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Rebuilding Project Project – Case Study #3: Cal

Taking a look at the rebuilding job done by Jeff Tedford at Cal - a remarkable turnaround, but one that he couldn't sustain.

Jeff Tedford - the man who revived Cal football and then was a victim of his own success
Jeff Tedford - the man who revived Cal football and then was a victim of his own success

Our third case study takes a look at a turnaround that most here are quite familiar with - the job that Jeff Tedford did in taking over for Tom Holmoe at Cal in 2002. Few rebuilding efforts have had a more dramatic turnaround than the job Tedford did at Cal, but it also serves as a warning - past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. For as good a job as Tedford did in reviving and elevating the Golden Bear program, he couldn't quite get over the hump to win the conference, and midway through the 2007 season - as the Bears were in position to ascend to the #1 ranking in the country - the wheels fell off, and things slowly devolved until something that would have been considered unthinkable at the start of the 2007 season happened - Jeff Tedford was fired from Cal after 11 seasons.

Cal was one of the early powers in college football. Other than Charles Gill in 1894 and Charles Nott in 1897 (both coaches lasting just one year), every coach in Berkeley posted a winning mark over their career at Cal up through Stub Allison (who was forced out in 1944 after the program had regressed). In that span the Bears played in four Rose Bowls and had five teams (all undefeated, two of which were also untied) that were retroactively named "National Champions" by various organizations. After the brief slide that ended Allison's career and a single season of futility under Frank Wickhorst, Cal rose again under legendary coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf, notching three more Rose Bowl appearences.

But Waldorf's career was in some ways a preview of what would befall Tedford many decades later. After a brilliant start in Berkeley, compiling 9-1, 10-1, 10-1, 9-1-1, 8-2 & 7-3 marks over his first six years there, things fell apart and his teams went just 14-23-3 over his final four seasons before opting to retire in 1956. Sustained excellence would elude nearly every succeeding coach, including Marv Levy who struggled to an 8-29-3 mark in his four seasons with the Bears. Mike White came the closest to reviving Cal during his stint from 1972-77, going 35-30-1 and featuring some impressive offenses starring guys like Joe Roth, Steve Bartkowski, Chuck Muncie and Wesley Walker.

Cal fell back to also-ran status under Roger Theder and alumni hero Joe Kapp until Bruce Snyder picked things up again, compiling a 29-24-4 mark before jumping to Arizona State. Keith Gilbertson was unable to keep the positive momentum going in his first head coaching job, and Steve Mariucci bolted for the NFL after one year. Tom Holmoe then proceeded to prove that, yes, sometimes nice guys finish last, as he posted the worst five year stretch of football in Cal history. Enter Tedford.

Jeff Tedford was a former QB from Fresno State that had immediately gone into coaching and gained a rep as a QB guru over the years, tutoring Trent Dilfer and David Carr at his alma mater and then moved on to Oregon where he coached Akili Smith and Joey Harrington. He continued that rep at Cal, as he took Kyle Boller - a highly touted QB prospect that had disappointed in his first three years as a starter - and turned him into a 1st round pick. But it was under his next QB that Tedford found his greatest success.

After posting a 7-5 record in his debut season with Boller at the helm (a six-game improvement in the win column from the previous year), Tedford turned to a lightly-regarded JC transfer QB in Aaron Rodgers and had arguably his greatest success as a coach.

The Bears went 8-6 and earned their first bowl invite in seven years in year two under Tedford, but it was the following year where Tedford's recruiting and development really bore fruit as the Bears went 10-1 in the regular season and fell just short of upsetting the powerhouse Trojans of USC. Those same Trojans went on to finish undefeated and win their 2nd consecutive National Championship (since vacated due to the Reggie Bush mess). But heavy lobbying by Mack Brown on behalf of Texas denied the Bears a place in the Rose Bowl (the Trojans were elevated to the BCS Championship game that year which was hosted by the Orange Bowl), and a deflated team found themselves upset in the Holiday Bowl by Mike Leach's Texas Tech squad. This season would prove to be the high point of the Tedford era.

At this point Tedford was as hot as any coaching candidate in the game, and could have had his pick of many high level jobs, but he was able to parlay his early success into promises from the Cal AD to renovate Memorial Stadium and modernize the football facilities and opted to stay in Berkeley.

The Bears remained strong despite Rodgers opting to leave a year early for the NFL, as they posted 8-4 and then 10-3 marks the next two years. While Pete Carroll's Trojans were still dominating the Pac-10, the Bears still seemed as good a bet as any to eventually break that stranglehold.

Their 2007 season started off strong, and as they entered a night game against Oregon State in October, they stood at 5-0 with a clear path to the #1 ranking after LSU had lost earlier in the day. But Fr. QB Kevin Riley - playing for the injured starter Nate Longshore - made critical errors, highlighted by failing to get out of bounds at the end of the game to give the Bears a chance for a game-tying FG attempt. Their season unraveled from there as they finished 7-6, and while they rebounded to win 8 and 10 games in their next two seasons, some of the luster had worn off of the program and the Old Blues started openly wondering if Tedford would ever be able to get Cal back to the Rose Bowl.

Instead of returning to the Rose Bowl, the program fell back to mediocrity as Tedford had his first losing season in 2010 going 5-7, then rebounded slightly to 7-6 in 2011. But warning signs were flashing around the program, and the wheels fell off last year as the team appeared fractured over the handling of star WR Keenan Allen and his half-brother, QB Zach Maynard and stumbled badly out of the gates on their way to a 3-9 season that led to Tedford's dismissal, a fate unthinkable just five years prior.

There are a number of theories on what went wrong for Tedford, from losing his fire (he had been a notorious grinder in his early years but had dealt with health issues of late that had slowed him down), to relinquishing direct control of his offense, to losing too many talented assistant coaches (and unable to adequately replace them) to losing his touch in scouting QB recruits. He was still recruiting reasonably well, typically posting top-25 classes and a couple top-10 classes, but he also had a few classes that dipped into the 30's, and the talent was too often not living up to their hype.

Despite the rough ending to his time with the Bears, Tedford will have had the lasting impact of having revived Cal's fortunes enough to get approved - despite very difficult circumstances in terms of funding and local community support - major renovations to Memorial Stadium and a modern football facilities building. While the financing of said project is currently looking troubled, it was a minor miracle that the project happened in the first place, and the Bears will have competitive facilities for the next decade plus - a luxury they have not had in most people's lifetimes.

Ultimately, Jeff Tedford's legacy is a complicated one. He was hugely successful in dramatically turning around Cal's fortunes but was unable to sustain that success and break a Rose Bowl dry spell that now stretches over 50 years, and then saw the program slip back to mediocrity and worse.