Bears reflect on historic home

BERKELEY-The Big C. It's the Cal fight song. But not many stop to think about just what that means, beyond images of marching bands, brass polished to a mirror finish and a familiar old tune. A fight song is at its core a call to arms; a call to scratch and claw; a call to win. Above all, it is a call to, well, fight. And this season, there hasn't seemed to be much of that in this Cal football team.
But, looking back on the recent history of this program, fight has been all there was. There was no proud history of winning, at least not with any regularity. There were no roses. All there was, was fight: gritted teeth, well-shouldered loads, passion and tenacity. And maybe, just maybe, with California Memorial Stadium's last dance on tap today, the right people will find that kind of fight again, and remember what it took to drag this team up from the depths of mediocrity.
As head coach Jeff Tedford prepared to leave the coaches' locker room before last week's Big Dud, he took a look around.
"That was one of the things that I said to the team after the game: Next week is the last time we're going to sit in this room as we know it. I was kind of looking around, where the coaches' locker room is, just looking at how dingy and how cold and all that, and you think, 'How many times have we done this?'" he said.
For 87 years, this team has fought and lived on this field, in this house, this Domicile, at 76 Canyon Road, Berkeley, CA, 94704. 545 times, 100-or-so men have come through that North Tunnel, with the engraving above their helmets, silently bearing witness: IN MEMORY OF CALIFORNIANS WHO GAME THEIR LIVES IN THE WORLD WAR 1914-1918.
"It's been a special place," said defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. "To play here over the years and to be able to coach here, I still see the good thing about the renovations, instead of taking the whole thing down, I still see the tradition being restored here, the place being improved, and I'm fired up about that, versus tearing the whole thing down, relocating and building a whole new stadium."
Those young men-Lupoi included- have pitched their padded shoulders and azure-capped crania against opponents while clad in the piercing deep blue of the Pacific Ocean and the gold of a California sunset, playing a game in a house dedicated to those who fell in war.
This stadium, this monument, sitting astride the Hayward Fault, has never faltered. It has cracked and it has shaken, but it has never fallen. For 12 years from 1927 to 1938, the Bears never lost at home. From 1947 to 1950, Cal won 21 straight within these hallowed walls, erected by John Galen Howard in the style of Rome's Colosseum. It has once hosted an NFL game-a 12-7 win by the Oakland Raiders to end the Miami Dolphins' 18-game unbeaten streak-as well as the greatest finish in college history.
"You can tell that it's weathered many more than just a few storms, and it's still standing," said junior tailback Shane Vereen. "It's still strong."
And through it all, the band has played. Fight for Big C. Fight for California. Fight.
"There's a part of it, you know-I'm not going to have time to reflect on it so much right now-but as we move into the new place and things like that, you always look back on the memories of walking out that same door, walking down those same stairs with the team, walking out that same way, doing that, those are memories that will never go away, no matter how the new place is and no matter how we get to where we're going," says Tedford. "I don't know how many games I've coached here-it's been quite a few, I think it's over 100-but when you do something that long, you always have the memories."
Tedford is 72-41 in his tenure in Strawberry Canyon, with 43 wins and 13 losses coming right here, in this edifice. Next year, he and his Bears will move across the Bay for a season in San Francisco's AT&T Park before returning to Berkeley, and a renovated home. But, still, there's the sense of leaving the nest, of moving out of the home that you grew up in.
"That's exactly right," says Tedford. "To start off here at my first head coaching job, going through all those things in those facilities and in those offices through there every day, and sleeping in there night after night, hearing the garbage trucks outside waking you up at three in the morning. That's a hell of a memory."
Of course, there's also the raccoons.
"I kind of felt a little nostalgic moving out of those offices and into our trailers, because we're no longer in that office, up there," Tedford says. "That was a little bit different. When they tore it out, and I walked through there back in August, I stood where my office used to be, and now it's just a big, open area.
