By Joe Davidson
The noise is worth it, because Jeff Tedford doesn't take it as racket. It's a sound of progress, the chaos of construction on the Cal campus outside of the football offices. A significant stadium upgrade, for decades a pipe dream in Berkeley, is finally on the horizon, lending more credibility to the vision when Tedford, the veteran coach, sits in a recruit's home and talks about the school's academic prowess. Now he can talk facilities, too, and not have to shield the lad's eyes when he guides him through decaying Memorial Stadium. "The construction is music to my ears," Tedford said. "Love to see it and hear it." The real work in progress continues to be the Bears. When Tedford arrived following the 2001 season, the program needed bulldozing. He took over a Bears team that had gone 4-29 in the previous three seasons. Since then: 59 wins, six consecutive bowl games and the promise of more. This includes eternal hope for Old Blue fans – Cal alumni with gray or blue hair – who have one wish: a Rose Bowl bid before death.
"Fans around here are so starved for a Rose Bowl," Tedford said. It's only been 51 years since the Bears last reached the Rose Bowl, when Joe Kapp played quarterback. Cal has had promising starts under Tedford only to be beset by frustration and bad bounces. In 2006, the Bears started 8-1 before falling to Arizona and USC. In 2007, a 5-0 start moved Cal to No. 2 in the national polls. It would have ascended to the top spot for the first time since 1951 but for a stunning home loss to Oregon State the next week, which led to a 7-6 finish. Last year, an early-season loss to Maryland derailed things. Now with a solid offensive line to pave the way for Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best, and a defense that returns eight starters, Cal is in position to challenge USC for the Pacific-10 Conference title, the Rose Bowl and maybe more. Best is the focus. The junior is a tremendous breakaway threat who rushed for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2008. He has recovered from foot and elbow surgery and aims to extend Cal's successive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher to eight (the Pac-10 record is 10, by USC, from 1972 to '81). "I am ready to roll," Best said. "We all are. We feel like it's our turn to win the Pac-10."
Quarterback Kevin Riley has had a mixed run at Cal and promises to produce a big season. His first career start was in that 2007 game against Oregon State. He tried to run for the winning touchdown in the closing seconds but was tackled in bounds, thus denying the Bears even a shot at a tying field goal. Tedford alternated Riley and Nate Longshore last season, and consistency was a problem. Cal lost its three starting linebackers, including Worrell Williams of Grant High School, but the secondary is the foundation. The unit is anchored by preseason All-American Syd Thompson of Grant. "He's been a mainstay in our program for a long time," Tedford said. "We really depend on his leadership on defense." Tedford nearly took the San Diego State job before an 11th-hour plea from Cal in 2001. Now he's thinking long term.
"There's so much invested in Cal," Tedford said. "I would like to stay here forever."