A losing culture

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Through clenched teeth, head coach Justin Wilcox addressed members of the media after Cal’s 21-6 homecoming loss to Washington State.

His eyes moved listlessly about the room as he fielded questions that all hinted at two bigger questions: What in the world was that performance? And who is to blame?

Wilcox provided the stock answer that all head football coaches give after an atrocious loss.

“We didn’t do much of anything all that well and that’s on me,” Wilcox said. “My job is to prepare our team to be successful and I failed.”

Good on Wilcox for accepting responsibility. But given the fact that every right-minded coach publicly accepts responsibility for failure, maybe we shouldn’t accept Wilcox’s answer so quickly.

Many suggest that fourth-year starting quarterback Chase Garbers is to blame. After all, he had just 65 yards passing through the first three quarters of the game, 44 of which came on a big completion to wide receiver Kekoa Crawford early in the first quarter. As a leader on the team — if not the main man — Garbers was entrusted to carry his team back from a poor first half that saw the Bears turn the ball over or punt on five of their first six drives. But to be fair, the entire offense played poorly: Cal’s offensive line allowed four sacks and WSU earned seven tackles for loss, indicating pervasive problems.

If that is the case, then maybe offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is at fault. The offense’s inability to score more than one touchdown at home against a team that allowed an average of almost 32 points per game through its first three matchups suggests that he may be to blame. Then again, the Bears have shown flashes of brilliance this season, especially in the passing game against TCU and Sacramento State.

Maybe Cal’s defense should receive the bulk of the criticism. Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura tore Cal’s secondary apart from the very beginning, throwing for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 11 for 15 passing in the first quarter before the Bears’ defense finally woke up. Through five games, defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon has yet to prove that he is a worthy replacement for his predecessor, Tim DeRuyter. But it would be unfair to say that allowing 21 points to Wazzu is a total failure.

Ultimately, Cal’s 1-7 record against FBS teams since 2019 and its utterly shameful display last weekend cannot be attributed to any one player or coach. It is the losing culture of the program that is at the root of the Bears’ sharp decline since going 8-5 in 2019.

By losing culture, I mean one that is not so much interested in winning but in muddling through. Wilcox and Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton certainly talk the talk. Press conferences are riddled with platitudes about expecting greatness and setting the bar high. But a program with a winning culture does not allow its special teams unit to miss PATs week after week. It does not keep its starting quarterback in the game after he passes for 65 yards through three quarters. It does not allow the head coach to demote an excellent defensive coordinator in DeRuyter in order to promote his friend and teammate from college. And it certainly does not allow a sparsely populated stadium on homecoming.

The sea of empty bleachers on the south side of Memorial Stadium on Saturday as well as the mass exodus from the student section midway through the third quarter are the effects of a program that accepts — nay, welcomes — mediocrity.

And so, who is to blame? Wilcox may be right; he is the face of the program and so deserves the blame for what was Cal’s most embarrassing performance and start to a season in quite some time. And one might dissect stats, blown coverages and odd play calls all season long. But in the end, it is the atmosphere surrounding the program that precludes Cal from at the very least competing at the Power Five level. Everyone involved in the program is, to varying degrees, responsible for allowing a losing culture to persist.

I am confident that someday, Cal will be relevant again. But that return to relevance will not come under this team, coaching staff or athletic department leadership. And it won’t happen any time soon.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].