The results of the 2008 football season will reflect whether this Cal team and the football program as a whole can take a step forward in its mental toughness and resiliency.
Coming off a miserable season where the Bears went from undefeated and No. 2 in the nation to a team that barely showed up in dismal losses to Pac-10 bottom dwellers Stanford and Washington, this has become issue No. 1.
Can this team and this program find what was so obviously missing last year: the leadership, the competitive fire, and the never back down attitude that are such necessary ingredients to winning college football games?
Coach Jeff Tedford has gone out of his way to recognize these missing ingredients, and changes have been made. No longer will Tedford manage the offense. Instead, he hired Frank Cignetti to lead the offense and call the plays.
Tedford challenged the team to find leaders and for its seniors to speak out and set the pace. He found insight and inspiration in a book titled Talent Is Never Enough and adopted its principles.
Whether any or all of this will translate to the team’s performance is to be determined. But make no mistake: This is far and away the biggest question for Cal football going into this season—bigger than the quarterback competition, the loss of the WR corps, or questions about the run defense.
In trying to project how things might turn out, it’s sometimes helpful to look back in time. The subject of mental fortitude and the ability to overcome adversity are highly subjective topics, and applying empirical data to this issue will by no means provide answers, but it may provide some perspective.
Let’s look back at the Tedford era and remind ourselves how the Bears have performed when faced with adversity.
Winning on the road in the Pac-10 is never easy, and to do so requires a certain amount of toughness and the ability to perform under less than ideal conditions.
Tedford’s Bears have gone 12-13 for a winning percentage of 48 percent. That number strikes me as solid but not spectacular. Comparing it to USC and Oregon State may provide some relative perspective, as those are the Pac-10's top two programs outside of Cal over the past five years.
USC's record is unsurprisingly much better at 20-5, and Oregon State’s is somewhat surprisingly also markedly better at 60 percent (all of the Oregon State information cited here goes back only to 2003, which was when Mike Riley took over as their head coach).
How about winning big games? They don’t come any bigger than rivalry games and bowl games.
Cal has excelled, winning five of six Big Games while going 4-1 in bowls.
Others might define big games by those that occur at the end of the season where the stakes get raised significantly.
In games played on Nov. 1 and later (excluding the aforementioned Bowl Games), Tedford’s Cal teams have gone 13-9 for a winning percentage of 59 percent. That’s not too shabby, but it is below Tedford’s overall winning percentage of 66 percent, and perhaps not as impressive when the Stanford games are removed (making the record 8-8).
The trend is also interesting, as Cal went 9-2 during this period in Tedford’s first three seasons and only 4-7 since.
To make these numbers more real, let’s compare them again to the Beavers and the Trojans. Oregon State under Riley has won 63 percent of their post-November games, while USC has a remarkable 96 percent winning percentage since 2002 in games after October.
Adversity can perhaps best be measured by in-game challenges.
When tied or trailing after three quarters, Cal is 7-17 for a 29 percent winning percentage. Trend-wise, the Bears were nearly .500, at 5-7, during Tedford’s first three seasons, and a much more anemic 2-10 these past three years.
This is a particularly uninformative number in the absence of relative data, and citing just two Pac-10 teams improves things only marginally, but USC has a .500 record under the same circumstances, while Oregon State is at 24 percent.
Riley's Beavers' trend line is more positive than Cal's, as they were 0-7 his first two years before rallying for a 5-9 record the past three seasons.
How about games decided by ten or fewer points?
Cal is 19-24 or 44 percent in close games, but 2-1 in games decided in overtime. Not exactly clutch, but the numbers don’t say chokers either.
Getting beyond the numbers, there are several factors folks look at when trying to understand the mental makeup of the team. The first notion is that a team takes on its coach's personality.
In Tedford, Cal has a no-nonsense, straight shooting, and hyper-intense coach whose integrity and character are unimpeachable. Under Tedford’s leadership, the Bears have been a highly disciplined group that is well prepared every time they stop on the field.
It’s also worth noting that this is his first head coaching experience, and as the program grows and improves, facing new challenges and at times dizzying heights of success, Tedford is experiencing those same things for the first time as the top dog.
