Soft is the new hard. The California Golden Bears gave us West Coast fans and athletes a short break Saturday from the old "soft" criticism. For a while, in Tennessee and the SEC, they won't be talking much about the softness of Cal and the Pac-10. Call it Mr. Whipple's Revenge. Although I have to say that the hardest hit of the game was Tennessee defensive end Antonio Reynolds drilling tailback Jahvid Best on a 2-yard run. Reynolds spun the propeller on Best's freshman beanie. Best was hit so hard that on the next play, in order to clear his head, he went outside for a long run in the country, a 34-yard jaunt. Still, because of Reynolds' hit, on those two carries, the Vols held third-stringer Best to an average of 18 yards. Now that I think about it, Cal didn't live down the West Coast stereotype as much as the Bears reinforced it. The enduring freeze-frame image of the game is from DeSean Jackson's 77-yard punt return, during which he used a lot of standard lightning-fast-dude moves, but also showed a brand-new move: the back step. Jackson simply (it looked simple) took a step backward, causing the would-be tackler to whiff. That play needed a Three Stooges "whoo-whoo-whoo!" sound effect. How will Jackson prove he can take a beating if he won't stand there and let people beat on him?
So we're still soft here on the coast. It's been that way for a long time, probably ever since Vasco Nuñez de Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all its waterfront property for Spain, then started getting letters from home scolding him for hanging out at the beach while the other Conquistadores were doing the dirty work in jungles and swamps. (Eventually, in the first known example of anti-West Coast bias, Balboa was beheaded.) When America became fully settled, the anti-West Coast tradition carried to life in general and sports in particular. Remember the Lakers during the reign of Magic Johnson? Soft! Five NBA championships, but squishy-squishy. Same with the Dodgers during the Lasorda era. They murdered the ball, but Lasorda hugged his players! There are style issues. When Stanford's Hank Luisetti helped invent the jump shot, the East Coasters considered it vaguely unmanly, and stuck with their lovely two-hand set shot for a couple of decades. A great annual tradition was the Rose Bowl, when it was Big Ten versus Pac-8. Woody or Bo would arrive with busloads of lead-footed hay-pitchers who would run to establish the run, and at least half the time, they would get pounded by the pretty boys from USC and yeah, even Stanford. The Midwest players wore crew-cuts and played smash-mouth football; the West Coast boys wore long hair and sandals and did kiss-mouth with movie stars. Or became movie stars (see: John Wayne, O.J.). The derision from the right side of the country came heavy during the Bill Walsh 49ers era. That's not football, that's keep-away! Even when Ronnie Lott and his pals were hammering opponents into the previous week, the 49ers didn't fully escaped the "finesse" label, not even when they would provide the bruises for the guys in the Black and Blue Division.
To the critics, Montana and Rice were ballet dancers, even when Joe played with a broken back and Jerry dominated the middle of the field. Earlier in the summer, LSU coach Les Miles sniffed that USC had a "much easier road to travel" to the national championship game than did LSU. Because LSU played gnarly foes, and USC played Cal and the like.
Miles might ask Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer how easy that road was to travel Saturday. Seemed to be a lot of nasty potholes. You can't really hold it against the East-of-the-Rockies crowd. We're in California and they're not, and my vote is that it stays that way. But you can understand their envy. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about being a coal miner; the Beach Boys sang about the rigors of fighting off babes in bikinis. Take your pick of lifestyles. Now come the Cal Bears, playing to the old stereotype. Too much speed, for one thing. Cal's first TD came on a sprint by a 243-pound linebacker, Worrell Williams. Later, Tennessee speedster Arian Foster broke free on a long run and, while everyone was conceding the touchdown because nobody could catch him, Cal safety Thomas DeCoud caught him, at the 3, a remarkable stop. Somewhat overlooked was the fact that though it was speed (and heart) that nailed Foster, it was something rockier and grittier that stopped the Vols from scoring. If the critics still aren't willing to give a nod to West Coast slobber-knocking, that's OK. Let 'em have their fantasy. I'm going to blend myself an umbrella drink and watch the TIVO of that game, because it was kind of entertaining.