Monday, November 20, 2006


In late December, Jeff Tedford will conclude his fifth season as the head coach at California with, God willing, a 10-3 season and a Holiday Bowl victory. This would represent Tedford's second 10 win season, and his fourth consecutive appearance in a bowl game (would be five, but Cal was on probation in 2002).

Still, some Bear fans are starting to worry that Tedford has peaked - that he may never be able to push Cal over the top to a conference championship and a New Year's Day bowl game.

Here's an interesting comparison between Tedford and two other very prominent head coaches who won national championships after struggling to get over the hump. I'll give you a hint as to their identities - they both wear orange, they both coach at UT, and they're both fairly repulsive human beings (the only part of this comparison that doesn't match up with JT).

Phat Phil Fullmer
Tennessee assistant Fullmer threw Johnny Majors - a much nicer person with an unfortunate drinking problem - under the bus in 1992 and finished the final four games of that season. Major left the cupboard full - in the previous three full seasons the Vols had won 29 games.

Fullmer did well - but he couldn't beat Florida. He lost to the Gators five straight times, and in three of those seasons the loss prevented his Vols from winning the SEC and advancing to a BCS bowl. Fullmer's inability to beat the Gators led Steve Spurrier to memorably quip that "you can't spell Citrus without UT," and indeed Fullmer's teams played in Orlando three out of his first four years. Even when Fullmer won the SEC and made it to a BCS bowl in 1997, he still lost to Florida.

Finally in year 6 of the Fullmer Era the Vols put it all together and went 13-0 with a victory over Florida State in the inaugural BCS championship game. Suddenly Fullmer was a genius. The Vols have generally been good since, but have appeared in only one BCS bowl (9-3/Fiesta, 8-4, 11-2, 8-5, 10-3, 10-3, 5-6). So if you're keeping score, that's three BCS games in 13 years in Knoxville - and the three came in consecutive seasons (1997-99)

1993: 9-2-1 (loss to 11-2 Florida, tie v 9-3-1 Alabama, Citrus Bowl loss to 10-2 Penn St)
1994: 8-4 (losses to 5-6 UCLA, 10-2-1 Florida, 8-4 Miss St, 12-1 Alabama; Gator Bowl win over Va Tech
1995: 11-1 (bad loss to 12-1 Florida; Citrus Bowl win over Ohio St)
1996: 10-2 (losses to 12-1 Florida, 4-7 Memphis; Citrus Bowl win over Northwestern)
1997: 11-2 (losses to 10-2 Florida, 13-0 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl)
1998: 13-0 National Champions

Mack Brown
Mack Brown inherited a 4-7 team that had quit under former coach John Mackovic, but which still possessed tremendous athletic talent. Still, the Longhorns settled for non-BCS bowls (Cotton, Holiday) in the first six years of his tenure. Fullmer had Spurrier, and Mack's white whale was Bob Stoops, whose Sooner teams beat Texas five straight times from 2000 to 2004 (including a 65-13 shellacking that was seen as a referendum on Brown's manhood in Texas).

I remember attending some of those Holiday Bowls, and talking with UT alums who were absolutely convinced that Brown would never beat Stoops, and that Texas would never again win a big game until he left Austin. In addition to the futility with OU, Texas choked away the 2001 Big 12 championship by losing to underdog Colorado 39-37.

We know what happened next. Mack finally got to the BCS in 2004, and his Horns won it all in 2005. Suddenly he's untouchable.

1998: 9-3 (losses to 10-2 UCLA, 11-2 K State, 7-5 Texas Tech; Cotton Bowl win v Miss St)
1999: 9-5 (losses to 6-6 NCSU, 11-1 K State, 8-4 A&M, 12-1 Nebraska, 8-4 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl)
2000: 9-3 (losses to 5-6 Stanford, 13-0 Oklahoma, 10-2 Oregon in the Holiday Bowl)
2001: 11-2 (losses to 11-2 Oklahoma, 10-3 Colorado; Holiday Bowl win v UW)
2002: 11-2 (losses to 12-2 Oklahoma, 9-5 Texas Tech; Cotton Bowl win v LSU)
2003: 10-3 (losses to 9-4 Arkansas, 12-2 Oklahoma, 10-3 Wazzu in the Holiday Bowl)
2004: 11-1 (loss to 12-0 Oklahoma, Rose Bowl win v Michigan)
2005: 13-0 National Champions

Jeff Tedford
While the other two coaches inherited programs loaded with talent, Tedford inherited the CFB equivalent of a Superfund site. His 2002 team was a year removed from 1-10 and had a small handful of guys who would play professional football (none at star level). But somehow he got the team to 7-5 and would have played in a bowl had the Bears been eligible.

