When it comes to getting genuinely excited about a football season, Cal fans exist in a private realm. They never quite know when to pull the trigger. This is the grim residue of history, showing the Bears without a Rose Bowl appearance since 1959, and among the hardened skeptics in the crowd, the conclusion is always the same:
“Aw, hold your horses. When does it ever end well?”
As a Cal grad dating to the turbulent days of the late Sixties, I feel qualified to comment on the current team sporting the Pac-12’s only unbeaten record (4-0). I can’t be a flag-waving fan, dropping into raucous fraternity parties on my way to Memorial Stadium, because that’s not the way of the sportswriter. But emotions tend to surface when it comes to your dear old school.
To me, it’s not so much about the fantasy of a College Football Playoff appearance, or even having a reasonable shot at the Rose Bowl. The Bears’ most defining, unassailable identity is Justin Wilcox. You won’t hear anyone refuting the idea that he’s the perfect head coach for the job.
There’s nothing so unusual about this impressive start, earning Cal the nation’s No. 15 ranking. Just four years ago, the Bears broke out of the gate 5-0, including wins at Texas and Washington, and no destination seemed too far-fetched with the fabulous Jared Goff at quarterback. Then came the jarring dose of reality: a four-game losing streak and the realization that head coach Sonny Dykes didn’t much care about defense.
Dykes was a likable fellow, and he made a valiant attempt at accepting Berkeley’s distinctive climate, but he was a Texas guy at heart, surely headed back home someday. (He’s currently 4-0 at SMU, by the way.) Wilcox was a safety at Oregon and is deeply rooted to family ties in that state, but that’s an essential part of the package: He grew up as a hard-working kid on a farm in Junction City, about 100 miles south of Portland, concerned with little but finishing the tasks at hand.
His father, Dave, a 49ers linebacker who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, wasn’t one to boast of his accomplishments — and you see those qualities in the son. He’s honest and forthright, no trace of ego, mixing a tough-minded approach with humility and touches of subtle humor to keep his players (and the media) at ease.
“I wouldn’t trade the upbringing I had,” Wilcox said by telephone Tuesday night. “It was kind of a small-town place, where people knew each other, and I was really fortunate to have parents that held us accountable. There was no pressure to play football. We just did it because our buddies played, and it was fun, and we loved the competition. All the right reasons. The biggest rule when I was growing up was, don’t quit. Whatever you’re doing.”
His dad “was retired when I was born, and I knew he played football, but it wasn’t one of those things we talked about very much,” Wilcox said. “He didn’t spend a lot of time reliving the glory days, so to speak. As I got older, I appreciated that even more.
Who: Arizona State at No. 15 Cal
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium
“Here’s a Hall of Fame guy who never treated anybody like he was any different or better. I figured, if he was one of the best at what he did, and he’s that humble, then who am I to look at it any differently?”
In a way, this inspiring season isn’t so much about the record, which could turn a bit sour if Arizona State pulls a mild upset at Memorial Stadium on Friday night. It’s about attitude. You hear so many built-in excuses about teams and their schedules: a short work week, a cross-country trip, the dreaded time-zone adjustments. That’s all nonsense, and Wilcox knows it. He’s coaching fit young men approaching their physical prime, and no challenge should be too daunting.
“We talk about that a lot,” Wilcox said. “During the offseason conditioning, fall camp, in practice and the night before games. There are no excuses. Whether it’s a long road trip, hydrating for heat, whatever, nobody wants to hear excuses. We have no control over those things, so we set our minds on the results we’re trying to get, and everybody on the team owning that.”
Proof: At Washington on Sept. 7, a 7:40 p.m. start turned into a 10:30 p.m. resumption in the first quarter because of a lightning storm that forced everyone off the field. The game ended at 1:22 a.m., a test of will power and a logistical nuisance for the trip back home. Cal not only beat the Huskies for the second straight year, quarterback Chase Garbers began his emergence into respectability, engineering a do-or-die drive that set up Greg Thomas’ game-winning field goal with eight seconds left. On Saturday, after all that talk about starting a game at 9 a.m. West Coast time — against an SEC team, no less — Cal was instantly fresh, taking a big lead that held up in a 28-20 victory at Mississippi.
Watching Wilcox lately, one can’t help but notice the beard — some pretty hefty growth and no sign of a razor. “There’s really no motive behind it, other than … I don’t know, I’ve got kind of sensitive skin, so when I shave it, it kind of burns me,” he said. “So I haven’t been shaving much lately. I’m getting some grief from a couple of family members and buddies of mine.”
Superstitions? Say, he won’t shave until the Bears lose a game? “No, I’m not superstitious at all,” he said. “I’m more concerned with practice and how we wind up playing. That’s how I spend my time getting prepared, not which shoe I put on first (laughs).”
There’s a bit of buzz surrounding the Bears’ program, in tandem with the inevitable out-of-town skepticism. An L.A. Times column this week claimed “the Golden Bears are unlikely to garner much (playoff) attention, short of going unbeaten.”
That’s fine. Cal has drawn attention where it counts, among students, alumni and Bay Area football fans. The world need not expand until further notice.