All that said, Tedford is not a fiery emotional leader or an overtly rah-rah guy. While he’s clearly a highly competitive and determined person, he’s better known for not wanting to run up the score and avoiding saying anything inflammatory about other coaches or programs.
This is in sharp contrast to the highly emotional types such as Mike Riley and Pete Carroll, whose teams we have compared to Cal in this article. It’s also very different from the Bruce Snyder-coached Bears, who were as apt to get an ill-timed personal foul as they were to win a big game.
What about the players? In the past, Cal’s leaders have been obvious and easily visible to even the most casual fan. From Hardy Nickerson to Mike Pawlawski to Eric Zomalt to Jerrot Willard to Tony Gonzalez to Donnie McClesky and Desmond Bishop, the Bears have had men whose stellar play on the field and emotional verve made them natural leaders.
Last year and looking forward to this year, it’s less obvious who those folks were and will be. Alex Mack is clearly that type of player, and his intensity at practice is second to none, but offenses usually look to their quarterback for this type of leadership. That may in fact have factored into the coach's decision to start Kevin Riley over Nate Longshore.
Riley’s demeanor on the field speaks to more intensity and competitive fire than the understated Longshore. In his two appearances, Riley definitely did well in the face of significant adversity, leading one near-comeback and another successful one.
It’s interesting to ponder whether the Bears' success in the classroom and its relative absence of off the field problems has a side effect relative to finding these fanatical football players.
I’m certainly not advocating anything other than the current direction the coaches have gone with their recruiting evaluations, as never before have Cal fans and alums been able to be equally proud of a football program both on and off the field.
That said, I wondered prior to last season where the junkyard dog, back down from no one, never give up, want them at your back in a dark alley type of players were on the team. I don't think we ever found them.
After raising a provocative question and supplying some data and some pure conjecture for contemplation, let me give you my conclusion.
I believe the Bears will bounce back and have a far more successful year this season than what was experienced in 2007, in large part because of the improved mental toughness and fortitude of the 2008 team.
Here’s why I have confidence in this year's team finding what was missing last season.
* The changes Tedford has made on his coaching staff and his decision to delegate control of the offense address this issue head on. Bringing in Tosh Lupoi to coach the defensive line and Al Simmons to handle the defensive backs has immediately increased the intensity and competitive fire of the defense.
The veteran Simmons and the very young Lupoi have an emotional style that gives the team something that Tedford personally lacks. Coach Tedford now has the time to monitor and adjust the team's emotional and mental fitness as a result of not handling the offense.
* Senior leadership is obvious this year on both sides of the ball. Alex Mack came back to Cal to win a national championship, and he practices and prepares as if he is planning on nothing less. As mentioned above, Riley's leadership style at QB is as important as his big arm and quick feet.
On defense, Rulon Davis’ maturity and his non-stop motor set a cadence for the rest of the defense to follow. Zach Follett and Worrell Williams have both been outspoken about leading this team, and I believe the defense will in fact set the emotional tone for the 2008 Bears.
* Expectations are lower this year, and perhaps more importantly, the program has gotten used to the pressure brought on by higher expectations. From the lessons in 2006 from visiting Knoxville to last year's collapse, these Cal players not only expect to win and win often, they know what it feels like when it all goes wrong. The pressure will be off, and when adversity does arise, they will be prepared.
* The absence of “me first” players who saw themselves as bigger than the program. One of the primary advantages of the perennial powerhouses in college football is not simply that they can attract five-star talent. It’s that those big time prep players know without a doubt that they are not bigger than the tradition and winning legacy of their school.
Cal is building that tradition but is not there yet. In fact, in recent years, Cal has probably done more to promote individual players than the program as a whole. That has led to a small number of prima donnas whose own agenda superseded that of the teams. Those players are now gone.
If Jeff Tedford were to lose his mind and ask me for advice on this topic, the one thing I would suggest is that when he recruits student athletes, he take their heart and their desire to win football games as perhaps even more important than their latent talent.
I’ll take two- and three-star players who will do anything to win games rather than four- and five-star talents who either lack the desire to truly compete in the face of adversity or are simply out for themselves. That’s not to say that talent isn’t important—but as Jeff recently read, it’s never enough.