The Cal football team has one more chance to redeem itself, in the Armed Forces Bowl. After the Bears’ listless performance in the Big Game, I doubt they can do it.
The Cal season can be divided into three parts. First, there was the 5-0 start, which caused fans, media and players to have unrealistic expectations about a national championship. Then, there was the period of close losses to Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State and Southern Cal, games that could have gone either way. Finally, there was a stretch of three games against the three weakest teams in the conference; Cal barely beat Washington State, lost big to Washington and then fell to Stanford on Saturday.
In retrospect, this was never a team that should have been in the national championship game. But neither was it a team that should have finished at .500. On talent, it was probably about an 8-4 team, maybe 9-3 with some breaks.
Coach Jeff Tedford has been a target for unhappy followers, both younger alumni and the bandwagon jumpers, who have accused him of losing his team. When this happens, there are two specific reasons:
The players rebel because a coach drives them too hard with physical workouts. This was more frequent in the ’80s in college football — Frank Kush was an example at Arizona State — although we’ve seen it in the pros recently in Jacksonville with Tom Coughlin, whose team went from 14-2 in 1999 to 7-9 and two 6-10 seasons, which cost him his job.
Neither of these is true of Tedford, who is very close to his players, keeping track of how they do academically and in their on-campus lives, as well as on the football field. After practice, I’ve often seen him talking to players individually and not about football.
Practice? His practices are models of organization and not overly demanding physically. And Tedford is very conservative with his handling of player injuries. Typically, he sought different medical opinions on the injured hip of freshman Javid Best. Though Best is a very special player and was missed in the Big Game, Tedford won’t use him until he’s certain Best isn’t jeopardizing his career by playing.
So, what has happened to the Bears? Part of it is physical. They have only two defensive playmakers, defensive end Rulon Davis and linebacker Zack Follett, and both have been out with injuries much of the season. DeSean Jackson, who was supposed to be a Heisman Trophy contender, had nagging injuries most of the season and missed the Big Game. Quarterback Nate Longshore injured his ankle in the Oregon win and hasn’t been right since.
But mostly, it’s been emotional. The players became increasingly upset about their season slipping away, and there were no leaders among the players to get them to snap out of it. Last week, linebacker Worrell Williams talked about the season being lost, which is not exactly the way to approach a rivalry game.
I hope the players will learn a lesson about themselves from this season. I also hope they’ll snap out of their funk and win their bowl game, but I’ve been hoping for that for nearly a month and it hasn’t happened.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.