which they have struggled to bounce back.

Some of this can be attributed to recruiting and funding for the football program, which goes to scouting and upgrading facilities. At a private university like Stanford, higher tuition and greater donations ultimately result in greater volume of resources available to the football program, which allows them to remain great year in and year out.

But this reality goes two ways.

Many potential donors argue that the football program isn’t worth donating to, because it’s not good enough, or that UC Berkeley isn’t a “football school.” The bottom line is that if neither the team nor the donors step up first, the other likely won’t either.

But the last few years have been promising. Since head coach Sonny Dykes’ disastrous 1-11 first season in 2013, Cal has shown improvement ─ or at least something to cheer about. In the three years with Jared Goff as starting quarterback, Dykes’ Bears steadily improved their record. This season, the Bears already exceeded low preseason expectations ─ I, myself, predicted them to go 4-8, and they already have four wins on the season ─ and the recruitment of five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson showed significant strength in scouting.

And these small signs of promise have me saying words I never thought I would utter (and which will irk some other football writers) earlier this season: Sonny Dykes should probably not be fired this season. Cal football is in a tight spot with such limited funding, especially after remodeling Memorial Stadium. But aside from the monetary cost of firing a head coach with such a lucrative contract, it will only do more harm to the program to restart.

The Jeff Tedford era came to a close after one poor year following a winning season. Assuming Cal loses to Stanford this Saturday, it will be guaranteed another losing season ─ one year after a winning season and a bowl game victory. But it shouldn’t mean the Sonny Dykes era should end. There has been too much progress for Cal to give up on its head coach.

And as maligned as his tenure has been, maybe giving Dykes a few more years to develop and regain the trust and money of donors will rekindle the Big Game rivalry, instead of continuing the inequity that has defined the last six seasons.

Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].

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  • John Smith

    Furd has an advantage because of “higher tuition and more resources”?? The football program’s problem is not a question of money … In the days before Harbaugh, the Furd meme was ‘we’re too smart to play football’ and, in those days of BuddyBall and WallyBall, all the tuition money in the world couldn’t buy them a victory.

    Magically, when Harbaugh arrived, suddenly admissions requirements and recruiting woes and injury excuses and every *other* shifting of blame that Furd coaches had been relying upon for a decade went away because they started winning. All it took was finding a coach who knew how to coach. It didn’t take a lot of money, either. In fact, Furd *traditionally* has spent less on their football program than other PAC members.

    There’s a lesson there that one would have to be an idiot not to grasp: Money doesn’t matter. Recruiting doesn’t matter. Facilities don’t matter. Players on the field and on the bench don’t matter. Assistant coaches don’t matter. What matters … the ONLY thing that matters in a football program is the head coach.

    Dykes has had 4 years to prove that he is a head coach who matters; that he could deliver a winning program. All we’ve gotten from him, though, are excuses: Players’ abilities, injuries, recruiting woes, scheduling, and (recently) a return of Furd’s “we too smart to play football” academic requirements meme. It is time to go in a new direction and make Cal football competitive again in the PAC.

    Or, perhaps we can keep Sonny and find a less competitive conference in which to play football … like the Ivy League. That’s silly, of course, but not as silly as continuing to leave Sonny Dykes in charge of a football program in the PAC.