Sunday, October 31, 2004


devils can't touch us

*Warning: Anyone not a California Bears fan will likely care nada about this post. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now that the Red Sox have stunned everyone in the known universe, Pop Life is turning our attention closer to home and contemplating the California Bears' surprising run to the top. Cal embarassed #20 Arizona last night, shutting them out 27-0, a victory that will likely float Cal to #5 for the first time in 52 years.

When I say "surprising run to the top," note that Cal was picked to finish in the top 2 of the conference before the season began, therefore it's performing to expectation if you believe the prognosticators. Pop Life does not usually believe the prognosticators, especially when it come our alma mater (can you call a school your alma mater when you're still enrolled there?). Being a Sox fan as a child taught me valuable lessons in accepting crushing defeats but I have my undergraduate tenure at UC Berkeley (1990-94) to thank for helping realize what despair and disappointment felt like as an adult. As any good Bear backer can tell you, we haven't been to the Rose Bowl since 1959 and haven't won a Rose Bowl since 1938.

It's not that Cal was never good, it's just that they've rarely been good enough, having perfected the "almost there" loss. In 1990, we were all set to beat Stanford in the Big Game with 90 seconds to go when a bizarre set of circumstances went Stanford's way. In 1991, the last time we had a legit shot at the Rose Bowl, we were within a touchdown of tying eventual nat'l champs Washington and in '93 were within a field goal of beating them (Cal wouldn't defeat Washington until 2002 after 18 straight years of losses). The loss to USC the other week, a scant 1st and goal to victory, was another example of the "almost there" loss.

Don't get me wrong, Cal's gotten its licks in too. I remember when we beat UCLA, at home, in 1990, the first time we had ever defeated our baby brothers in nearly 20 years. We embarassed USC in 1991 with a 52-30 home win (of course, a few years later, USC trampled us 61-0). In my time, we went to three bowl games, including a win in the 1992 Citrus Bowl that propelled us into the top 10 - the last time previous to this season.

But it is a new thing for most older Cal fans to think of our school as dominant, let alone all the NCAA fans in the Midwest and East who are reading the paper every Monday wondering, "who the hell is California? Isn't that a state, not a town?"

The irony is that the better Cal performs under Jeff Tedford, the more likely it is he'll be wooed away in the off season. That's what happened with Bruce Snyder after the Citrus Bowl and we ended up losing Steve Mariucci to the 49ers (of all teams) after one - albeit lackluster - season. Tedford's reign has done wonders for the school's football revenue: season ticket sales have skyrocketed in the last three years and attendence is at its highest in years. The question becomes: will Berkeley pony up the cash to keep Tedford and the larger philosophical query becomes: should we spend that kind of money in the first place?

The thing is: Cal has not been football powerhouse since the 1930s. Even if we finish the season ranked near the very top, we're not suddenly going to transform into a Miami or Nebraska. Our school's reputation has long been primarily as an academic institution, "flagship of the UC system" blah blah blah. The visible success of our athletic programs, namely in football and basketball, is nice but personally, it was never essential to my own identity as a Cal student or alum. Especially given the terrible shape of the California state budget and how that's impacted on schools like Berkeley, it's questionable how much money we should spend on a coach, especially when student services are being slashed elsewhere. I'm not saying athletics are unimportant, but it's not like the school's reputation hangs in the balance if the Golden Bears aren't in the top 10 every year.

This is not a new debate but for a public institution like Berkeley, it does speak to the heart of the school's identity and priorities. I'm pleased as pie that Cal has a legitimate shot for the Rose Bow this year (only b/c USC is going to the BCS Championship Game though) and it does this old Blue & Gold fan proud to see how well the team's been playing but if Cal went back into the cellar, I wouldn't be any less fond of Berkeley. I know other alums feel differently - the question is: what will be the cost to ensure a winning tradition at the school and more importantly, who will be the ones that eventually end up paying for that honor?