I know where old sportswriters go when they die. They become the creative muses of publicity writers for college football teams.
A search through the archives and press guides of any team, the California Golden Bears included, yields reams of overwrought prose, delightfully arcane and overwrought adjectives, verbs, and analogies, and a deluge of statistics to emphasize the strengths of a program and minimize any weaknesses.
This year the publicists for the Bears have had an easy time of it without the need for much exaggeration. Cal finished a ten-win, one-loss season with a No. 4 national ranking in the Associated Press and ESPN / USA Today polls.
Even in the unlikely event that the season comes to a disappointing end this week with a loss in the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech, this year’s Golden Bears have played remarkably, memorably, and successfully.
They also earned near-icon status for third year coach Jeff Tedford, who now has a 25-12 record at Cal.
The Golden Bears had the best win-loss record for a Cal football team since 1950, when the team went 9-0-1. This was also Cal’s first ten-win season since 1949.
Their single loss against USC was assuaged by the fact that the Bears came within one play and nine yards of beating what was then, and still remains, the number one team in the country. A further consolidation is that the Bears beat USC last year, the only team in two years to do so.
And, for traditionalists like me, even Cal’s last-minute exclusion from the Rose Bowl was not irredeemably bitter, since historically it’s the Pac-10 champion who plays there and Cal came in second in the conference this year, behind USC.
Cal was the only team to finish the season ranked in the top six nationally in both defense and offense. There were two defensive shutouts and two wins where the opponent was held to less than a touchdown, while on offense the Bears regularly scored more than 40 points per game.
Cal fans were able to enjoy not only a great team effort, but also remarkable individual performances. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a national record-tying 23 consecutive pass completions against USC and was, statistically, one of the best passers in the country.
Tailback J.J. Arrington was arguably the best runner in the country and freshmen running back Marshawn Lynch may become the best if he has other years like this one.
Defensive end Ryan Riddle, Arrington, and receiver Geoff McArthur all set career records at Cal, the last two coming quite appropriately in the Big Game against Stanford.
Things were particularly charmed this year for Memorial Stadium spectators. Cal was unbeaten at home for the first time since 1950.
Veteran Cal fans, used to years of clenching the edges of their splintery seats during the fourth quarter and hoping that the Bears could either catch up, or not find a way to fumble away a fragile lead, were treated to one decisive win after another.
There have never be so many season-ticket holding Cal fans—nearly 35,000. And total game attendance was nearly double that number, despite kickoff times that jumped all over the afternoon and evening due to television demands.
Memorial Stadium crowds averaged 64,019 for the season, the highest average in Cal home game history. On Sept. 11 Cal had the largest home opener crowd ever in Berkeley, while nearly 70,000 showed up for the Oct. 16 home game against UCLA.
Particularly sweet for home game fans was the sold-out the Big Game on Nov. 20, when Memorial Stadium was a pulsating lake of blue and gold seamed by only a few small, largely silent, wedges of Cardinal red.
Cal won by a score of 41-6, the greatest margin of Big Game victory for the Golden Bears since 1930.
Perhaps best of all, at least from the perspective of long-time Cal fans, was the fact that this was a third consecutive win over Stanford, some recompense for the seven consecutive losses Cal suffered before Tedford arrived as coach.
Success on the football field was complimented by a revival of participation in old and new campus spirit activities, organized by the student Rally Committee.
The Big Game Rally on the evening of November 19 drew a standing room only crowd of students and alumni to the Greek Theatre.
Memorial Stadium was graced by some of the best card stunts—mass, changing, displays of colored cards in the student rooting section—for decades and Sather Tower was lighted blue and gold during Big Game Week. The Cal Band delivered crisp and entertaining performances on and off the field.
Although some Berkeley residents and officials viewed the large home game crowds and attendant traffic congestion with mixed emotions, Saturday home football games represent what may be the Berkeley community’s oldest annual mass cultural tradition.
College football has been played in large stadiums in the southeast part of the Berkeley campus for a century.
California Field, an angular wooden stadium designed by John Galen Howard, preceded Memorial Stadium. It sat some 17,000 spectators on the present-day site of Hearst Gymnasium and North Field.
That seems small today but was plenty large at a time when there were just 2,839 students at the Berkeley campus and the whole town’s population was less than 15,000.
Less than two decades later California Memorial Stadium was opened when, under Coach Andy Smith, Cal was a fully successful participant in national college football mania. The Golden Bear “Wonder Teams” were in the midst of a run of five undefeated seasons.
Since that time Cal has enjoyed a number of great seasons and bowl appearances, but only one other truly sustained period of national football success, the Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf era from the late 1940s through the late 1950s.
Given the results of this season and Tedford’s increasing success in his first three seasons, not a few Cal fans hope for a continued Golden Bear presence in the very highest ranks of college football.
In recent years the Golden Bears have banished almost all of the disappointments that have marked the football program since the Waldorf era. Only three long-standing objectives remain: beating Washington State in Pullman and thus lifting the “Curse of the Palouse”; winning the Pac-10 championship outright; returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959.
Can a prospective Tedford era come to equal the Waldorf and Andy Smith years? Perhaps, although we will need to experience six or seven more seasons to tell.
Tedford certainly has made a good start, and the season concluded with a much ballyhooed contract renewal, as well as more than a few raised eyebrows at an annual salary more than three times that of the Chancellor.
Is Cal football likely to become a perpetual national power under, and after, Tedford? Bear fans may dream, but the odds are long.
Division 1A teams in major conferences that have undefeated or only one-or-two-loss seasons year after year are few and far between. Even those ranked highly for decades can fall on hard times. This year the football programs at Washington, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Nebraska are among the cautionary examples.
Many critics would also say that level of college football success is a decidedly mixed blessing, with programs acting more like mini-NFL franchises and less like part of a genuine college athletic tradition.
Nonetheless, Cal football has had a truly golden existence this year and, even if it proves to be an anomaly, Bear fans and Berkeley experienced a season to remember.
Berkeley resident Steven Finacom attended his first Cal football games in the mid-1970s. He is a career staff member at the University, but is not affiliated with the Intercollegiate Athletics Department.›