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Beware Of the Bears

Exciting things are afoot in Berkeley, where high-scoring Cal is in the Pac-10 hunt thanks to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and brilliant young coach Jeff Tedford

Game faces on, they fidgeted under a hot sun an hour before kickoff, perspiring in their uniforms, thinking about their assignments. At the stroke of 2:30 last Saturday, Zach Morrison took charge. The 5'6", 165-pound fourth-year drum major for the Cal marching band shouted, "California band, a 10-HUT!" and the parade began. ¶ On home football Saturdays in Berkeley, the Cal band leads a gathering of fans the half-mile or so from Sproul Plaza to Memorial Stadium. While there was no bandwagon per se last Saturday, the number of fans tagging along appeared much larger than for previous home openers. Between insulting Stanford and chanting, "Go Bears!" the band geeks belted out thesong Titanic, which Cal undergrads long ago equipped with the nontraditional ending:

And the moral of the song,
It was sad when the great ship went down.

They had gathered to celebrate the salvaging of a wreck. In 2001 the worst Cal football team in 104 years lost 10 of its 11 games. One head coach and three seasons later, the Bears faithful dare discuss the possibility of their team's first Rose Bowl trip since 1959. To attain that goal, Cal must beat the teams it's supposed to beat--it did on Saturday, mauling New Mexico State 41-14--and most likely pull off at least one serious upset. Top-ranked Southern Cal awaits the Bears in Los Angeles on Oct. 9.

The visitors will walk through the Coliseum tunnel that day with much respect but no fear. Cal, after all, handed the Trojans their only defeat last season. That 34--31 triple-overtime loss cost USC its shot at an undisputed national championship and validated what Bears coach Jeff Tedford had spent the week drumming into his players. "He kept telling us, 'We're prepared, we've put in the work, we can beat these guys,'" recalls quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

They believe Tedford, as do Cal fans, many of whom can be seen around Berkeley in tie-dyed TEDHEAD T-shirts. In his first head coaching job, the 42-year-old Tedford has exceeded expectations, leading the Bears to seasons of 7--5 and 8--6 and a No. 10 ranking this week. In so doing he has raised the Titanic, so to speak, resurrecting a program that had slid in the previous decade from proud to mediocre to godawful. "You didn't want to go to class," says senior wide receiver Geoff McArthur of that 1--10 season. "You definitely didn't want to wear your Cal football shirt. You felt like you'd let your school down."

Job One for Tedford, whom Cal hired away from Oregon, was to restore the players' self-esteem. "Their confidence was shattered," says Tedford, who sought to provide a positive environment. There were team "unity meetings," in which players "talked about their own feelings." Additionally, Tedford sat down with each player. Among the things he asked them was to identify four team leaders. Many couldn't name any.

They started with the small things. They established goals. "It wasn't, We're gonna win all our games," says McArthur. "It was, Let's improve our practice habits." He remembers being called out by Tedford during a spring film session. "Somebody broke a big run, and I wasn't hustling down the field," McArthur says. Tedford couldn't take his thumb off the rewind button, replaying the receiver's sin over and over, saying, "Guys, this isn't going to get it [done]."

While the players bought into his system, not all outsiders were sold. Yes, Tedford had been a hot offensive coordinator for the Ducks and had proved himself, during a decade as an assistant at Fresno State and Oregon, to be the nation's finest quarterbacks coach. But this was still his first top gig. The Tedford Era at Cal began with a 70-22 demolition of Baylor on Aug. 31, 2002. The bandwagon has been taking on passengers ever since.

Even by the pyrotechnical standards of the Pac-10, Tedford's teams have lit it up. In the past two seasons the Bears amassed 884 points, more than the previous four Cal squads combined. In their first two games this season the Bears have averaged 592 yards of total offense. Senior tailback J.J. Arrington, who's rushed for 358 yards and six TDs, may not even be the most talented back on the team; some say it's electrifying true freshman Marshawn Lynch. McArthur, prone to injuries and to dropped balls before Tedford and his staff straightened him out, has blossomed into the second-leading receiver in Cal history.

There are, in short, more weapons on this offense than defenses can account for. The most dangerous is Rodgers, the 6'2", 210-pound junior, who wouldn't be at Cal if Tedford hadn't been looking for a tight end two years ago. In fall 2002 Tedford was studying video of Garrett Cross, a talented if twiggy juco tight end at Butte College in Oroville, Calif. While he liked Cross, he couldn't take his eyes off the kid throwing the ball. "I was thinking, This guy is athletic, scrambling, strong-armed, accurate; he has nice poise."

