A few weeks ago on a hot and humid Saturday morning in Oxford, Mississippi, nearly 10,000 Cal fans packed into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to watch a surprisingly entertaining and equally nail-biting 28-20 Bears victory over Ole Miss.
It went down to the wire, like most games that Cal takes part in. Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was swallowed at the goal line by Cal linebacker Evan Weaver on the last play of the game to give the Bears their fourth win of the season and send the Cal faithful into a jubilant frenzy.
Snapshots from the postgame victory lap are still cemented in my mind, with scenes of nearly every player on the roster running and high-fiving the Cal faithful who trickled fieldside to serenade the team back to the locker room. The moment was felt by everyone, as head coach Justin Wilcox jumped to hug an elated Chase Garbers. The redshirt sophomore quarterback had just played the game of his life.
Although the game poured an ocean’s worth of hope into hungry blue and gold hearts, it was, ultimately, just the next chapter in the beautifully flawed story of Cal football and its fans.
The Ole Miss game was one that had been circled on Cal fans’ calendars for years. It was the first time the Bears were traveling to an SEC school in 13 years, and even those with the slightest connection to Cal wanted to be a part of it. Their presence in Oxford showed the depth of the Cal football tradition and the weight it still carries with alumni.
The Bears traveled home, rested for the weekend, and came out on Monday literally begging any and all students to show up to their next game. It was a natural response for a team that knew the majority of its fellow students didn’t care whether the Bears won or lost, or even that they played.
Weaver, Wilcox and safety Jaylinn Hawkins personally campaigned on social media as well as on campus to get a student body that had lost its passion to care about the tradition of Cal football again.
And it worked.
For the first time since the 2018 Big Game, the student section was full when Cal kicked off a prime-time game Arizona State. Fans made themselves known, and, for the briefest of moments, they built an atmosphere fit for a Saturday night at California Memorial Stadium.
But it didn’t last as the Bears were handed their first loss of the season.
The loss was detrimental for many different reasons, with most of them out of the players’ and coaches’ control. In the face of misfortune, fans left early, and Cal, once again, fell short of its lofty expectations. Garbers went down for the season (presumably), and Bear territory was brought crashing back down to reality, a reality where its students could care less. Audiences around the nation witnessed the continued plummet of a culture that had packed California Memorial Stadium for the early part of this decade.
Story after story has been written about the Cal student body’s lack of interest in the team. The stark difference from the last decade, however, is that Cal has been on the upswing for a couple of seasons now and has the infrastructure and resources to be one of the top college football programs in the country.
Last postseason in the NFL, nine former Bears played in the two conference championship games, and five made it to the Pro Bowl — the most of any team in college football. When you consider the strong support at Ole Miss, the university’s willingness to invest in the program and the ever-improving recruiting, it becomes clear that Cal football is in prime position to take the nation by storm for years to come.
The missing piece? A student body that cares about creating a positive culture around college athletics and the benefits that culture can bring to Berkeley.
Cal’s two-game losing streak and the perceived lack of quality of the opposing Oregon State team will likely result in a half-empty student section and a lack of support for a team that is 4-2 in a conference that is wide open at the moment. But this Bears team isn’t going anywhere, and this season is far from over.
If you’re a Cal student, show up to the football games. If you can’t follow the team on its quest for glory, you don’t deserve to share in that glory. Greatness is not something that just appears out of thin air; it requires faith and dedication from players and fans alike. It requires support, and your support is crucial for the team’s success this season and for many seasons to come.
What kind of culture do you want to build? In the end, it’s up to you.