By Bud Withers
Like a lot of Old Blues, Don Kosovac had plans, plans for a glorious celebration in Pasadena to end California's interminable absence from the Rose Bowl. "We had reservations and everything that year," says Kosovac, a retired Air Force man from Point Richmond, Calif. "My kids were going in an RV. It was a huge heartbreak." The year was 2004, and like most seasons of Cal football, there was an element of ringing disappointment. Now it's five years hence, and the 50-year anniversary of Cal's last Rose Bowl was in 2008. About this time of year, the old grads are given to thinking: Isn't it about time?
"Each year, the expectations are high," says Kosovac, a 1958 Cal grad. He adds, "I went through a lot of seasons where the big fun was the tailgating." Now here's Cal, poised on the doorstep again, with a team that might be the equal of the monolith at USC. Can the Bears get over the hump? They're the longest sufferers in the Pac-10, of course. Washington State scratched a 67-year itch in 1997. Even Oregon State, which had an NCAA-record 28 losing seasons in a row, has been to Pasadena more recently (1965) than Cal. The joke has been that Jeff Tedford, the eighth-year Cal coach, is keeping a lot of old people alive. He keeps bumping into longtime Bears backers who tell him, "I just want to see one Rose Bowl, and then I can die." You have to conclude that the Bears haven't been very lucky. The renaissance under Tedford has come at a time when USC has assembled one of the supreme dynasties in the history of the sport. Even at that, in that '04 season that pained Kosovac and so many other Cal faithful, the Bears played toe-to-toe with USC in the L.A. Coliseum before a short, fourth-down pass from Aaron Rodgers that would have given Cal the lead with 76 seconds left fell at the feet of a receiver who slipped in the end zone.
Still, as the unbeaten Trojans marched to the national-title game, the Rose Bowl was there for a 10-1 Cal team — until Texas' Mack Brown became Public Enemy No. 1 to Old Blues by lobbying the Longhorns into the BCS, jilting Cal. BCS machinations could again bollix Cal's hopes. If, say, the Bears go unbeaten and make the national-title game, they'd go to Pasadena, but technically, the Rose Bowl is a week before that. (Of course, the Bears could make the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10's No. 2 team, a la the near-miss of 2004.) And next year, there's the added twist of the Rose Bowl being required to take an outlier — for instance, Boise State or Utah — if the bowl loses the Pac-10 or Big Ten champ to the BCS title game, and that non-BCS team is ranked among the top 12.
So all the Bears can do is control what they can control, which may be a lot. "We feel we have something special," said Mike Mohamed, a junior linebacker. "We've been pretty close these last couple of years. It just seems like it's one play in this game, another play in this game, and all of a sudden, we don't win the Pac-10. It's just about the little things." Cal has tailback Jahvid Best, the nation's leading returning rusher with 1,580 yards, who has been slowed in fall camp by a toe injury. More than anything, Cal needs better play from quarterback Kevin Riley, who emerges from a sometimes mystifying platoon with departed Nate Longshore. Riley completed only 51 percent of his passes.
"If we're going to achieve our goals," says Tedford, "we're going to have to be more consistent in the passing game." The defense should be among the best around. The Bears lost three starting linebackers but the reserves played extensively, and Tedford says, "We may be more talented and athletic at that position."
Cal is a year into its move to a 3-4 defense, and, says Tedford, "the familiarity with the 3-4 will allow us to do a little bit more. I believe we may be improved on defense." The big equation, Tedford knows well.
"I think our fans would prefer to go to the Rose Bowl than the national championship," he says. "They're so starved for the Rose Bowl." They're absolutely famished. And the Old Blues aren't getting any younger.