Though I still don’t think we’ve completely exorcised whatever curses the football gods have sprung on Strawberry Canyon these last couple years, they have at least granted me one gift — another fresh angle for my 3rd annual “pre-season personal thinkpiece”, which I usually use to sort through some feelings on the state of the program before the opening kickoff. As always, enjoy or don’t.
Ask any resident of Bear Territory about last August 31st, and you’ll discover plenty of lingering resentment at Northwestern’s suspiciously shall we say, convenient 2nd half cramping. Thanks to those dubious shenanigans, to this day, there remains some belief in the fan base — and even on the coaching staff — that last season would have gone quite differently, had we just gotten off on the right foot and found ourselves on the other side of 44-30. Unfortunately for our memories, the record, and the loss will stand, no matter how much outrage may remain.
Reality leaves us only with a rematch at Ryan Field; a 364 day wait made in hopes that revenge is a dish best served Chicago style.
Seeking it, though, will be a Cal team that isn’t quite who we thought they’d be. At least, not yet — a largely unique position, considering the pre-season outlooks of the 2012 and 2013 teams. Unlike those predecessors, there is no expectation of bowl-dom at this juncture, as there was in the last hurrahs of the Tedford/Keenan Allen/Zach Maynard era, nor is there any of the mystery and intrigue that marked Sonny Dykes’ debut in Berkeley.
Despite hopes that there would be a quick Jim Mora-esque turnaround under Coach Dykes, the much harder truth is the one that has set in these last 12 games — that this team isn’t, and won’t be the ones down south; that they remain amid a badly needed, but still ongoing rebuild, even with the abundance of highly rated recruits Jeff Tedford left behind. A flurry of offseason activity now behind them, these 2014 Bears still project as massive underdogs in every matchup this season, topping out at a line of 34 points against USC, and with most projections falling in the 3-4 win range, the fringe lunatics have already begun to call for Sonny Dykes’ head.
Now, there has already been progress in that rebuild. Of course there has been — we are all no doubt aware of the immense turnaround occurring on the APR front, and a new, warmer program culture emphasizing the Cal family, continues to be nursed along with each set of Dykes’ recruits. (Although it’s a small sample size and anecdotal, to be sure, my impression of the freshmen I’ve met or worked with at Summer Bridge in this 2014 class is quite positive on the academic end, especially in comparison to some of the classes I’ve encountered toward the end of the Tedford era, and I’ve been there for four years now.)
On the field, this team returns a year older and a year more tested, many, the beneficiary of game reps they may not have been fully ready to take, but had to anyway, for one reason or another. Jared Goff is the poster child for this, but he’s one of many — throwing guys like Cameron Walker, Hardy Nickerson, and Chris Borrayo into the fire early should begin paying dividends soon enough, as they continue to be molded into the cornerstones for the future.
The only problem is that their refinement — and most of this youthful roster’s, really — remains ongoing, likely still aways from completion, making this the first season in a little while with no realistic expectation of success, no December vacation destination in sight. That is not to say that the coaching staff will roll over willingly for the fall to come, nor the players, either — it is simply to acknowledge that getting within even sniffing distance of, say, El Paso would be considered a great achievement by most.
Yes, these are the times that try the souls of fans, and though I may have written that line before, damn it, I’m writing it again. (Authorial license and such.)
So, that’s the dilemma ahead for me, one I haven’t encountered since I seriously — and literally, at times — began caping up for California. What is the correct way to feel, heading into a year with only expectations of mediocrity at best, and success at least another calendar away?
I’ve never been a drinker before games, even though that violates Commandment 0 of the college football Bible. Anger, the home that many Blue and Gold keyboard warriors have been taking shelter in as of late, is more tiring than it is constructive, and apathy would leave me with too much time on my hands each Saturday…not to mention depriving me of the chance to write for you all.
Those options, time tested by the legions of frustrated before me, are out.
No, I’ve made my peace with the upcoming year another way, finding a tiny, simple, kernal of liberation in the notion of bowlless existence.
I’ll wait through it for now, taking heart in the gains we do make, while trying to hang onto the oft-forgot axiom that progress is not linear. It will spike, slant, and slump, just as often as it soars, let alone doing it at a satisfactory rate — no different than it would be with any of my students. Many of them make clear advances after a summer, a semester, a year with me, but still, certain concepts remain hazy on occasion, essays of theirs inching closer to putting it all together. More likely than not, the team will look the same way in 2014, progressing forward bit by bit, slipping away at others.
And that’s okay.
I’ll wait for now, because I simply love the acts — of teaching, of watching college football, of writing on it — themselves anyway, and while eventual results in both areas are important, reaching them without struggle would make everything feel hollow, unearned. Those Roses, should they ever bloom, would smell much sweeter after growing from our immeasurable frustrations.
Losing forever isn’t tolerable. Neither are consistent, depressingly low expected win totals. That’s not what I mean to imply in writing all this. In the present, though, it has to be — to me, anyway — if we are to give this staff a fair chance to build toward something greater down the line, or allow them to simply be accurately evaluated on their own merits.
And should down the line — or the minimum 8 wins I’m banking on in 2015 — never come, I won’t be afraid to say that I was wrong about everything. I never have been.
There will be time for those determinations, time for that discussion.
This just isn’t it yet. One calendar turn later, maybe.
I just don’t see a point in rushing to judgement one way or another, the most unfortunate byproduct of an era of instancy and an insatiable demand for hot takes. My insistence on patience surely makes a tired refrain in contrast — especially for those who read any of my work, since I always insist on rational, measured reaction, rather than reacting simply for reaction’s sake — but I think that’s what makes it a crucial one to keep in mind.
These are notions of the young, you may say. A fancy of the foolish. That I, like all Old Blues, will have that patience and levelheadedness beat out of me soon enough.
I sure as hell hope not. I wouldn’t want to be any other way.
See you in Evanston. Go Bears.