In Year 2, he lost what stars he had inherited (Boller, Igber, Banta-Cain) but still went 8-6 with a bowl win. All but one of the six losses came to teams with winning records. He's still playing with Holmoe's recruits at this point. In Year 3, he was one completed pass away from playing for the national championship. From 1-10 to 10-2 in three years - a turnaround without precedent in recent CFB history.

In Year 4, he loses his QB immediately, and then his backup has the football equivalent of a nervous breakdown. He finishes the year with a guy who should play special teams under center, and still wins eight games including a bowl. All but one of Cal's losses came against teams that won at least ten games.

In Year 5, he's poised to win nine or perhaps ten games, with only one bad loss (Arizona).

2002: 7-5 (losses to 8-5 Air Force, 10-3 Wazzu, 11-2 USC, 8-5 Oregon St, 4-8 Arizona)
2003: 8-6 (losses to 11-4 K State, 7-6 Colorado St, 10-2 Utah, 8-5 Oregon St, 6-7 UCLA, 8-5 Oregon; Insight Bowl win v Va Tech)
2004: 10-2 (losses to 13-0 USC, 8-4 Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl)
2005: 8-4 (losses to 10-2 UCLA, 5-6 Oregon St, 10-2 Oregon, 12-1 USC)

Conclusion. There's little question that Tedford has done a better job than either Brown or Fullmer in their first five seasons - the other guys inherited tons of talent and enjoyed built-in recruiting advantages that Tedford lacks.

But that cuts both ways, since the superior talent at Austin and Knoxville made it more likely that those teams would eventually get over the hump and win a conference championship. Cal's margin of error would appear to be smaller, given that it has neither a storied tradition nor a captive recruiting market. Fans legitimately worry that '06 was Tedford's best shot at a Rose Bowl appearance.

I think this is a legitimate concern, though Bear fans take it a bit too far. Old Blues tend to expect the worst in every situation. Yes, it appears that talent will drop a bit next year - but Tedford has shown an uncanny ability to turn ordinary players into strong contributors. And who's to say that things will improve for the rest of the Pac 10? If the conference's schools were stocks, which would you buy? SC's great - but are they really that much more dominant than Spurrier's Gators?

It's premature to assume that '06 was our best shot at the Roses, or that we've somehow peaked at #2 in the conference. College football is played by 19 and 20-year olds - by definition it is unpredictable. Talent comes and goes; recruits don't qualify and players get distracted. The one constant is the head coach. And the gap between Tedford and Carroll would seem to be a hell of a lot smaller than the one between Fullmer and Spurrier, or the one between Brown and Stoops.


At 1:32 PM, Blogger T. said...

Related to nothing, but if it weren't bad enough this weekend for Cal fans (with both basketball and football losing), AR broke his foot in mop up duty for Fav-hre and is out for the rest of the season.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Tightwad said...

Probably the Worst Weekend Ever, given the magnitude of the SC game.

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous SoCal Oski said...

Thanks for putting this season in some perspective.

I have to admit that, in the wake of both the 'Zona and $C performances, I let my natural Old Blue cynicism rise up. But, 25 years of frustration in every sport but Rugby can do that to a guy. I mean, it can become very disheartening to continue to see Cal teams in virtually every sport show so much promise and talent, only to watch them fall against competition that they should beat.

There's no doubt regarding Tedford' accomplishment with Cal football. But getting close and falling short once again can try anyone's optimism.

Anyway, that's behind us. I want to see a massacre in the Big Game. Let no tree stand un-cut.

Go Bears!

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