I’d be surprised if Cal football coach Jeff Tedford has ever been happier to see a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) team roll into Berkeley.
Tedford’s young squad will get a chance to pick up some more live-game experience against Southern Utah on Saturday and hopefully grab a win before heading off to Ohio State and Southern Cal this month.
But even if Tedford’s crew wins big, will it be enough to reverse the storm that is brewing at Cal?
Short of an earthquake, it is hard to imagine a more disastrous beginning to the new era of Cal football than what we saw at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. It wasn’t just the 31-24 loss to Nevada — disappointment is part of the tradition — but rather Tedford’s decision to not inform his team until the day before the game that he was planning to bench quarterback Zach Maynard for most of the first quarter.
Most of the 63,000 fans in attendance were shocked when Allan Bridgford strapped on his helmet to take the game’s opening snaps. But Bridgford’s teammates should have been well aware of what was coming.
Can you imagine practicing hard all summer, studying the playbook and learning the system only to discover less than 24 hours before the season’s kickoff that your quarterback — the player the season hinges on — is being benched because of a transgression that occurred more than two months ago? Talk about dropping a bomb on your team.
It seems like Tedford was trying to have it both ways: He wanted to punish Maynard for missing a tutoring appointment and shield him from public criticism at the same time. Maynard received the lion’s share of the blame (not always fairly) for Cal’s 7-6 campaign last year and if word of his punishment had leaked, it would have been reported in every preseason article about the team. How could Tedford promote Maynard as a matured quarterback in camp if the world knew he was being disciplined for blowing off his tutors?
But if Cal had thumped Nevada, no one would have cared who started under center and that must have been the strategy: minimize the negative publicity. If everything went according to plan, Tedford could have addressed the situation after the game by simply saying: action was taken, Maynard accepted his punishment and now we’re moving on. Instead, the Bears fell behind 14-0 as Bridgford struggled (1-of-8 for eight yards) and after the game Keenan Allen questioned the wisdom of keeping the offense in the dark.
So what? Big deal? We’re talking about 13:26 of one nonconference game here, right?
Actually, the issue has nothing to do with what happened on the field — it’s about trust. By not sharing this decision with his players, Tedford implicitly told the 121 guys on his roster that he can’t trust them with a team secret. And if the coach doesn’t trust his players, how can they be expected to completely buy into what he’s selling?
Tedford started the season with his job in question and this fiasco doesn’t reinstill any confidence in his ability to lead Cal football into the future. But adversity can bring a team together as quickly as rips them apart. If Tedford can somehow use this moment as a rallying point that turns the ship around, it would surely be his best work in Berkeley to date.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PGackle.