I originally posted this on the California Golden Blogs website a few months ago.
The history of intercollegiate football at the University of California is replete with the pomp, pageantry and tradition that exemplifies college football in the United States. Cal has a particularly rich football past with many heroes and glorious football teams. But the hard truth is that, in general terms, the Golden Bears have, for over 50 years, pretty much sucked at football. True fans love them no less for this and hope springs eternal.
I am second to no one in my love of Cal football. I love the stadium, the band, the cannon, the fight songs, the card stunts, the colors and of course, Oski. I love the university and all it stands for. I am proud to bleed blue and gold.
I've been attending Cal football games since before I can remember. The first game I can recall going to was, of all things, a 22-22 tie with Duke in 1963. My love affair with Golden Bear football began when I was a mere lad during a time (one of many) when the Golden Bears were doing quite poorly on the football field. But I was hooked. It wasn't just football or college football it was Cal football that intoxicated me. Memorial Stadium was my favorite place in the world. If I went to a game and Cal lost I was forgiving and looked forward to better days ahead. I was happy just to have been there. If they won I was delirious with joy and anticipated more glory to come. In later years I took the losses a bit harder but I've learned — after far too much practice — to take defeats in stride and move on with my life. The wins I savor more and more with each passing year. I've come to realize how precious each is.
In the last half century Cal has boasted some excellent teams and great players and played in some legendary games including one that is generally acknowledged to be the greatest college football game of all time (the 1982 Big Game). In recent years Cal has featured such future NFL stars as Aaron Rogers, DeSean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and Shane Vereen, to name but a few. But the truth of the matter is that in terms of the college football universe Cal football has been — for quite sometime now — pathetic. I do not here refer to the last few years or the last 20. The Bears have been bad for over six decades. Cal has had more than its fair share of crummy seasons and way way less than its share of great seasons.
But it didn't used to be this way. Not at all. (In discussing Cal football history I am beginning in 1915 when Cal made the permanent move back from rugby to American football.) From 1915 through 1938 The University of California was one of college football's powerhouses. In those 24 years there were 20 Bear teams that had winning records and only two with losing records, while two others finished at .500. Among those teams were Andy Smith's Wonder Teams which included five consecutive unbeaten seasons (1920-1924). Over those five years the Sturdy Golden Ones outscored their opponents 1,564 - 139.
Cal stumbled a bit in the aftermath of Smith's death following the 1925 season, but their 7-1-1 team of 1929 went to the Rose Bowl. Later under Coach Leonard "Stub" Allison the Bears hit dizzying heights again. In his first four seasons (1935-1938) the Bears were 35-7-1 featuring a 1937 squad that earned a 13-0 Rose Bowl victory over Alabama and a claim to the then mythical national championship.
The Bears did not suffer a prolonged spell of sub par seasons in football until World War II. From 1939-1946 Cal had no winning seasons and managed only one at .500. Allison's early magic wore off and his 10-year tenure was done at Cal after the 1944 campaign.* There were then three head coaches in three years but the last of the trio was Lynn Pappy Waldorf, under whom the Bears instantly returned to glory. In his first four seasons (1947-1950) Cal went 38-4-1** and appeared in three Rose Bowls where three of those losses occurred, in each case ruining unbeaten seasons.
After the last of those Rose Bowls the Bears had two more winning seasons under Waldorf, going 8-2 in 1951 and 7-3 in 1952. It is since that 1952 season that Cal football has been in college football's doldrums — at least where wins, losses and conference titles are concerned. In the next 15 years Cal had ten losing seasons, four .500 seasons and only one winning year, albeit the last Cal Rose Bowl team (1958). That last Cal squad to win an outright conference crown was preceded by three teams that won a combined six games and was followed by four teams that managed six victories between them. The 1958 squad was a true outlier in a particularly bleak period of Cal football.
From 1953 through last season Cal has had only 22 winning seasons with 32 losing seasons and seven at .500. On top of that, since 1937 Cal has managed a combined total of zero unbeaten seasons. Also, since 1952 Cal has accumulated a grand total of zero seasons with just one loss. Since that time the Bears have had only two teams go through a season with as few as two losses. One of those was the 1991 squad which suffered a regular season ending 17 point upset loss to the ‘Furd in the Big Game and the other was the 2004 team which ended its season the victims of stunning 14 point Holiday Bowl upset to Texas Tech. Thus Cal's two best teams of the last 60 years each were dealt a convincing upset beating at or near the end of their campaign.
The Bears have managed a share of the conference crown twice (1975 and 2006) but both those teams missed out on the Rose Bowl as a consequence of losses to the team with whom they shared the title.
Do you have any idea how many college teams have gone unbeaten since Cal last did? Do you have any idea how many college football teams have gone through a season with just one loss since the last time Cal did? I don't know either but anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of college football can tell you that there have been a lot. A helluva lot. Many of those teams are Cal's arch rivals (‘Furd, U$C and UCLA). Misery loves company and the best the Bears can do for company is the likes of Washington State. But even they have gone to the Rose Bowl twice in the last 16 years.
