By Pete Thamel
We here at The Quad have a bit of an embarrassing confession. In our first of what will be a weekly Q&A with people in and around college football, we didn’t do such a good job with the Q part. That’s because Adam Duritz, the lead singer of the Counting Crows, would not stop talking about his beloved Cal Bears. (And his hatred of Stanford, U.S.C, Oregon State, Notre Dame, the song “Rocky Top” … You get the point.) He talked so much that we’re breaking this interview up into three parts to run as a teaser for Cal’s big opener against Tennessee on Saturday night in Berkeley. Duritz grew up within walking distance of Cal’s campus and is such a devoted Bears fan that he combs Internet message boards to check on recruiting and moonlights as a sideline radio reporter for broadcasts. Duritz will not, however, write a song about Cal. “I only write about things that make me miserable,” he said with a laugh during a recent 90-minute interview. Misery for Duritz could be defined as missing Cal’s opener because he’s at a tour stop in St. Paul. But rest assured, he won’t be covering “Rocky Top” that night.
Can it be that a rock star is such a big fan that he logs onto the scout.com and rivals.com message boards?
I read scout and rivals. I never write anything just because I feel like I’ve got a little too much insider insight and it wouldn’t be cool. I’m very, very lucky and privy to a lot of stuff goes on in the Cal program. I don’t want to misuse that. I like to read them, because sometimes you hear about stuff. Anything big that happens, I know before the message boards. I like to read about things in the works and guys who are at the games and see the high school games of the recruits. But the message board guys only know so much. They take a certain amount of judgment.
I’ve become pretty good friends with a few of the coaches. I go to practice a lot and the most fascinating thing to watch is the offensive line and the defensive line stuff. The defensive linemen trying to beat the offensive linemen. It’s fascinating. I’ve talked to the offensive line coach, Jim Michalczik, a lot about recruiting and stuff. He looks at things that don’t show up in those reports, which are usually about size and speed and 40 times.
He looks to see if an offensive lineman is pigeon-toed. He doesn’t care how big he is, he wants to know how big his frame is. There’s a lot more subtleties to offensive line recruiting than you would think. It’s not just these massive guys. So I’d rather talk to the coaches than read the message boards. They tell me about guys they’re flipped about that aren’t the guys that everyone else is. Like J.J. Arrington from the College of the Canyons.
Who is your favorite Cal opponent to hate?
If you’re playing Cal and are in the Pac-10, I pretty much hate you. That said, I’m going to say this, I really, really hate Stanford and U.S.C. That said, I really hate U.C.L.A., too. I really hate Oregon State and Washington State. Oregon State always has a dirty team. If you’re in the Pac-10 and you’re playing Cal, I hate you.
If you’re Oklahoma or Tennessee, you’re O.K. You know what I like about schools like that? The fans in Oklahoma at the N.C.A.A. Tournament a few years ago. They really love their college football. They’ve loved it for 100 years. They dig the fact that you’ll come a long way to see your team play. There were a group of Cal fans, and the Oklahoma fans were really cool. They dig the fact you dig the team. They get it. Not true in the pros so much.
Did you go to the Cal-Tennessee game last year? (Tennessee blew out Cal in Knoxville, 35-18.) You going this year when Tennessee makes a return trip?
Last year, we had the night off on tour. A lot of other people went to Atlanta. We drove all night from I don’t know where, but it was 500 miles away. We got there that morning and went to the game and then drove to Atlanta afterwards. It was cool. I had both goose bumps and chills and at the same time, I’d like to never hear “Rocky Top” for the rest of my life.
This year we’ve got a gig, and it couldn’t be any worse. I asked for one day off the whole tour, and it was impossible to get it. We’re going to be in St. Paul at exactly the wrong time. I’m going to be on stage at about 9, which is right around halftime. We don’t have a TiVo system on the tour bus, so I can’t just watch it later. I’m going to have the monitor guy tell me in my ears over the course of the night. But its going to be nerve-wracking. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t think I’ll be able to get away from it to not know what happened. I’m going to be flooded with texts and e-mails. It looks like I’m going to have to hear about it in my ear, which is very distracting when you’re doing a concert.
Who is your all-time favorite Cal athlete?
