BERKELEY -- I came here Friday to spy on the Tennessee Volunteers. Hey, all's fair in love and BCS wars. I wanted to see how they could be intimidated for today's season-opening slugfest at Memorial Stadium against the California Golden Bears, which sounds much more intimidating than "Cal Bears." My unscientific findings: The surroundings won't intimidate Tennessee. It's up to Cal coach Jeff Tedford's team to be the bully around here. A year ago, the highly touted Bears were timid in Tennessee. They fell behind 35-0, lost 35-18 and saw their national-title dreams dissolve into a deluge of 106,000 orange-clad fans. "There wasn't any question we got helped out by the crowd, but we also played well, too," Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer said Friday at Memorial Stadium. With kickoff 24 hours away, Fulmer called his team "relaxed," and the Vols sure didn't seem in shock or awe as they took the field for a light workout.
Of course, there'll be 72,500 more fans in the bleachers today, along with a national television audience, when the 12th-ranked Bears seek revenge, redemption and recognition against the 15th-ranked Volunteers. "I think it's fun," Fulmer said of opening on the road. "I look forward to these opportunities and challenges." Fun? How would he know? His Volunteers have started 13 of 15 seasons in the friendly fort known as Neyland Stadium. The two times they started on the road under Fulmer: In 1998, at Syracuse, a win that sparked their national-championship season; and, in 1994, at UCLA, a 25-23 defeat that is Fulmer's only season-opening loss.
All that's in the past, though. Today's what counts. And I still needed to know how hard it would be to intimidate a Tennessee program that routinely plays before more ravenous crowds at LSU's "Death Valley," Florida's "Swamp" and Alabama's crimson-covered coliseum.
"We need to have poise for the noise," Fulmer said. That noise will come streaming out of 50,000 free megaphones fans can lock their lips around and yell: "This is Bear territory!"
My spy game Friday, however, revealed a not-so-intimidating Bear territory. I started a few blocks away from campus at the Claremont, or "The Claremont Resort & Spa," as it says on the notepad I swiped from Tennessee's team hotel. As the spa's pungent aroma of lavender gassed the hallways, I spotted Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge. Our scouting reports were confirmed: He's got a big, silver splint on his broken right pinkie. My hunch: He doesn't play. Then again, I've played through a broken pinkie, and I completed every semicolon I typed with my splint in the winter of '97. If he does play, that pinkie might get real intimidated the second it meets a Cal helmet. OK, back to the spy game. As I eavesdropped on a Claremont balcony, a few Tennessee fans, two assistant coaches and a few players surveyed the San Francisco skyline under blue skies and a comforting breeze.
"This is as good as it gets," one assistant said to another. "How can you beat this?" Yep, how can they beat the Bears? Whoops. He meant the weather, which certainly isn't intimidating, unless you're on the other side of the Oakland hills. Fulmer, by the way, later scoffed at us poor souls who are sweating. "Everyone here thinks they're in a heat wave," Fulmer said. "Not compared to what we've been through." Compared to Tennessee, Cal's campus doesn't ooze football. Up the Campanile Tower I went, scanning 360 degrees for anything that might scare our out-of-town guests. Coeds casually threw Frisbees on the lawn -- no broken pinkies to report -- and Sproul Plaza looked so sedate. Students were encouraged to wear blue-and-gold to show their school spirit, yet I spotted one girl wearing, get this, an orange skirt. I think my ogling intimidated her. Off I meandered to Telegraph Ave., where vendors were hawking their tie-dye masterpieces. Lots of options, but not one said: "I Volunteer to Vilify the Volunteers."
As the sun started to set, I headed for the bonfire. Silly me. That would mean the burning of wood, of sacred trees, many of which are occupied at the moment next to Memorial Stadium. You'll surely see those fenced-in tree worshipers today, either in person or on TV. Don't worry, they're not too intimidating, though they did call me a "frat boy" as I walked past them in my collared shirt and visor. The biggest intimidators on Cal's campus today must be its football players. Fulmer knows his defense, especially his untested secondary, faces a "significant challenge."
The biggest challenge: Cal returner/receiver DeSean Jackson, who launches Phase 1 of his Heisman Trophy candidacy. Said Fulmer: "Every time Jackson gets his hands on the ball, it's a thrill a minute." Hmmn, sounds intimidating.