The first time sophomore linebacker Jalen Jefferson met his new coach, he was thrown.
Defensive coordinator Andy Buh seemed, at first glance, happy — too happy. He was laughing, cracking jokes and constantly smiling.
“I felt like he was too nice of a guy,” Jefferson says. “I was like, ‘This is really our defensive coordinator?’ ”
Beneath the affable exterior, though, intensity burns. As the leader of the Bears’ defense, Buh sometimes echoes traditional coaching stereotypes. He is forever preaching basic fundamentals: Get in your gap, know your assignment, play your game. There’s nothing fancy in his basic 4-3 system.
He prefers not to single out players. There is no one individual, only one team, and all he asks of his team is to be great every day — a rather tall order.
“We’re always one of 11, one of 105,” Buh says. “ ‘Do your one-eleventh,’ that’s what we say.”
At this point, Buh is a little mre than a month into his first season as Cal’s defensive coordinator. For a little more than a month, he has reiterated his mantra of greatness and consistency.
To say it’s been an uphill battle would be an understatement.
Before he even started, he faced a daunting task: to field a sound defense from a young and shallow squad. Buh brought with him a 4-3 scheme new to Memorial Stadium, and the squad’s inexperience showed in its first four games. Add a bevy of injuries in positions with little depth, and the result is a defensive squad that ranks in the bottom five of most major stats nationwide.
But Buh is not worried. Just as Jefferson is not worried. Just as head coach Sonny Dykes isn’t worried.
“You only get good at football by playing football,” Buh says. “I know that to be true.
“When you’re playing as bad as we have played, the only direction we can go is up.”
If Andy Buh weren’t a football coach, he would probably be in law enforcement. Growing up, Buh idolized his father, who was a police officer.
Somehow, he ended up here instead: a defensive coordinator at a school in a major conference, with a lengthy and impressive resume for someone who has barely cracked 40 years of age. He was co-defensive coordinator at Stanford in the Jim Harbaugh era, and this past January, he went to the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin as the linebackers coach.
As a defensive coordinator at Nevada, his alma mater, he took a squad ranked 98th in the nation in total defense and, in one year, launched it up to 54th.
It’s an ascent made all the more impressive by the fact that Buh never played football until he got to high school. For him, there was immediate satisfaction in being a physical part of a team, a cog in a larger machine.
Mostly, he just loved the competition. Even back then, the traditional do-or-die mentality poked through.
“That’s what drove me then, still driving me now,” Buh says. “I love games that we keep scoring in. I love having a winner and a loser.”
It’s a good thing, then, that he’s serving under Dykes, who has engineered a score-fest of an offense thus far in the season.
But this stint in Memorial Stadium was years in the making. Buh’s big break came a year after he graduated from college, when he was paying his dues as a high school coach in his hometown of Escondido, Calif. Nevada called him up and asked whether he wanted to be a graduate assistant for his old team.
“I jumped in the car and did it,” he says. “And I’ve never looked back.”
Only a year and a degree separated him from the players he coached, but it was easy for him to compartmentalize because he wanted to coach so badly.
The job itself, however, was far from easy. Graduate assistants are essentially indentured servants, working long hours for meager stipends. Buh could only dig deeper when he watched his average workday stretch well beyond 13 hours.
“I do distinctly remember sitting there at 2 o’clock in the morning, saying, ‘Is this investment ever going to pay off?’ ” he says.
In the midst of that first year, he knew: This is what he wanted to do with his life. For him, the struggle was only made the more real because it reinforced the values he’d learned on the field.
Never before was consistency, and the desire for greatness, so necessary.
Through that experience, he learned another lesson that he now imparts to his players. If your own visions of grandeur don’t align with what the team needs to be successful, then you push them to the back burner. But you never give up, either.
“Invest everything you have without any guarantees,” he says. “And then banking on your belief that it will happen.”
That lesson has become an unavoidable reality for the Cal defense this year.
“In my career there has never been a string of bad games,” Buh says. “There’s been a bad game here and there, but never a string.”
It’s not that hard to believe him. After all, Cal has, by its own confession, been pretty bad on the defensive end of the ball. In every game, the Bears have fallen into an early hole, allowing the opponent to score on its opening drive. Only once has Cal been able to claw its way out later on for a win — and even then, the opponent was Portland State, an FCS school.
After facing some of the nation’s toughest offensive onslaughts, the Bears have given up 2,050 total yards, with an average of 45.3 points.
Just as Buh has never faced a string of games this bad, he’s also never faced a string of injured players quite this serious.
The depth chart Cal released at the end of spring camp and the list of starters in last week’s game against No. 2 Oregon look like two very different lists, as far as defense goes.
Only three of the tentative starters last spring have continued to hold down their positions through the fall campaign. The rest of the positions have ridden what Buh calls a “merry-go-round of players getting injured.”
“There’s a handful of guys that are learning on the job right now,” Buh says.
He and the assistant coaches act like nothing has changed. By stressing the same lessons each week — everything from alignments to sight lines — the coaching staff hopes fundamentals will sink in through sheer repetition. There’s no room for error; there’s no room to introduce new material.
But according to Jefferson, there is sometimes room for what Buh calls a quick “smile break.” If a player gets too frustrated, Buh reminds him to enjoy the game into which he’s pouring all his effort. Shake off the negativity before concentrating on the fundamentals once more.
It’s a joke Jefferson and his teammates sometimes bounce back at their coach when he gets too mad.
“We say, ‘Coach, take a smile break,’ ” Jefferson says. “He smirks a little bit, and that loosens him up.”
The game is a constant ebb and flow for Buh. There are wins and — at this point — mostly losses. There is consistency, which in turn leads to greatness.
But for a guy who’s always smiling, there’s still time for that, too.
Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]