A popular refrain surrounding Jeff Tedford’s firing last week is that he was a victim of his own success. He raised the bar so high in his first five seasons at Cal it created unrealistic expectations amongst the fan base.
While this is certainly true, it doesn’t paint a complete picture about why Bear Backers have such inflated expectations for a program that hasn’t made a Rose Bowl appearance since 1959. Tedford’s two 10-win seasons did sprinkle false optimism across the Berkeley campus, but Stanford’s back-to-back BCS bowl appearances in 2010 and 2011 didn’t exactly lower the bar for him either. Would Tedford have faced so much indignation if Stanford were still putting up 1-11, 2-10 and 3-9 seasons?
The problem here is that Cal started to slow down just as Stanford was catching wind. The Bears reached their apex — No. 2 in national polls — in October 2007; one week after Jim Harbaugh’s squad shook the world by upsetting Pete Carroll’s USC team in Los Angeles. After that, one program rose to national prominence while the other faded into mediocrity.
To make matters worse, Stanford is winning with “character and cruelty” while Cal’s graduation success rate slipped to 48 percent, the lowest amongst Pac-12 Conference schools right now.
The lofty expectations in Berkeley are closely tied to the university’s self image. Cal grads like to brag about how the school is the top public university in the country. They expect world-class achievement in quantum physics, molecular biology and, yes, athletics, too.
Prior to Tedford, though, the alumni had resigned to a lower standard on the gridiron, in large part because of the dumb-jock stereotype: top football players can’t meet Cal’s rigorous academic standards. But this narrative couldn’t be resuscitated once Tedford’s program started its backslide because Stanford is crushing its opponents with an army of super-achieving students.
Henry Anderson, Jordan Richards, Daniel Zychlinski, Zach Ertz, Kevin Danser and Ben Gardner were all named to the All-Pac-12 team this year while simultaneously earning All-Academic honors, and they could play in the Rose Bowl this season, too.
If Cal’s next coach is going to compete with Stanford, he will need to find a way to lure some of these recruits away from the Farm. Winning football isn’t just about size, speed and strength. Coach David Shaw’s club is proving that character, resilience and trust are key ingredients, too. An athlete who pursues excellence in every facet of life will likely possess the mental toughness to hold the rope when the game is on the line.
Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour’s best option for closing the Stanford gap is to hire a coach who is associated with the Cardinal football program. It could be 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman or one of Shaw’s top assistants, Pep Hamilton or Derek Mason.
Each of these candidates knows the recipe for building a successful program. They would bring a winning, smash-mouth style of play to Strawberry Canyon while attracting the high-achieving student-athletes that make Cal backers proud.
These expectations might seem bloated, but when does Cal allow its standards to be lower than Stanford’s?
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.