Friday, August 31, 2007

The Berkeley Daily Planet: Cal Bears Kick Off Football Season on Saturday

By Steven Finacom

Each August, fans of many top-ranked college football teams sit down to scrutinize an all-important statistic.  How many first-string players on their favorite squads are confronting criminal or academic troubles serious enough to prevent them from playing in the home opener?  Berkeley has to do things differently, though. Here, the players on Cal’s team—ranked 12th nationally in pre-season—are legitimate, but the future of the stadium is in court.  2006 seemed to be the last season before major change at Memorial Stadium. All expectations were that construction would begin on the first phase of a multi-stage expansion and retrofit of facilities.  Little did I expect that following the 2006 Big Game, protesters would climb into oak and redwood trees next to the stadium, that some of them would still be there as opening day approached a year later, that construction would still be in the future—although a lot of actual trenches have been dug and symbolic lines in the sand drawn—or that a former Cal football player would, as Mayor of Berkeley, be leading the lawsuits.  I’m not going to speculate about the legal issues, which seem headed for their next court hearing in mid-September, nor discuss the changes to the Stadium. (Disclosure: I work for the university in an office that has been involved with the stadium planning).

I am interested, though, in how Golden Bear football is evolving beyond facilities. Cal football now seems to be a consistent national contender for the first time since Coach Pappy Waldorf hung up his sport coat five decades ago.  A Sports Illustrated writer labeled Saturday’s Cal-Tennessee contest as the “the best game on college football’s opening weekend” and ranked both it and this season’s Cal-USC match-up as among the top 20 games to watch in 2007.  In five seasons at Cal, current Head Coach Jeff Tedford and his staff have raised expectations that high. Tedford teams have beaten formidable opponents, never lost to now hapless Stanford, and compiled a respectable 43-20 record including two seasons with ten wins each.  A pre-season Top-20 ranking and a post-season bowl game—and bowl win—for Cal are now annually expected and there are localized fevered eruptions of speculation about national championships.  But, after last year’s season-opening loss to Tennessee and a third consecutive loss to USC in 2006, Cal fans can’t indefinitely dine out on the glory of ten-win seasons or having been one of the last teams to beat USC (in 2003).  If Cal doesn’t beat one of the two, and preferably both Tennessee and USC, this season perfectionist critics may carp that the Bears still can’t win the biggest games, not withstanding their recent dominance of the Big Game.

The Big Game, of course, remains the sine qua non for any Cal fan older than, say, 25. Even when the rest of the season goes south, a Big Game victory is still counted upon to ease the disappointment. Here, Tedford is on especially solid ground. The last Cal head coach with a good overall record is still regarded by some Cal fans as Bruce “couldn’t win a Big Game” Snyder. Tedford’s teams, in contrast, have run all over the Cardinal in recent years and a full Stanford class has come and gone without getting near the Axe trophy.

As Cal’s star as risen, Stanford has gone into eclipse. A significantly scaled down new Stanford Stadium still doesn’t fill up and an eleven loss Cardinal season in 2006 was preceded by a 2005 death march when Stanford lost to not one, but three, UC schools; Cal, UCLA, and UC Davis. Still, Stanford leads in overall Big Game wins and points scored, and Cal has a long way to go to even the long-term record. And Stanford has had one form of enduring revenge this season. For most of the 20th century many individual Cal fans held to a cherished tradition, “consecutive Big Game attendance” (my attendance at 28 of the past 29 Big Games is very unremarkable as these things go).

By shrinking its stadium and limiting the number of tickets available to the visiting team, Stanford has now permanently shut out tens of thousands of Cal fans. Most will not be able to make the trek to Palo Alto every two years unless they buy both Cal and Stanford season tickets, and “consecutive Big Games in Berkeley” might become the default standard. In recent years I’ve also heard Cal students speak heresy; compared to winning a national championship or beating a #1 team the Big Game is just another game. If the Golden Bears continue to win, that talk will increase, as will expectations for the rest of the schedule.  Tedford, in his sixth season, is approaching an important milestone. Pappy Waldorf was the last—and only—Cal coach to have several consecutive seasons of great success.  From 1947 to 1952, Waldorf teams won no less than seven times a season and twice posted 10-1 and 9-1 records.  Andy Smith might have achieved a higher pinnacle but he died not long after coaching the best five seasons in Cal history, a staggering 44 game winning streak from 1920 to 1924, flanked by otherwise quite respectable 6-2, 6-2, and 6-3 seasons.  Waldorf and Smith coached Cal for ten years apiece. If Tedford reaches a decade continuing his success to date, he will have reason to claim to be the best long-term coach in Cal history, although some might still put an asterisk after that until his teams win not only a clear-cut Pac-10 championship but also make a Rose Bowl appearance.  (Waldorf’s teams had three conference championships and three Rose Bowl losses. Smith’s teams went to the Rose Bowl twice, lost once.)

Current success has literally come at a price for Cal fans. Ticket costs have risen. Cal was asking—and got—a whopping $66 each for now sold out single-game USC and Tennessee tickets this season. But price increases don’t seem to have dampened sales. This year, mid-August more than 40,000 season tickets had been purchased, a fourth consecutive year of record sales. Average game attendance exceeded 64,000 last year, meaning Memorial Stadium was nearly full for most games.  And how will those crowds behave? This season Cal fans need to show they can handle consistent success gracefully, not edge towards the sort of Ugly Athleticism and arrogance that accrues around many top-ranked teams.  Cal is in a unique situation. No other American university—with the possible exception of Cal’s “Brother Bruin”, UCLA—can claim, this decade at least, to be consistently top ranked in academics and football. In other words, it’s Nobels but No Bowls, except at UC campuses.  One mixed result of football success has been the near demise of the afternoon home game at Memorial Stadium. For West Coast teams, getting television exposure often means accepting late day game slots.

The earliest announced starting time for a 2007 home game is 3:30 p.m., and some appear likely to start at 5:00 or even 7:00, meaning that homeward bound fans may be clogging the streets of Berkeley as late as ten or eleven on a Saturday night.  While I mourn the loss of sunny September and October Saturday afternoons at Memorial, many Bay Area Cal fans seem to appreciate having Saturday morning to do other things, like soccer games for the kids, before heading off to Berkeley for late afternoon or evening football.  Last Thursday evening I sat in Memorial Stadium after a special practice, as a Cal player lead hundreds of student rooters in chants of “Whose House? Our House!” Just beyond the Stadium wall a “Save the Oaks!” tree house was visible atop a truncated conifer.  Come tomorrow, the new season kicks off and Berkeley will eventually see which vision has built a more durable home.


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