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Cal coach figures sleepless nights didn't help, changes things
By Jonathan Okanes
Jeff Tedford begins to speak, and you immediately can tell Cal's football coach is congested. He coughs every so often, confirming he's contracted a bad case of the flu. "I'm much better today," Tedford says. "You should have heard me yesterday." An empty box of TheraFlu cold medicine sits on a desk behind him. Is it November all over again? No, it's early February, on the eve of National Letter of Intent Day. But it may have well been any point during the second half of last season, when a series of sleepless nights gave Tedford a nasty cough he took weeks to shake. For the record, Tedford says this case of the flu is a result of all that recycled air he inhaled as he hopped from airplane to airplane during the recruiting season. As Tedford prepared to put the finishing touches on his recruiting class for 2008, he set aside some time to reflect on the 2007 season, easily his most challenging in six years as a head coach. A stunning fall from the national elite took its toll on Tedford, and he's using the lessons he's learned to make some substantial changes going forward.
"Personally, it's very difficult with as much time and energy that you put in and as much investment that you have, not to see the players be successful," Tedford said. "That was the hardest thing on me, because we all work very, very hard to get this done. It was hard to see our seniors go through a time that they had never been through before. You know the
expectations. I kind of bled for the players and for the coaches." In his first five years in Berkeley, Tedford engineered a turnaround nearly unparalleled in college football. He arrived in 2002 after the Bears had gone an embarrassing 1-10 the previous year and immediately made Cal a winning team, forging a 7-5 record in his first season. By his third year, the Bears were on the cusp of a Bowl Championship Seriesberth.
Cal entered 2007 with 10-win seasons in two of the previous three years and some believed the Bears' best chance to be part of the BCS picture. Those prognosticators started to look pretty smart after Cal got off to a 5-0 start and moved up to No. 2 in the national rankings. That's when a remarkable decline began, leaving Tedford, players and fans mystified. Cal proceeded to lose six of its final seven regular season games and had to beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl to prevent Tedford from suffering his first losing season. "Going into the year, it wasn't so much dealing with expectations, because that's something we had dealt with," Tedford said. "But when adversity hit pretty hard, the combination of high expectations and adversity was very trying. It was obviously something we haven't been through before." Cal's first loss was almost understandable, albeit excruciating. With redshirt freshman Kevin Riley making his first career start, in place of injured Nate Longshore, the Bears fell behind by 10 points in the fourth quarter before nearly coming back to at least force overtime. But Riley's now-infamous decision to scramble for a potential-game winning touchdown with no timeouts remaining backfired and Cal lost to Oregon State.
The Bears followed that defeat with consecutive losses to UCLA and Arizona State, and the course was set for an uninspired remainder of the season. Cal won just once more the rest of the regular season — a narrow home victory against Washington State — and it left the Bears searching for answers as to what went wrong. "We had never lost three straight before," Tedford said. "That was pretty difficult. Then to lose three games straight twice in a year definitely was something we weren't used to doing." Tedford, who is notorius for setting up residence in his office during the season, worked even longer hours than usual in an attempt to solve his team's riddle. And when he wasn't working, he'd lay on his air mattress in his office trying fruitlessly to fall asleep. Some nights, sleep never came. "I didn't sleep very much," Tedford said. "You go to bed at 1:30 and have so many things on your mind and just toss and turn. I think there's a point of maybe just overexhaustion, where you're spinning your wheels. I felt like that a couple of times this year." That led to one of Tedford's revelations after the season — that not every problem is solved by simply putting in more hours; that at some point the long hours can become counterproductive. So one of Tedford's new doctrines is to make sure he and his coaching staff get a little more sleep, with the hopes it will result in renewed energy and focus.
"Sometimes maybe there is such a thing as being overworked. I never really felt that way in the past," Tedford said. "This year, I felt that way as far as having some nights I didn't sleep at all. I think I need to do a better job as a head coach to make sure we manage our hours so that we can have the energy and the enthusiasm all the time to do what we need to do. I think at a certain point it's really easy to let yourself get overworked in this deal." Tedford said he didn't really seek advice during the team's slide ("I had plenty of people trying to give me some," he said), that most of the reflection took place after the season. That soul-searching revealed another discovery — that his role as play caller was preventing him from being the best head coach he could be. So exactly one week after the end of the season, Tedford hired former 49ers quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator as part of a shakeup in which three coaches got replaced.
"I think during the season I need to be more available for the defense, to be able to spend some time with the defensive players, interact with the team more on all things — academics, discipline issues, things like that," Tedford said. "When you're the play caller and really, really involved in all facets of the game plan, there is a lot of focus that needs to take place on that. It's just based on me wanting to spend more time with the whole team."
Much of Cal's shortcomings during the second half of the season were due to mistakes — turnovers, penalties, etc. Tedford said he didn't know if there was a correlation between that and his ability to oversee the whole program. "I assume it could, but I'd like to think not," he said. Georgia coach Mark Richt gave up play calling duties before last season and said he's seen positive effects across his program, including improvement in the intangibles department. "There's no doubt about that," Richt said. "There needs to be a clear understanding about who is setting the vision for the team." In general, Tedford seems to be focused on improving the aspects of the program that don't deal with schemes or game plans, no doubt a primary reason why he gave up play calling. That will be a hot topic in Cal's football office as the team prepares for spring practice and offseason workouts this summer. "We'll do a lot this offseason talking a lot about the intangibles — not just the X's and O's and not just the talent, but some of the intangibles that it takes to make sure that we're able to deal with adversity or expectations or whatever comes at us," Tedford said. "Even though (last season) wasn't pleasant to go through, I really do believe that we've learned a lot from it. Sometimes it's those intangibles that makes a difference. It's not the best players or the most talent, it's how you all come together. We need to make sure we understand all that."