Tedford got his butt up to Butte and took in a practice. Rodgers, he recalls, "was on fire." On the drive back to Berkeley, Tedford called and offered a scholarship. Two weeks into his first camp at Cal, Rodgers was turning heads with the purity of his technique, the speed of his release, and Tedford was telling reporters that the quarterback from Pleasant Valley High in Chico, Calif., was one of the sharpest he'd ever coached.

That was saying something. At Fresno State and Oregon, Tedford had mentored Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and David Carr, all high first-round NFL draft picks. Kyle Boller, after throwing 36 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions in his first three seasons at Cal, blossomed under Tedford, tossing 28 TDs and just 10 picks as a senior. In one year he went from erratic underclassman riddled with self-doubt to first-round draft pick and starter for the Baltimore Ravens.

How does Tedford wring so much out of his quarterbacks? Mike Pawlawski, who quarterbacked the Bears to bowls in '90 and '91 and is now a TV analyst, has watched him work. "He's the whole package," says Pawlawski. "He's not just coaching technique, footwork, film study or relationships. He's coaching the whole quarterback. If you're a high school guy and you don't want to play for Tedford, there's something wrong with you."

Tedford and Rodgers are dueling perfectionists, the student thriving on the teacher's attention to detail. "Here," says Rodgers, "you can't afford to have a mental lapse in practice. You can't check out mentally for even a single rep, because [Tedford] will notice. And he can't handle it."

By the fifth game last year Rodgers was the starter. He passed for 263 yards and a TD in a 31--24 win at Illinois and was brilliant against Southern Cal, directing the Bears to a 21-7 halftime lead before leaving with an injury. Sic transit gloria: A week after that upset, in what he calls "the worst day of my life," Rodgers completed just nine of 34 passes for 52 yards against a blitzing Oregon State defense. Dejected and confused, he stopped talking to teammates and sat alone on the bench. Tedford summoned him after the 35-21 loss. In a small room deep in the stadium, teacher and pupil had a come-to-Jesus meeting.

"I can't have this type of effort from you again," warned Tedford. He wasn't talking about Rodgers's atrocious stats. He was talking about his demeanor in defeat. "You need to be a better leader. When we're going through tough times, people are looking for you to provide leadership. You can't just go off by yourself--that's when you need to rally the troops."

"It was a good lesson," says Rodgers, who vowed to become a better leader and player. He did, throwing for more than 300 yards in five of his last seven games last season. In his final two Rodgers accounted for 414 yards of total offense in Cal's second straight win over Stanford, then threw for 394 yards and two TDs in a wild 52-49 Insight Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

In addition to energizing the Cal faithful, Rodgers has set a high standard for himself. Late in the first half against New Mexico State, he'd completed 15 of his 18 passes, for 229 yards and a touchdown. "He's not really playing his best," said Cal associate athletic director Bob Rose, almost apologetically. On the next play Rodgers hit wideout Chase Lyman for a 25-yard score to put the Bears up by 20. "He's getting warmed up now," Rose allowed.

Cal fans are warming to the possibility of a long run in the Top 25. Memorial Stadium itself could pose an obstacle. Scenically located though it is in lyrically named Strawberry Canyon, the bowl is a seismic hazard, a crumbling dump begging for implosion. Located within it are Cal's moldering locker rooms and meeting rooms, the crummiest in the Pac-10. The school is seeking donors for a $180 million renovation. It needs to hurry. The $1 million buyout in Tedford's contract (which runs through '07) drops to $500,000 if renovations haven't started by the end of this year and goes to zero if work hasn't begun by the end of '05.

Having dispatched New Mexico State, Tedford and crew were looking no further than their dangerous Thursday night game at Southern Miss. Following the Golden Eagles, the Bears visit Oregon State, then USC. While Pac-10 watchers have long pointed to Cal's showdown with the Trojans as the West Coast's big game this year, you won't catch the Bears looking past their next foe.

The band members feel no such constraints. High stepping their way toward the stadium on Saturday, they stopped beneath the Campanile, Cal's 307-foot bell tower, and made reference to the Bears' final regular season opponent. "Hallelujah!" shouted drum major Morrison.

The band's reply echoed across campus: "Stanford sucks!" ■

Restart Those Polls

IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL, where you start the season can be more important than how you start it: While a preseason favorite can benefit from lofty expectations past its due, a team ranked low in the preseason polls has a hard time earning respect. That's why unimpressive Georgia, Miami and LSU remain in the top five this week while hot-starting Virginia, Boise State and Fresno State languish. So what would the top 10 look like if voters threw out the preseason polls and judged on performance? Something like this.




Peterson has the Sooners rolling.