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Can Cal Rebuild?

Not the football team, which is on the upswing under Tedford, but the facilities, if the Bears are to maintain their momentum

October 06, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Farewell to days of Golden Bear slumbers.

A beast has been roused.

California football, led by third-year Coach Jeff Tedford, is ranked seventh in the country and heads south Saturday with a team that might be the equal of No. 1 USC.

On Telegraph Avenue, "Ted heads" have joined "dead heads" and Berkeley buzz these days has as much to do with the quarterback as the caffeine.

Seventy-five years after Roy Riegels, Cal is running the right way.

As you might imagine, Cal fans are thrilled beyond big words.

"I think most people are terrified," says Adam Duritz, Cal sports fanatic and lead singer for the Counting Crows.

A theory holds that Cal football has gotten so good so fast under Tedford, improving from 1-10 in 2001 to "wow" now, that the school will botch another opportunity.

Bubbling beneath the team's top-10 ranking is a bureaucratic ball of tangled yarn involving the renovation of 82-year-old Memorial Stadium, a must-happen project to keep Tedford from jumping to a situation where potable water is not an issue.

In other words, what's new?

For years, coaching Cal football has been a springboard to better jobs.

At pivotal moments of hope in history, Cal coaches have assessed the situation and bailed.

Blame it on politics, indifference, free speech, an aging stadium under constant watch by seismologists, or the gentle tug of greener ($$$) pastures.

After his team finished 10-2 in 1991, Coach Bruce Snyder left Cal for Arizona State, and in 1996, seemingly on the brink of another breakthrough, Steve Mariucci crossed a career bridge when he came to it (the San Mateo) and left to coach the San Francisco 49ers.

"I would think right now is an absolutely critical juncture in Cal football," former Cal quarterback Mike Pawlawski bluntly states.

Pawlawski was a star on Snyder's 1991 team and it grieves him still that Snyder was allowed to slip away.

"It's an absolute comparison," Pawlawski says of Snyder and Tedford. "We're at a crossroads. I would like to see these kids here have the opportunity to get it right. We didn't get it right the last time."

It is conceded that Cal loves Tedford and Tedford loves Cal and that the program, with Tedford, is poised to remain a national power or, without him, drift back to woebegone days.

To date, though, no shovel has broken ground on the massive facilities renovation project -- cost estimates are up to $170 million -- everyone says is imperative to keeping Tedford. Meanwhile, Cal officials solicit sugar-daddy donors and contemplate plans that have not advanced beyond "artist renderings."

Tedford, 42, has shown patience, acting like a man content with his station in life.

"I'm not here to hold anyone hostage," he says of the facilities issues.

He professes no burning desire to coach in the NFL, and proved it last year by declining an offer from the Chicago Bears.

Yet, Tedford has trigger mechanisms in his contract tied to facilities improvements. His buyout will decrease from $1 million to $500,000 if ground isn't broken by the end of the year. The buyout goes to zero at the end of 2005.

There appears no way Cal will meet this year's deadline.

Tedford says all he wants is to see progress.

"This is not a steppingstone, whatsoever," he says. "This is a place we'd love to be. That being said, though, we're not interested in being mediocre."

Tedford's credibility is at stake because he has promised incoming recruits new facilities.

While Oregon players lounge in state-of-the-art facilities (thank you, Nike founder Phil Knight), Cal players use a broomstick to change the channels of their clubhouse television.

To complicate matters, the university is breaking in a new chancellor and a new athletic director, and they are just getting up to speed on renovation issues.

Sandy Barbour, the incoming athletic director, started official duties Oct. 1.

Barbour arrived to Cal from Notre Dame, where she served as deputy director of athletics, so she knows a little about football issues.

"We can't waste our time," Barbour says. "There is no dragging our feet, putzing around. We need to get after it, but we need to be prudent."

While Tedford's potent offense keeps the scoreboard humming, Cal is dealing with another ticking clock.

"We're in a holding pattern because of the new leadership," he says. "I wouldn't want to write a check for 20 million right now if I didn't know who I was writing it to or what for."

Story of His Life

What Cal might lose in Tedford is what scares Cal most.

He has already proven to be the right guy, at the right school, at the right time.

People used to say about Bear Bryant, "He could take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n."

In 2002, Tedford's first season as a head coach, he led a 1-10 Cal team he'd inherited to a 7-5 record. Last year, Cal finished 8-6, was the only team to beat USC, and came within a few big plays of its first Rose Bowl bid since 1958.

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