Kevin Johnson, no doubt about it. Aside from being the coolest player ever. And he was, so cool. He was fearless. I had a great poster of him dunking on Kareem or Hakeem, I forget which. He was fearless. He was a one-man team on Cal. He grew up into this incredible man. He basically bought downtown Sacramento and fixed it. This whole ghetto area, took over Sacramento high school and made it a charter school and turned it into a model school. He’s helped bring corporations all over the world there. He took this whole urban area, kind of like Magic Johnson is doing in Los Angeles, he took this whole area of his hometown and revitalized it.
I loved Jason Kidd. But K.J., man. I love watching Aaron Rodgers play, too. He was pretty great. He really was. But what K.J. turned into, that’s what you should grow up to be. You send your kid to Cal to get a real education so they can learn something so you end up doing something in the real world. To me, you send your kid to Cal and hope they grow up to be like Kevin Johnson. That’s what a university is supposed to be like. He was so great to watch in college and the pros.
You obviously know the Berkeley area well. What are some good spots for beers and grub, pregame and postgame?
I like the Bear’s Lair, because it’s outside. Everyone can gather there. I like Henry’s, right before and after. Honestly, a really cool place is the 5th Quarter. The coaches and their families and close friends of the program. Mo (Mohamed Muqtar, an athletic official at Cal and a good friend of Duritz) and me and my mom and dad go there. It’s a room off the stadium in the Hall of Fame room. They have the program from the first game I ever went to in 1977. I go look at it every time. It’s really cool for me to see it. They have sandwiches and food and a bar and all the kids and coaches and families and my mom, dad and me. All the people who’ve been around the program for years. Just all hang out for an hour or two and hang around and talk. It’s more fun after a win than a loss. But we certainly don’t lose at home much anymore.
We were there when U.C.L.A. beat U.S.C., which meant that we tied for the Pac-10 title. We weren’t going to the Rose Bowl, but we were standing there as Pac-10 co-champions. It was really moving. It was like, wow, we’ve been this doormat for so long. We’re co-champs of the Pac-10. I sent mass texts out to my U.S.C. friends congratulating them and saying how proud I was to share this with them. I got a lot of dirty e-mails back. They were more furious at me than they were losing to U.C.L.A.
What’s a bigger rush, being on stage in front of a roaring crowd or on the field for a Cal victory?
They’re real different. On stage, I’m gone. I’m lost. I’m so involved with what’s going on. I watch most games from the sideline now. I have to remember to go up to stand to spend time with my dad for like a quarter or quarter and half. I’ve been on sideline the last three or four years. Not on the ends, in the team area mostly. So, it’s a great place to watch a game. At first, the involvement is so intense that it’s pretty wild. I probably say the Cal thing.
I don’t know, man. When we beat Virginia Tech a few years ago in that bowl game, we were all kneeling down on the opposite 30-yard line. We had our arms around one another. Watching Tyler Fredrickson, and he’d already buried U.S.C. in three overtimes, line up that kick. That was big. The Cal game thing.
The gig thing I do every night. It’s totally dependent on me and under my control. It’s not as up in the air to me. I’m going to make it a great show or not. The Cal thing, you don’t know. I love playing a great show. I have a feeling, a satisfaction. But it’s not the crowd cheering. It’s that it’s good. That’s the thing, it’s that it’s really good. I know a lot of friends; the cheering is what makes it. They don’t know it themselves. I know when we’re good and we’re not good. I know when I’ve done stuff that satisfied me. When I’m in a bad mood and really struggle, it can be entertaining for a crowd. For me, the other night, I was having trouble with my voice. It was an emotionally detailed show. Very cool, emotionally detailed and very creative and off the cuff and off the top of our heads. We’re exploring songs. It was intensely satisfying to play.
The other day, we were reading to get “Hard Candy.” The drums started. We had a wrong guitar and it required a whole re-tuning of a 12-string. I walked up to the microphone and started singing something else. We made up a song off the top of our heads. We did it again last night. When he was ready, I kept it going on for a little longer. Making up words off the top of my head is very difficult; making them make sense and mean something is more difficult. It was a moment when everything could have gone to hell, but it didn’t because you and your boys pulled it together. That’s pretty cool. I don’t know if it’s bigger or better than a Cal game.
Some of the most satisfying and exhilarating times in my life were at Cal games. Not just football and basketball. I’m obsessed with women’s basketball and volleyball and water polo and rugby. I don’t know. There’s a lot of things. Softball games aren’t as much fun, but its pretty fascinating to watch. How those women get the ball to do that is beyond me. That’s wild.