"At that point, I stood there and thought about all the nights of sleeping in there and hearing the garbage trucks outside and the people in the trees and walking out to go to the bathroom, because there was no bathroom inside. You walked outside to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and the raccoons were out there as you walked out; you had to creep out and make sure that there were no raccoons out there. I'd just go back in and hold it. I'm not messing with the raccoons."
For many players, their finest moments here are simple and direct. They involve one constant: the crowd.
"My favorite memory would probably be two years ago, when we beat Stanford. The whole crowd, the whole stadium emptied out onto the field," said senior defensive end Cameron Jordan. "That was pretty awesome. We've had a lot of great wins, and it's been a pretty fun time."
For senior linebacker Mike Mohamed, it was the first time he heard that unmistakable roar, rebounding off the stone and the concrete and the wood and the hills.
"It was the first time coming out of the tunnel, against Tennessee," Mohamed smiles. "We had practiced in here a lot, but I had never seen it with fans in the stands, and when I was coming out of the tunnel, just seeing everybody over here on the south end, it was great. It was amazing. It was just kind of like a wake-up call: Here's Division I football. It was nuts."
"There's no place that I think anyone on this team would rather be on a Saturday afternoon, in front of 70,000 screaming fans here at Memorial," said Vereen. "It's a special place, because when we come out of the tunnel, everyone's going and you don't really understand the support that the Cal football team has until you witness that and come out of the tunnel with everyone screaming and the student section going crazy. It's a special place, and I love playing here."
And not only do Vereen and his cohorts play here; they practice here, every day, bright and early, in the cold and the wet and the ice, with a million-dollar view greeting them as they trudge down the 154 steps to the stadium floor.
"It makes it a lot more comfortable. I think, especially on Saturdays, you come out and it's the same place you practice, the same field you see every single day, which could go to why we do play well at home," Vereen said. "It's a very comfortable place for us to play in. We love playing in front of our fans."
"We've got a bond here," Jordan said of the monument, as if talking about an old friend, instead of a collection of concrete, wood, metal and steel. "I don't know how I'd do practicing anywhere else. I'm glad I'm finishing here."
And, of course, being seniors, the question must be asked: what would you … ahem … borrow before the contractors start their work?
"Yikes. I don't know," smiles Jordan, a man not-oft-rendered speechless. "I've always wanted that Muscle Milk sign down there, because that's where we (the defensive linemen) always practice. I always wanted to put that in my room, somewhere. I don't know why. I'd take that and, I don't know, I'd probably take, right inside the locker room, right where we go out before games, there's a little banner: Bleed Blue and Gold. I'd take that, too."
Vereen was a bit more abstract in his answer.
"A piece of the turf, I think, or maybe a bleacher or something. But, I think the biggest thing to take away from my last game here at Memorial Stadium would just be the memories and the games that we've played here, and the way that we came together as a team," he said.
Mohamed has already taken a few souvenirs.
"Actually, true story, I don't know if I can get in trouble for this, but some of the cement somewhere was kind of chipped, and I grabbed a piece of that, a piece of the cement," he smiles, bashfully. "I got a piece of that, and, another thing, when they cut down the oak grove, I got a little slice of wood. That's a little bit if history, right there."
And, if Tedford has his way, he'd like to take something with him, too. And it's bigger than a breadbox.
"Probably a piece of the turf," he grins. "When they tear this up, I'd like to maybe grab that C over there and put it in my garage and keep it forever, because this field was a major part of, I think, the whole athletic program here, not just football."
That particular big C in the north end zone is more than just a collection of blue and gold plastic fibers. It represents what this program became when Tedford first took the reins: fighters.
"It was hard to come by. There was a lot of work that went into it, and it almost didn't happen," Tedford says of the Momentum Turf field. "I don't know if anybody knew that, but it was the last day, and it almost didn't happen."
Tedford glances up to remember a time when he was still an untested offensive coordinator, with just one year of head coaching experience under his belt, trying desperately to get Cal's football program out of the depths. It was a time, when, by sheer force of will, he did what needed to be done.
