When the Cal Bears came to Husky Stadium in 2002, Washington fans viewed the game as standard fare. After all, the Bears hadn’t beaten the Huskies in 26 years. Cal was also coming off a 1-10 season from the year before. The Huskies, meanwhile, were only two years removed from their Rose Bowl Championship. The expectations in Seattle were for a comfortable Washington win.
But the Bears arrived with first-year coach Jeff Tedford. The Pac-10 didn’t yet realize it, but he was in the midst of transforming the entire football culture at Berkeley. It was certainly on display that day against the Huskies. Tedford had his safeties come right up to the line of scrimmage and manhandle Washington’s star receiver Reggie Williams. The Bears roughhoused their way to a 34-27 victory—which sent shockwaves throughout the Pac-10. After the game, as the Bears gathered in the visitor’s locker room, they chanted “76,000 disappointed fans! 76,000 disappointed fans!”
By the end of that year, the Bears finished the season at 7-5—a remarkable 6-game turnaround. The next season featured a watershed moment. In triple overtime at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, the Bears stunned top-ranked USC 34-31. As gleeful fans stormed the field, it was an epic moment under the lights. The consensus along the west coast was that California Bears football was about to ascend into the stratosphere.
Six years have passed since that time. Tedford’s Bears have not become the Pac-10’s colossus. They’re like an airplane sitting idly on the tarmac and not getting airborne. There have been 10-win seasons in 2004 and 2006, but no appearances in BCS bowls.
The 2009 season was supposed to finally be Tedford’s moment to challenge USC’s supremacy. Running back Jahvid Best was a Heisman Trophy candidate and Syd’Quan Thompson a premier cornerback. The Bears opened up with a 3-0 start and twice topped 50 points. Their national ranking climbed to #6.
Then came games against Oregon and USC, in which the Bears became stunningly bad. They lost to the Ducks 42-3 and the Trojans 30-3. They went back-to-back games without scoring a touchdown. Their quarterback, Kevin Riley, has completed a dreadful 38% of his passes. Defensive players hace been constantly out of position while the wide receivers are dropping passes like an assembly line. All this has dropped the team from the national rankings. And to top it off, rumors are circulating that Cal players are increasingly recalcitrant to Tedford’s gruff ways.
After eight seasons to evaluate Tedford’s performance, it’s evident the Bears have reached a ceiling. The problem is that expectations for greatness are now a part of culture at Cal. Therein lies Tedford’s self-created problem: the more he succeeds, the higher he’s expected to climb.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Jim L. Mora is coaching the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. The team is 2-3, coming off a win over Jacksonville. Mora is a coach in the Pete Carroll mode—young, energetic and defensive minded. He relates very well to his players, and speaks their language. From his days as defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, Mora is renown as a defensive mastermind and dynamic presence. Respected players that have played for him, like ex-Husky Lawyer Milloy, rave about Mora’s ability to get his team enthusiastic. Others, like ex-Husky Lincoln Kennedy, have described Mora’s reputation throughout the NFL as being almost too much of a player’s coach. These characteristics are indeed geared more for the college game and are Carrollesque.
Mora has now entered a situation in Seattle where he followed future Hall of Fame coach Mike Holmgren. But the team’s core is aging and a mere shell of its ‘05 self that played in the Super Bowl. Mora has already been fired from the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him under pressure by the end of the 2010 or 2011 seasons, if a string of 6-10 and 5-11 seasons occur. In earlier times, Pete Carroll struggled twice as a head coach in the NFL and was fired both times. Then he was hired by the USC Trojans, and the rest is history. The NFL is jokingly known as “Not For Long” for a reason.
If by 2010 the Seahawks are struggling…. and if the Bears finish with another 8-win season and requisite Holiday Bowl berth, firing Tedford and bringing in Mora could be the key to challenging USC for Pac-10 supremacy.
Derek Johnson’s book The Dawgs of War: a Remembrance can be purchased at Derekjohnsonbooks.com