Golden On The Gridiron
Coach Jeff Tedford leads the surging Cal football team
On the first of September, Strawberry Canyon will overflow with blue and gold as 70,000 UC Berkeley football fans make their way to Memorial Stadium for a nationally televised battle between two of the best teams in the country: Tennessee and Cal. Five or six years ago, the thought of Cal competing in such a clash of the titans would have been inconceivable. In 2001, the Golden Bears finished the season with a wretched 1-10 record. The team hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1996, and it hadn’t defeated Stanford in the Big Game since 1994. Enter Jeff Tedford.
Michael J. Burns
Things began to turn around immediately after Tedford became head coach, as the team went 7-5 in 2002. Cal has posted a winning record and played in a bowl game every year since, and has finished the season ranked in the Top 25 in the nation in each of the past three years. Tedford has been a hit in Berkeley, but he almost didn’t become a football coach. He grew up in Downey, California, near Los Angeles, and played quarterback at Fresno State University. His playing career ended after six years in the Canadian Football League, and he returned to Fresno State to work on the coaching staff as an unpaid assistant. The money Tedford had saved from his playing days ran out after just one year, and, with a wife and a baby to support, he quit. Tired of moving around, he turned down an assistant coaching position with a team in Canada and took a job at a packaging company—and instantly began to regret the decision. “I worked for about a month at that job. I’ll never forget driving home and telling myself, ‘Man, I made a huge mistake. I wish I would have gone to coach,’ ” Tedford tells Diablo at his Memorial Stadium office, speaking in a calm, yet friendly voice that projects his steady demeanor. “So I get home that night, and my wife tells me that the coach called. And [the coach] says, ‘I started with you, and I’m going to come back to you one more time: Do you want this job?’ It was like somebody was watching over me. I said, ‘Absolutely. When do I leave?’ ”
Tedford spent several years as an assistant coach in the CFL, then at Fresno State again, and finally at the University of Oregon before Cal came calling. And things have never looked better in Berkeley. The Bears now routinely feature one of the best offenses in the Pac-10, and the successes of Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers (both were taken in the first round of the NFL draft) confirm the coach’s reputation as a quarterback guru. The 2007 team could be Tedford’s best yet, with quarterback Nate Longshore and wide receiver DeSean Jackson—a possible Heisman Trophy candidate—returning. The team is ranked ninth in the country in ESPN’s preseason poll.
Tedford’s gift for offensive-game planning is just one area in which he has led the team’s resurgence. Another one is his ability to recruit talented players. Tedford has kept many superb local athletes—such as Marshawn Lynch, a running back from Oakland Tech who starred at Cal—in the East Bay. Tedford attributes much of his recruiting success to the appeal of the Cal degree, saying, “It’s the number-one recruiting tool we have. We talk to our kids about, ‘This isn’t a four- to five-year decision; this is about the next 40 to 50 years of your life.’ ”
UC Berkeley Athletic Director Sandy Barbour appreciates the way the coach emphasizes academics. “Jeff is an exceptional fit in taking care of the student athletes and making sure they’re well-rounded young men,” she says. “He’s [also] a tireless worker, and he’s so devoted.”
She’s not kidding. During the season, Tedford works around the clock, often sleeping on an air bed in his office.
My job is to put the players in a position to be successful,” he says. “I’m really motivated to try to find all the answers to help our players succeed. I’m much happier when I’m at the job, and not sitting at home worrying about what I could be doing.”
If he needs a break, he can always glance out his window at a uniquely “Berkeley” sight: a bunch of hippies sitting in the trees. The university promised Tedford when he was hired that it would build a new $120 million athletic training facility. Construction plans involve the removal of a grove of oak trees adjacent to Memorial Stadium; the university also wants to renovate the stadium, which sits atop the Hayward fault, to make it earthquake-safe. Protesters took up residence in the trees, lawsuits were filed, seismic concerns were raised, and the Alameda County Superior Court issued an injunction to stop construction. Despite the hubbub, Tedford stays on his characteristic even keel.
“That guy who sits out there in that tree—he doesn’t bother me,” Tedford says. “He believes in something, so go ahead. When the time comes for the building to be built, the guy’s made his point, and we’ll move forward.” It’s the sort of squabble that a football coach almost anywhere else wouldn’t have to confront.
Tedford’s achievements at Cal have led to speculation that he could leave for a more high-profile coaching job, but he insists that he likes Berkeley and Danville, where he shares a home with his wife and two sons, and he wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
“I’ve been offered two jobs in the NFL, and I’ve declined both of those,” he says. “This is an awesome place. We’ve worked so hard to come to where we are, the new facility’s going to be built, it’s a great place to live, and I don’t see a reason to go anywhere else.”