One reason Jeff Tedford is the best Cal football coach in a half-century: He’s always looking for ways to improve.
"When I was a young coach," he said when we talked in his office, "I thought when I was a head coach, I’d put in a plan and use that every year, but it doesn’t work that way."
In the spring, Tedford visited two schools that run spread offenses, Virginia and Florida. He also hired Mike Dunbar, who had run a very successful spread offense at Northwestern. The Bears will still feature what Tedford calls "downhill running," power runs between the tackles, but elements of the spread will be incorporated this fall. An already good offense should get better.
Tedford talks continually to his players, individually and in groups, about aspects of their lives as students, from class work to behavior away from the football complex. He feared that he wasn’t getting through to the black athletes on his team this year.
"They use the N-word all the time talking among themselves," he said. "It’s like a white kid saying, ‘Hey, dude.’ I told them, ‘That may be common when you’re in your group, but you’re at the University of California now and it’s not acceptable here.’ They told me, ‘Coach, that’s part of our culture. You’re not taking anything away from the white players.’"
So, Tedford asked Harry Edwards, who has been counseling 49ers players since Bill Walsh was coaching in the mid-’80s, to talk to his players.
"Harry told them, ‘I’ve been backstage with the big rap stars. They use those words to sell songs, but they don’t talk that way when they’re in a professional situation. You’re building a resume here. You don’t want that on it.’"
That worked so well that Tedford plans to bring in Edwards for more talks in the fall.
Tedford believes in a hands-on approach, on and off the field, which is why I believe he’ll never go to the pros, as many Cal alumni fear. When Joe Ayoob was struggling last season, being ripped by fans and even fellow students, Tedford called him in for a talk.
"I told him that maybe he should think of transferring, not because I wanted him to, but because I
didn’t want this experience to destroy him. He sat there with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I’m not transferring. I hope it will all work out in football, but even if it doesn’t, I’ll have my degree and move on.’"
In spring practice this year, Ayoob appeared much more confident and was throwing the ball with strength and accuracy. Tedford talked to the quarterback’s academic advisor and heard that Ayoob’s grades were his best since coming to Berkeley. "I’m so proud of that young man," Tedford said.
This year’s Cal team has been ranked in the top 10, as high as
No. 6 in one ranking.
"We still have to prove it on the field," he said. "I’m not worried about those rankings affecting our kids. We’ve been in the top 10 or 20 in previous seasons, so this isn’t anything new to them."
The moment of truth will come early as the Bears travel to Tennessee for their opener. Whatever happens, Tedford will cope with it. His hands-on approach is working.Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.