Having graduated from Cal more than 30 years ago, my dad has gathered his fair share of Cal football stories. In the final game he attended as a student, the 1982 Big Game, he watched as Stanford (and it’s absent-minded band) failed to defend a squib-kick in the final moments. Five laterals and a shell-shocked trombonist later, my dad can proudly say he was there.
While “The Play” lives on as “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic …” moment of the Cal-Stanford rivalry for Bears fans, the past few years have been largely anything but that. When it comes to the Big Game, which the Cardinal has won seven consecutive times heading into this weekend, there isn’t much to consider “sensational” about Cal’s chances.
Still my dad, being the optimist he is, always reminds fellow family and friends that “Cal’s going to be great next year,” no matter how sloppy the Bears’ play looks on both sides of the ball. Part of the reason he says this is to get a laugh out of us, but part of him believes that it’s always Cal’s year to perform at a “great” level, whether that’s winning its first Rose Bowl Game since 1937 or even just breaking .500. Stanford fans might find that cute, but the Cal faithful will gladly take a 6-6 record.
Coming into this year, my dad was especially confident that the addition of defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox would lead the Bears to greatness, with a winning record and bowl appearance very much in play. I thought otherwise, predicting a more bleak 4-8 overall record with maybe one signature victory to look back on.
Wouldn’t you know it, my dad is sort of on to something this time. Sitting at 5-5, the Bears hold a chance to clinch a bowl berth with a win at Stanford or UCLA in the final two weeks.
Look, my dad’s overly positive, partially sarcastic outlook is wonderfully unique and a stretch to boldly proclaim a Cal win this weekend. Having lost playmakers Tre Watson, Demetris Robertson and Devante Downs — arguably Cal’s most valuable player — the Bears clearly lack the starpower and big play initiator that Stanford has in Heisman candidate Bryce Love.
Given that the game is on the road — a major struggle for Cal football in recent memory — adds an additional hurdle to overcome. The fact that the Cardinal just defeated then-No. 9 Washington and now have an outside shot of reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game leaves little doubt that Stanford will take care of business once again.
Maybe my dad’s sarcastically optimistic outlook has rubbed off on me this time, but I believe that this Saturday will be an all-time classic. Despite every worry I just mentioned, with bowl eligibility on the line, there’s too much at stake for the Bears to not put up a fight until the final seconds tick away.
It’s also important to remember that no matter what the result of Cal’s final games, Wilcox has already accomplished a lot in his first year at the helm, most notably the establishment of a tougher and grittier culture. When Jim Harbaugh took over for Stanford in 2007, he went just 4-8 in his first year. We all know how that story ended, but it took time for Harbaugh to turn things around after inheriting a 1-11 team from Walt Harris. Given the same patience and confidence, Wilcox has the chance to write a similar story to that of Harbaugh’s, this time for the blue and gold.
Even if Love runs for 500 yards and six touchdowns to put an exclamation point on his Heisman-campaign, there’s always next week against UCLA. And even if the Bruins smother the Bears’ hopes of clinching that sixth victory Cal has undoubtedly pursued, just remember, there’s always next year.
Dad, if Cal nabs its sixth win on Saturday, I’ll be the first to say you called it.
Josh Yuen covers women’s tennis. Contact him at