Speaking of Cal's rivals, if you are really a masochist check out the Bears' records against these three schools over the past 60 years. I didn't have the heart to do it because I know just anecdotally it is very bad versus each one. These woeful records include long losing streaks against all of them (From 1972 through 1989 against UCLA, 1959-1969 and 2004 to present against U$C and against the ‘Furd 1961-1966, 1996-2001 and from 2010 to date. The best winning streaks against each of the three has been five vs. UCLA, 1990-1994, five vs. ‘Furd, 2002-2006 and three vs. U$C, 1998-2000.) Here's how bad it is, Cal has not beaten all three in the same season since 1958, the school's last Rose Bowl year. Indeed the Golden Bears have only ever beaten all three in the same season in Rose Bowl years and in 1941 (which is a story for a different time).
Besides their three California based rivals, the Bears have a very long standing rivalry against the University of Washington and I guess it wouldn't surprise you to know that our record against them has been abysmal in the past 60 years and also includes a horrific losing streak (1977-2001) and one ongoing one that began in 2009. We've managed a five game winning streak against them from 2002-2006.
My intention here has not been to send anyone spiraling into depression nor make anyone ashamed of Cal football. (On the contrary I think Bear fans should be very proud of their team.) But I always think it's best to face the truth. I taught U.S. History for over 20 years and I believed it my responsibility to relate to students the horrors of slavery and the sufferings of so many Native American tribes. I did not sugar coat or embellish, I merely tried to present the facts as objectively as possible. Here to in presenting this most abbreviated version of Cal football history I have endeavored to relate facts. I have been a student of Cal football history all my life so I knew what was coming in starting my research, but even I was struck by the dimensions of Cal's football futility.
The beauty of this recitation of horrors is how wonderful we'll all feel when this turns around, as I believe it will beginning this very season. I predict that 60 years in the future someone will be writing about the glorious records of Cal football over the preceding six decades, with statistics revealing their dominance in the conference in general and over their arch rivals in particular.
The question of why Cal has failed to scale the heights this past half century plus requires a detailed answer which I've neither the time nor expertise to explore. I do know that teams in sports of all types at all levels, professional and amateur sometimes develop a winning or a losing culture and either is hard to break. When a game is on the line teams can sometimes expect to win or expect to lose as the case may be. (This goes for individual athletes as well.) It can also happen when two teams face one another. There have been far too many times in Big Game history when a close game did not go Cal's way. Meanwhile it was only in only in the early Tedford years that one felt certain that Cal would be the team that came through in the end, this feeling was epitomized by the 2009 Big Game.
Cal has certainly had bad luck with coaches and coaching hires. Pete Elliott left one season after leading the Bears to the Rose Bowl. His successor, Marv Levy went on to be a successful NFL head coach but had four horrible seasons at Cal (1960-1963). Mike White was running a fairly successful program (1972-1977) before running afoul of Athletic Director Dave Maggard and NCAA regulations. The hiring of former star player Joe Kapp (1982-1986) proved a big mistake. Bruce Snyder (1987-1991) had Cal in successive bowl games but the then AD Bob Bockrath drove him out as part of his torching of Cal athletics. The Bears hired Keith Gilbertson (1992-1995) to replace him and his tenure was short lived. Available at the same time as Gilbertson was Steve Mariucci. After Gilbertson was sacked Mariucci was brought in but left after one season (1996) to take the 49ers head job (things would have almost certainly been much different in Cal football if Mariucci had been hired in '92 instead). In the wake of Mariucci's sudden departure came the epically bad hiring of Tom Holmoe who is the only man to coach Cal for more than four seasons (1997-2001) without posting one winning record. So the whole business of hiring and keeping head coaches has played a major role in the Bears' recent woes.
Of all the fan bases I've been associated with Cal football's is the best. We are knowledgable, passionate, and (relative to other fans) patient. The years of suffering have hardened us to defeat but not accepting of it. When glory comes we will savor it. And it will come. Sonny Dykes and company are about to break this current cycle. It has taken two difficult years but the Bears are on the verge of a major breakthrough that will bring a new era of Cal football. Not one of futility but one of glory. By Oski I know it.
*After Allison's fantastic start at Cal he never again had a winning season and only managed .500 once in his last six seasons at the helm.
**Like Allison, Waldorf roared in like a lion — or Bear — and went out like a lamb. After six straight winning seasons he had consecutive .500 teams and consecutive losing seasons. As most fans of today are no doubt aware Jeff Tedford also came on like gangbusters. With a 43-20 record in his first five seasons going to bowl games in all of those seasons save his first when Cal was on probation. In his last six years Tedford teams went 39-37 and missed going to a bowl game twice. The only Cal head coach who served for ten or more years who didn't fit the fast start slow finish trend was Andy Smith who built up for a few seasons before his Wonder Teams. But even he ended his career by slipping to 6-3. Of course he died after that and we'll never know if he would have righted the ship or continued to slide. I think most students of Smith and college football would assume the former would have happened.