In 2023, I believe Cal football fans agree on something; the past couple of years, our program has struggled with player retention, recruiting and most importantly, winning.
We have not had a winning season since 2019, and especially with the introduction of the transfer portal and NIL, Cal seems to be floundering where other programs are flourishing. This narrative is furthered by what has occurred this summer; within 24 hours, Washington and Oregon joined UCLA and USC and withdrew from the Pac-12 conference, announcing their commitment to join the Big Ten Conference in 2024. This left Cal, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State behind.
However, the conception that Cal has consistently produced lackluster results is simply incorrect.
Going way back to the early 20th century, the Bears won four national championships in a row, achieving four undefeated seasons between 1920 and 1923. They also reigned victorious in 1937, and clinched conference titles six additional times from 1935 to 1958. While this dominance slowed down throughout the 1960s and 1970s, head coach Mike White led the blue and gold to another conference title in 1975.
Then, from 2002 to 2012, during Jeff Tedford’s time as head coach, Cal accomplished nine winning seasons in 11 years. This relatively recent success often seems to be left out of current critique of Cal’s collegiate athletic prowess, despite the fact that many current and former NFL stars played for the Bears during this time. Most notably, explosive wide receiver DeSean Jackson, four-time NFL MVP winner Aaron Rodgers and five-time Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch.
During this period, Cal was a consistent competitor for the Pac-12 championship, and was as successful and ferocious as USC and UCLA, if not more so in some respects. Tedford left Cal with five bowl wins, 50 conference wins, seven Big Game wins and perhaps most astonishing, 40 players drafted to the NFL, which included eight first round picks.
While dominance slowed down slightly in the years after 2012 during Sonny Dykes’ four year campaign as head coach at Cal, quarterback Jared Goff rose to stardom and showcased undeniable talent throughout his three seasons as a Bear. In 2015, he led the team to a bowl game victory and set a Pac-12 single-season passing record of 4,714 yards before being selected first overall in the 2016 NFL draft the next year.
So why is there a notion that Cal does not have a successful legacy within its football program, when history clearly proves that this is not the case?
Although there are clear trends when it comes to achieving success in college football, there seems to be a blatant tendency to overestimate the trajectory, both positive and negative, of a program based on a couple of seasons of dominance or struggle.
The extreme manner in which many fans react to winning and losing only contributes to this, as those closely following college sports tend to accept the ups and downs as if their own personal victories and failures.
The feeling of impending doom for fans of currently struggling teams is exacerbated by the fact there have been unprecedented changes since 2018, when the transfer portal was launched, and even more so in 2021 with the rise of NIL. Now, more than ever, being part of a large, successful conference is crucial; this is because players in the Big Ten and SEC get significantly more media coverage, and therefore larger NIL deals. Particularly with the recent diminishing of the Pac-12, it feels as though Cal’s years of acquiring and retaining top prospects are over.
With this being said, I still feel as though there is hope in sight. There have been many significant shifts in college football in the past, several that were similarly impactful as NIL and the transfer portal. Prior to 1998, there was no such thing as bowl games, and the college football playoff system was established less than ten years ago. So, who’s to say there won’t be a massive, impactful change in the next decade that will cause everything to shift again?
I believe patience is key; Cal has had many amazing seasons and fabulous coaching and playing performances throughout the past century. There is no reason to think that it couldn’t happen again.