"I'd gone around the country and surveyed fields, did all the testing, and it was good to go. Everything was ready, and the very last day, I got a call from Steve Gladstone, saying, 'We're not doing it. We can't do it.' And I was so upset. We just didn't have the money," he says. "There was an appreciation event in the city that day, over on Embarcadero, or whatever that place was over there, and I said, 'I have nothing good to say; I'm so irritated right now.' It was a problem. We didn't have goal posts to kick on, we couldn't practice on the field, they have to redo the grass and we had to come up here (to Witter Rugby Field) and share and we couldn't get on fields and it was a major problem. So, I was very disappointed."
Before the event, Tedford got a phone call from then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl, asking if he was still planning on coming.
"The Chancellor had called and said, 'Is Coach going to be there?' so I changed my tune and said, 'Yes. Definitely going to be there,'" Tedford smiles. "I went, and, oddly enough, I'm standing out in the lobby area and there was a friend of mine-a booster from Oregon-who was there with another guy who was a Cal guy. They said, 'How's the field coming?' And I said, 'That's a really bad subject. Don't bring that up right now.' I told them what happened, and they said, 'You can't let that die. You have to go in here right now and pitch this.' I said no, I can't do that. This is an appreciation lunch; this is not something that you come to and ask for money. They said, 'You have got to do this.' I said that it's not the right place, and they said, 'You have to.' So, I went in and I asked the AD and I asked the Chancellor if they minded if I pitched it, and I think I raised about 300 grand on a napkin that day."
Must have been a pretty big napkin.
"I wrote small," Tedford laughs. "I stood up in front and people came up and it was, 'Take 10, five, 20.' And, when the Chancellor saw that, when he saw that there was some backing for it, I just don't think that there was a development plan for it. I don't think people really understood it. I think they thought that it was going to go back to the old artificial turf, and when he saw that, he said, 'OK, I have the confidence that you can get the money for it.' Then, we got the money. But, it was on the very last day.
"This thing has meant so much to all the programs. Soccer practices here, lacrosse practices here, rugby practices here, everybody's camp is held here. It has been such a revenue producer. It's afforded us a place to practice and prepare over the last eight years."
That impromptu fundraising effort proved to the Cal brass that Tedford-and the program-were viable, that they were a good investment. That fighting spirit proved that the Bears would not quit.
"That was just to show them that we could do it, and we went out and did it. They gave it the OK, because it was like, if you don't have the money by this day, then you don't do it. So, on good faith, they said 'Go ahead,'" says Tedford. "I think that was the one thing, with this facility, that's made a huge difference with how we practice, because they used to have to shut it down for many weeks over the summer to reseed it and everything like that. Then, there's no place to practice, so we didn't have goal posts to kick on or anything."
All of that from a simple question: What would you take home?
"That's a long answer to a short question, but there it is," he says.
And yet, maybe there is something more to be taken than just fibers and chunks of concrete: the need, the hunger to fight until the last man. Maybe it's something that's gotten lost in all the numbers. Maybe it's something that, even if this season ends without a bowl game, this team, this staff, and these fans-the millions who have walked through these gates-can take home: Fight. Fight for the Big C. Fight for Memorial. Find the fight again, and show-really show-that the Bear will not quit. The Bear will not die.
"I can remember the first day I signed here, they had the plans laid out on my desk, and here we are, many years later, and it's getting done," says Tedford, of the soon-to-be-completed Student Athlete High Performance Center. "I'm very thankful that it is, and it's going to be something that's going to serve many more student athletes for a long, long time to come, so I don't know, I guess, over time, things change and there may be some renovation that needs to get done here or there, but there's the possibility that there's some more that needs to be done, but as far as what's getting done right now, and how the stadium's going to be finished, I really think it's going to set us up for a long, long time."
He fought for it. He got it-rug, walls, athletic center and all. Now it's up to him to determine what his program does with it.