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November 12, 2012

Recruiting Flashback: Mike Pawlawski

Once targeted by opposing defenses, Mike Pawlawski is taking a turn being the hunter.

The host of Outdoor Channel's Familiar Waters and Gridiron Outdoors, these days Pawlawski spends as much time counting down to duck season as he does the start of football.

But though he's busier tossing line than flinging footballs, Cal fans will always remember him for quarterbacking the '91 Bears.

A fierce competitor, Pawlawski guided Cal to its first bowl victory in 52-years as a junior. His encore? A 10-2 senior campaign capped by a waxing of Clemson in the Citrus Bowl and a top-10 finish in the polls.

After spending a year in the NFL and the better part of the 90's dicing-up the Arena League, the "Polish Rifle" moved on to his current endeavor - balancing Cal Football radio duties with gaming trips to remote stretches of the planet.

For my part, I grew up watching Pawlawski, and the stream of victories he delivered to Berkeley gave fans a welcome respite from the losing ways that preceded him. More memorable though, was the gritty quality Mike and his teammates brought to the gridiron. Teeming with immeasurables and incapable of giving anything but his best, Pawlawski was the ultimate "gamer." In him, Old Blues got a quarterback with the moxy to combat fifty years of football futility.

And whether it was Chancellor Tien pumping his fist with every score or fans migrating back to campus in record numbers, the most fun was watching Pawlawski - elated, jumping up and down right alongside us.

Rivals: You went to high school in Fullerton, CA. How did you end up on Cal's radar?

Mike Pawlawski: My senior year at Troy High School, [Cal Assistant Coach] Steve Mariucci was down at Fullerton Junior College looking for JC defensive backs. Fullerton High School is right across the street from the J.C., so Mariucci walked over and told the coaches he was also looking for a high school quarterback. Fullerton's coach said "well, I don't have anybody, but there's a guy in our league you might be interested in." He showed him our game tape and Mariucci drove over to Troy that day.

Rivals: At what point did [Head Coach] Bruce Snyder get involved?

Pawlawski: Right away. Bruce took a visit to my parents' house and he was great. I remember sitting at the table eating dinner when real abruptly, he says "do you guys have a VCR?" We led him into the den where the TV was and he put a tape in. It was a tape of our game against Valencia High School. At the end of the game we scored a touchdown to make it 7-6, and rather than go for the PAT and the tie, we decided to go for the two point conversion. As I'm rolling out on the final play, I got guys hanging off me, I can't find anyone, and right as I'm going down, I throw it in the end zone to complete the pass. Bruce looked at me and said "that's the guy we're recruiting! That guy right there." I was incredibly competitive, so that made a mark.

Rivals: That's a pretty compelling pitch.

Pawlawski: Yeah, no doubt. Then we sat down and he told me all about Cal, all the great things the University had to offer, and about the program and where he saw it going.

Rivals: Did you know much about Cal at the time?

Pawlawski: I knew a little bit about Berkeley, but being from southern California, I knew more about UCLA and USC. I was never going to USC. That wasn't my school. But I did grow up a UCLA fan, so they were in play.

Rivals: What was your visit to Berkeley like?

Pawlawski: Within a week of Bruce's visit, I went up to check it out. I actually flew up with Mariucci. He was heading back from recruiting somebody else. It was kind of the standard recruiting trip - the same sort of stuff everybody goes through. But one of the things that really struck me was when [Offensive Coordinator] Terry Shea took me up to the stadium. We walked into Memorial and he told me to take a look around and to make sure to walk up to the top. Me, being an Orange County kid, I get up to the top of the stadium and look out over the Bay and I was blown away. I was like, "are you kidding me? What an incredible place."

Rivals: View aside, what else stood out about Berkeley?

Pawlawski: Talking to Terry and talking to Bruce, I just felt like they were very honest and sincere people. I didn't get that from every school that recruited me. There were several times when I'd catch coaches lying or trying to undercut other coaches. But all Bruce, Terry, and "Mooch" ever did was sell Cal. They weren't talking about other schools. They weren't putting down other schools. Essentially, they put themselves on a pedestal by not comparing themselves to anyone else.

Rivals: It's interesting to hear you say that, because I think a lot of people wonder what sorts of promises coaches are making with recruits.

Pawlawski: With character guys, sincerity goes a long way. And that's the type of guy that Bruce recruited. He wanted character guys. We didn't have the facilities back then. I mean, for God's sake, my whole career we worked out in the broom locker. But I wanted to make a difference in the program I went to, and guys like Troy Auzene, Jerrott Willard, Steve Gordon, Cornell Collier, Brian Treggs, Sean Dawkins - all these guys that he recruited - everybody there wanted to make a difference.

Rivals: Would you say that they were recruiting a different kind of player?

Pawlawski: They were recruiting great players, but they weren't recruiting prima donnas. There were no divas. Those teams had great character and that's what gets you through the tough times. There are teams that have great athleticism but no character, and those teams tend to back-bite each other. Teams that have great character don't do that.

Rivals: Did you have a sense coming in as a freshman that a different culture was taking root under Snyder?

Pawlawski: The beauty of it was that when I came in, I wasn't privy to the whole history that had happened before I got there. All I knew was the culture that Bruce was bringing in. Bruce knew the chemistry that he wanted out of his team and he went out and got the guys.

Rivals: Were there any other schools in the running?

Pawlawski: I considered Arizona and North Carolina State. There was never any vacillation once I made my choice to go to Cal, but there was competition before I made that choice.

Rivals: Did you take visits to those schools?

Pawlawski: It's funny. I took a trip to the University of Arizona. I loved Dick Tomey, I loved the program, and I saw myself fitting in there. But on the way back to the airport, the offensive coordinator t-boned another car - full-on car accident. So we got out, the coach made a call, and another coach came to pick me up and take me the rest of the way. Well, he just dropped me off at the airport, and by that point I had missed my flight. I literally sat in the Tucson Airport for six or seven hours thinking about what BS that was - so Arizona was out.

Rivals: And NC State?

Pawlawski: It was Buddy Green who recruited me. He was a former NC State guy himself and you could tell he loved the place - very sincere. He had that Southern accent and he was good looking, so my mom loved him. They had a really good coaching staff and a good team - they had just been to the Peach Bowl the year before. But in the end, I felt like Cal was a better fit for me.

Rivals: Well, I'd say it worked out for everyone involved. What was it about your experience that's kept you so involved all these years?

Pawlawski: Bruce brought in a team that was very tight and had a lot of character guys. When you work in a group like that, it's hard to compare to anything in the outside world and it's really difficult to explain how life changing it can be until you've actually been a part of it. So, my time at Cal was really transformative for me. I came of age on a squad with guys that I still talk to today. And you know, when you have the kind of success that we had there - I mean, we're still the highest-ranked team since I don't know how far back - you form an attachment.

Rivals: A long ways back; we're talking Pappy's Boys. That Citrus Bowl team gets brought up all the time.

Pawlawski: Cal fans are fantastic. They are appreciative of that team. They appreciate success, they're good people, and they're very intelligent. You can't get through Berkeley without a lot of brains. So, they're fun fans to talk to and fun fans to hang out with. They're just on a whole other level than any of the fans in other places I've been.

Rivals: Has it been difficult sitting up in the booth and watching the Bears struggle these past few seasons.

Pawlawski: It can be. But I'm a Cal die-hard. I have a block "C" tattooed on my arm. And like all Cal fans, hope springs eternal. Every year is a chance to go to the Rose Bowl.

Check Mike out on the Outdoor Channel here, and for even more, follow him on Twitter @Pawlawski

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