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November 4, 2012

COMMENTARY: Falling by Numbers



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BERKELEY -- As the press box hummed with the chattering of keyboards late Friday night, one of my fellow California football publishers looked up from the glow of his screen, and asked, "This was Tedford's birthday? How old is he?"

We answered, "51."

"Surely, you jest," chortled our colleague. "He's got to be 61."

"No. He's 51," I replied. Good friend John Breech of CBS Sports concurred.

It was an innocent question, especially considering that college football coaches tend to age like presidents, and Jeff Tedford more severely than others, due to his all-consuming dedication and tireless work ethic.

Yes, Tedford is the program's all-time wins leader, with 82 career victories. He's been to eight bowl games, winning five. He's beaten Stanford seven times, including five straight from 2002-2006. He was a major instrument in the $321 million renovation of California Memorial Stadium, and the construction of the top-of-the-line, big-daddy-state-of-the-art Simpson Center for Student Athlete High Performance. Very literally, Cal football would not look the same today were it not for Jeff Tedford.

After Friday's game, Tedford said, "The program is fine; we had a down year."

After the 10-9 loss to Arizona two seasons ago, Tedford threw open the locker room doors in Tucson and barked, "Are we going to do this or what?"

He was clearly infuriated. He was angry. He was indignant. He still had his fire. The Bears finished 5-7 that season, with Washington dealing the final blow at a rain-soaked Memorial Stadium, with a largely-silent 44,613 in attendance on Nov. 27, 2010.

23 months later, Cal once again fell to the Huskies. This time, Washington won, 21-13, on ESPN2, in primetime, on a Friday night, with just 42,226 on hand in a freshly-renovated California Memorial Stadium, no longer the crumbling, aging old lady of yesteryear, but a grand palace, a gleaming monument to Tedford and to the game of football.

In 2010, Washington had Jake Locker and won just 16-13. On Friday, the Huskies had Keith Price, and they won, 21-13.

In 2010, Tedford had backup quarterback Brock Mansion. On Friday, he had senior Zach Maynard -- a two-year starter -- who left at least 14 points on the board due to poor timing or overthrows.

When all is said and done, when the season is over, and Tedford's fate is decided -- whatever the future holds for him -- we will all point to a singular moment -- one instant in time -- in which the mystique was shattered. We will all point to another nose-numbingly chilled night, back in October of 2007.

Before that night, Tedford was 48-20 as Cal's head coach, with a 27-14 record against the Pac-10. Since that night -- including that gut-wrenching loss -- Tedford is 34-36 overall, and 21-29 against conference opponents.

It's Oct. 13, 2007. Oregon State just barely leads the No. 2-ranked Bears 31-28, with 14 seconds left on the clock.

The Bears are at the Beavers 12-yard line. No time outs left. 63,000 in the stands, holding their collective breath.

No. 1 LSU has just lost to Kentucky. Cal is literally 14 seconds from being the No. 1 team in the land, if only Riley can make a play, or, failing that, throw the ball out of bounds and let Jordan Kay hammer home the chip shot to force overtime.

The 20-year old lines up in the shotgun, already with 20 completions on 34 attempts for 294 yards in place of the injured Nate Longshore.

Instead of electing to send Kay and the kicking team out, Tedford allows Riley to go for it. He's played well thus far. Might as well let it ride.

Riley hesitates after the ball is snapped, scanning the field ahead of him. Everything slows down. It's like a car crash.

12 seconds left. The world is shrinking. Not a single receiver is open, but in that instant, Riley sees some green field ahead of him. It's end zone or bust now. He passes the line of scrimmage. Can't throw it anymore, can't get it out of bounds. The former four-star recruit has to use his mobility.

With nine seconds on the clock, that open field of green dries up. It shrinks, it evaporates. Two defenders close in, and one of them twirls Riley to the ground. Seven seconds left, Riley zips to the sideline, still with the ball in his hands, but he can't get there fast enough. Four seconds left, the field goal team frantically tries to get into place. The final horn sounds. Game over. Tedford takes off his headset and heaves it into the turf. In that instant, something changed. Something broke.

In simple terms, the Bears are losing more, losing by more and winning by less over the past five years than in the first half of Tedford's tenure.

From 2002 until that night, Tedford's teams outscored opponents in wins by the count of 1,860 points to 831, winning by an average of 21.4 points per victory.

Over that same span, when Cal lost, it was by an average of just 8.9 points per game.

Take out the five wins over New Mexico State (three times) and FCS teams Sacramento State and Portland State, and the Bears won by an average of 20.7 points per game over FBS opponents.

Since that night, Cal has won by an average of 22.3 points per game, but, if you take out the 59-7 win over Eastern Washington, the 52-3 win over UC Davis, the 63-12 win over Presbyterian and the 50-31 win over Southern Utah, that average drops to a 17.3 point differential in wins over FBS teams.

Even more telling are the losses. Since that night, Tedford has lost 16 games by 14 points or more. Before that night, he had only lost six games by 14 points or more. In losses since the game against the Beavers, the Bears have fallen by an average of 15.1 points per loss.

Since that October night, Tedford has not been the same. He has gone 2-4 against the Cardinal. He has gone to four bowl games, and lost twice, having not won a bowl game since the 2008 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. The Bears will not go bowling this year, and with No. 4 Oregon and No. 11 Oregon State on tap to finish out the season, Cal is staring down the barrel of a 3-9 season. The last time the Bears lost that many games, Tom Holmoe was the head coach.

Tedford's recruiting classes from 2007 through 2012 have an average ranking of about 25th in the nation, so it has not been for lack of talent on the roster.

"Two years ago, we didn't go to a bowl game, but we lost our starting quarterback (Riley) that year and lost close games," Tedford said on Friday. "We need to continue to recruit. We have a good group of young guys; from the offensive line to the skill players you saw today. I am very committed to getting the program back to where it needs to be."

Coaches have come back from the depths before. Tedford's former boss -- Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti -- went 21-3 in 2000 and 2001, only to go 20-17 over the next three seasons, culminating in a 5-6 season in 2004. He came back to go 36-15 over his final four seasons. It's not impossible, but there are reasons why examples such as Bellotti are so easily remembered: They are rare.

These are not opinions. These are not tortured numbers. The sample size is significant. These are facts. They are not pleasant. They are what they are, and Tedford is what he has become.

He is still pushing. He is still working, perhaps even harder than ever. He still has the heart. When he says he loves his players -- as he did after Friday's loss -- there is no doubt that he means it with every fiber of his being. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in college football that works longer, harder hours, or genuinely cares more for his charges. Even though it won't help the APR or GSR numbers, he still calls players long since gone from Berkeley, to implore them to finish the one or two online classes they have left so that they can rightfully earn their college degrees.

He's in better shape now than he's been in, in years. He's started running around the field after practices again. The spirit may be willing, the will and the desire that pulled him up from living in a warehouse and scrapping together just enough money to eat, much less attend college, may still be there, but at the end of the day, Jeff Tedford is a 51-year old man who looks every bit of 61.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article listed New Mexico State as an FCS team. That is incorrect. The Aggies are a part of the Western Athletic Conference, and have been since 2005. Before that, they were members of the Sun Belt Conference. New Mexico State is a longtime member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division 1A). BearTerritory.net regrets the error.


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