Golden Anticipation: For Now, Cal Football Fans Can Claim “We’re in First Place!”

By Carolyn Jones

The best time to be a Cal football fan is the long, languid dog-days of summer. Memories from last season have healed, the first hopeful reports from training camp have started trickling in, and technically we haven’t yet been eliminated from Rose Bowl contention. In fact, we’re tied for first place!

It’s a wondrous time. All is golden anticipation. So many new JC transfers to meet! Sometimes even a whole new coaching staff! Not to mention some exciting experiments with new uniforms. Late summer is when we remember only the good: the thrill of the band bursting from the North Tunnel, the cannon flashing on Tightwad Hill, the joy of reuniting with old friends, and the immensely comforting knowledge that the world may be turning upside down, hurtling fast into the unknown, but a glorious autumn afternoon at Memorial Stadium will never change.

Well, some Cal fans might frown at that last statement. After all, they still have hope that someday, maybe, there will be a change at Memorial Stadium: Many victories. Even just a few victories. They dream that the Bears will someday beat Stanford and USC, maybe even win the Rose Bowl and return to their rightful place atop the conference, if not the NCAA. After all, other teams have done it. Why not us? If Cal is tops in so many fields, from particle physics to medieval Welsh, then why can’t we win a few lousy football games? Why must we wait, and wait, and wait? Doesn’t the ghost of Joe Roth care about us?

Years ago, someone launched the popular blog “RoseBowlBeforeIDie”—and that goal still glimmers in the eyes of fans. I’ve seen many Old Blues pass on to the great tailgate party in the sky, hopeful ’til the end.

My dad, George Jones, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1951, had been a season ticket holder for more than 50 years. When he was close to death, a few years ago, I mentioned that Cal had hired a new coach. He sighed from his hospital bed, looked forlornly out the window, and said, “You know, the coaches come and go. The players come and go. It never seems to matter. After all these years, we have to ask ourselves: Maybe it’s not the coach. Maybe it’s us.”

He always thought Cal would get to the Rose Bowl once more before he died. He’s not the only one. Years ago, someone launched the popular blog “RoseBowlBeforeIDie”—and that goal still glimmers in the eyes of fans. I’ve seen many Old Blues pass on to the great tailgate party in the sky, hopeful ’til the end.

Maybe that’s the true gift of Cal football: eternal hope. Since most years are filled with failure, crushed dreams and abject heartbreak, if not outright trauma, the future is always bright. If you’re 1–11, going 2–10 the next year is a source of much celebration. Pity those poor USC fans who cry into their gin-and-tonics when their team loses a single game!

The Selna family of Oakland has been attending Cal football games since the 1940s. They’ve seen it all—the Vince Ferragamo–to–Steve Sweeney touchdown pass at the 1972 Big Game; the four-overtime win against Arizona in 1996; The Play—and, of course, plenty of 1–10 seasons, last-second collapses and 50-point blowouts.

“A complex set of variables goes into being a Cal football fan,” said Rob Selna, an Oakland lawyer who played football at Cal briefly in the 1980s. “It’s equal parts nostalgia, tradition, pride, optimism. It’s not just about watching football, that is for certain.”

Selna said that attending Cal games as a youth shaped his world view profoundly. Spending Saturday afternoons with an East Bay melting pot of fans who shared a common passion, loyalty, patience and good-humored free-spiritedness was an invaluable experience, he said.

“It taught me to root for the underdog, not just in football but in life,” he said. “If nothing else, it’s just more fun.”

Goff’s 92-yard pass play to Lasco last year against Colorado was the longest pass play in school history, and one of the most beautiful to behold. Some of us are still cheering about it.

So, for those Cal fans—including me—who would not dream of missing a season at Memorial Stadium, under any circumstances, there’s plenty this season to be hopeful about. First and foremost, many outstanding players are returning to the offense: Jared Goff at quarterback, Kenny Lawler at wide receiver, Daniel Lasco at running back, Jordan Rigsbee at lineman, and Bryce Treggs at receiver, punt returner or whatever else he wants to do.

Goff, a junior, has already set 19 school records including passing touchdowns and total offense. For the second consecutive year he’s been named to the Maxwell Award Watch List, for the award given annually to the college football player of the year. Some might remember his 92-yard pass play to Lasco last year against Colorado. It was the longest pass play in school history, and one of the most beautiful to behold. Some of us are still cheering about it.

Defense has plenty of stars back, as well. Linebackers Hardy Nickerson, Michael Barton and Jalen Jefferson are all back, joined by a host of other returners.

Newcomers defensive lineman Devante Wilson (whom we love because he originally signed with USC but ditched the Trojans for Cal), running back Lonny Powell from Sacramento and Derron Brown, a safety from Oakland, all promise to make a big impact. There’s a few new coaches to welcome, too: Brandon Jones from East Carolina will be the running game and offensive line coordinator, and Jacob Peeler, who worked with Head Coach Sonny Dykes at Louisiana Tech, will take over as inside receivers coach.

The schedule looks a little dicey, with road games against Texas, Washington, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. But on the bright side, we can look forward to watching Cal beat USC at home.

The season opens at 2 p.m. Sept. 5 at Memorial Stadium against Grambling State, which has a storied football program and an amazing marching band. My people and I will be there, in Cal hats, prepared to weep at “All Hail,” and ready for whatever the ghost of Joe Roth has in store.

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Comments

A lovely tribute to the program, its fans and the enigma that is the Golden Bear quest for sustained football relevance. Carolyn Jones has captured in a positive way the continual angst we feel as fans. Last year this was epitomized by our agonizing collapse against a rising Arizona team and our last-man-standing win over slumping Washington. When we can reverse this scenario to routinely winning the big ones and only occasionally falling to lesser teams we will have arrived. It will happen gradually. We may not see it coming. We may not even see it happening. We’ll know for sure it has occurred by the time we have earned the right to play in our 2nd Rose Bowl in the new millennium. In deference and reference to Ms. Jones’s late father’s last observation about Cal (“maybe it’s us”), however, we must prepare for the possibility, nay, likelihood, that both Rose Bowls earned will come during years when the playoff happens to call such successful teams to other venues. That’s life. That’s Cal. Go Bears!
…ahem…that would have been Washington State.

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