By Jay Heater
SAN FRANCISCO - Cal coach Jeff Tedford, speaking at the Big Game Media Luncheon on Monday at Patxi's restaurant in the city, reflected back on one of his first recruiting trips, this one to La Puente in an attempt to sign Bishop Amat star Donnie McCleskey. "I'll never forget him saying, 'I'm coming to Cal to win.'" Tedford said about McCleskey, now the Bears' senior rover. Considering that Cal had just gone 1-10 in 2001 and hadn't beaten Stanford since 1994, McCleskey's faith in Tedford was noteworthy. On Saturday at Stanford Stadium, McCleskey and company will be trying to win their fourth consecutive Big Game. It could be Cal's best streak against Stanford since 1936-39 when Leonard "Stub" Allison was coach. It's a streak that has captured the attention of first-year Stanford coach Walt Harris. "In order to have a rivalry, you can't have one team winning all the games," Harris said.
Harris appears to have changed Stanford's mentality about winning and what kind of commitment is needed. Harris gave an example of the change in attitude on Monday.
"I see (senior nose tackle) Babatunde Oshinowo today and his suit is fitting him very loose," Harris said. "That's a sign that we've done our job. We needed to trim him down." Oshinowo, a 320-pounder who has had weight problems, lost about 20 pounds and became a force in the middle with 7.5 tackles for loss and 43 total tackles.
Certainly, a lot of Stanford players made a commitment to change their fortunes after a loss to UC Davis on Sept. 17 threatened to put their season in the dumpster before it even got started. The Cardinal is 5-4 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10 going into Saturday's game. Stanford would be bowl eligible with a win over Cal or a victory in the season-finale on Nov. 26 against Notre Dame. "Whatever success we have had this season is a credit to the great leadership of our seniors," Harris said. "They were tired of getting their butt beat. They tried to put things together for us, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate what the seniors have done. They have provided the intensity and the excitement that we have to have." Tedford has had that kind of commitment since he took over. The seniors who have played under Tedford currently have a 31-17 record. However, Cal (6-4, 3-4) has lost four of five games going into the Big Game. The Bears are bowl eligible despite their poor run.
Tedford noted that Cal was only a few plays from being 9-1. The Bears suffered narrow losses to UCLA (47-40), Oregon State (23-20) and Oregon (27-20 in overtime).
Stanford's season has been similar. The Cardinal lost 20-17 to Davis in the final seconds and dropped a 30-27 game to UCLA in overtime. "We easily could be sitting at 7-2," Oshinowo said. "I think we are set up for a dramatic finish." Harris, who was an assistant at Cal from 1974-77, said he could do without the week-long buildup to the Big Game. "I wish we didn't have to participate in all this other stuff," he said of his speaking engagements. "All this hoopla is (the media's) job."
Tedford felt the same way his first season in 2002, but his attitude has softened a bit. "It's a great, great game, and it means a lot to a lot of people," Tedford said. "There is a sense of pride. I have a much better appreciation for the game now."