Friday, February 15, 2013


            I don’t know if Coach Sonny Dykes is a chess player or not but his move last night at the Cal UCLA basketball game was the best opening gambit since Jeff Tedford pulled a double pass on the opening play of his first game (against Baylor) which went for a Touchdown.

            After Tedford’s coup d’ etat, the stadium was up for grabs.  He had set a tone.  The Bears would be bold, innovative, exciting—fun!  He showed the whole world he had trust in his kids (the receiver was a freshman who had never played in a college game in his life).  He introduced a dynamic back to Cal which had been sorely missed.  Kids were going to play exciting football—and look like they were having fun doing it.  

What was not to like?

            Happened again last night, and the opening kick off is still eight months away.

            Football was the last thing on our minds as we entered Haas pavilion for the Cal/UCLA game.  Mostly we were thinking about how well Cal had played in the upset down in Arizona and we were wondering if we could corral the prima donna (with the NBA body) Shabbazz Muhammad.

            Suddenly there was a sight which had never been seen before in Haas Pavilion.  The entire southern end zone, (under the basket) was populated by young men in Cal Football jerseys.  

            The place began to buzz.  Was that the team?  Could that be Coach Dykes sitting in the back row in the corner?  

            It was the team all right.  And they were raucous, rambunctious, funny, loud and just plain into it—like so many of their class mates in the student section.

            They clearly inspired the roundballers to the greatest first half in the history of the Cal/ UCLA series.  As the Straw Hat band went crazy at half time the Bears were up by 25—not your father’s normal Cal/UCLA score.

            Almost all the kids stayed throughout the game and clearly had a ball.  They interacted with the basketballers and with other kids in the arena.  They danced and clapped and hooted and howled.
            THEY LOOKED LIKE COLLEGE KIDS.  Not an elite group of BMOC’s.

            Now footballers have come to the games in the past—just not in masse—and NEVER proudly wearing their Cal colors.  

            Coach Dykes set a tone last night.  One many of us have been hoping for and lobbying for over many a’ moon.

            See,  being Cal grads and Cal fans we’re a bit different than fans from other schools.  When one speaks of “Golden Bears” they are always referred to as “Loyal” old Blues.  “Loyal” is the key word. 

            No one ever speaks of “Loyal” Standord Indians, “Loyal” Oregon Ducks, or “Loyal” SC Trojans.  (It’s possible there are a group of “Loyal” Banana Slugs down in Santa Cruz, but I haven’t seen many at the games).

            Maybe it’s because we don’t have a storied history of being a domineering powerhouse on the Gridiron which has forced us to retreat behind the adjective “Loyal.”  Or maybe it’s because our values are different and we have learned to love football and the sport for all the other things it brings to the table besides double-digit-win seasons.

            I can’t speak for all alumni from all ages, but I know that for my parents, grandparents and my contemporaries, football was an integral part of campus life.  Players lived in dorms or fraternities (before moving out to apartments in their final year) and played intra-mural sports (occasionally went to class), graduated, got “Heismaned” by girls, and drank beer at the Ratskeller or Pop Kessler’s (once they were of age—just kidding!).

            They were not an exclusive, elite group who lived separately and kept to themselves.

            They enriched the campus experience just like street activists, communists, anarchists, poets, artists, beatniks, and demonstrators enriched the lives of the footballers.  The diversity of opinion and thought was what made Cal great—and we were all in it together.

            Harmon gym was open to all kids all the time.  Intra-murals were played there in the evening.  It wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the varsity basketball team.  Practices weren’t closed for any sport.  Anyone could go and play on the grass at Memorial Stadium (as though Al, the head custodian, cared--though he could kick you off if he wanted).

            We always felt the school belonged to us and we were all in it together.  It was a tough environment and every kid feared flunking out—whether he was an athlete or not.

            Won’t mention any names (although Truck Cullom always like to tell the story that the reason Jackie Jensen was suspended was because his Zo 10 Blue Book was identical to the person’s sitting next to him except that the “brain’s “book said “The turtle has five arterial systems,” and Jackie’s Blue Book said, “The turtle has fine arterial systems).”

            Legend or fact, the story rang true for all of us. 

            Yes, we took all the “Micks” we could.  (I was told professor Belquist favored footballers so, since I was red shirt scout team slut,  I wrote #47 on the cover of my Blue Book).

            Few of us graduated on time, but almost all of us were caught at one time or another in the wee hours of the morning popping bennies to stay awake after pulling all-nighters during dead week before finals.  And more than a few lettermen graduated.

            Few athletes escaped the rigors of academia—though in truth some studied a lot less than others.

            There were plenty of athletes who didn’t belong at Cal back in the day.  But never would we have come in 112th out of 122 NCAA schools in any area of academics.

            (The concept of NEVER going to class didn’t arise (for the most part)until the late ‘60’s when an EOP program ordained that certain minority students couldn’t flunk out for two years.  This was well intentioned, but opportunistic coaches got hip and brought in Junior College kids who had only two years of eligibility.  Many of them never did go to class because they didn’t have to.  This helped neither them, the schools, nor the programs.

            Athletes and students in general went to watch their friends play baseball, rugby, and basketball.  No doubt that still happens today.

            What coach Dykes did which was so incredible was that he announced to the world at large that his kids were going to be a part of the campus community.  We already know that he turned down some kids who had committed to Cal because he felt they might not be a good fit (that’s code for probably couldn’t handle the rigorous academic demands).

            Being part of the campus community involves not only excelling on the gridiron, put going to class, inter-mingling with other students, living with “ordinary” students, attending school activities (like basketball games or performances in Zellerbach)—whatever goes into making Cal the unique experience it is.

            Judging from last night, Coach Dykes understands Cal is different.  Cal is not ‘Bama or SC.  Ergo:  you’ve got to recruit the kind of kid who wants to take advantage of that unique college experience—that’s what defines “fit.”  

            Sure some want only to go to the pros.  And there is room for them—as long as they buy into the rest of the program.

            And though not a piece of leather has been popped (they still have leather helmets don’t they?  If not they’re in for some serious potential head injuries—but I digress), Coach Dykes appears to be on the right track.  

            In today’s jargon, HE GETS IT.

           The ultimate proof will take place on Saturdays (ok, Thursday nights--whatever).  Being smart about kids doesn't necessarily translate in W's.

            We’ll see what happens between the lines, but it looks like we’re on the way to watching a group of young men reach their potential, excel at their sport, and maybe even get a touch of the College experience at the same time.

            Providing that atmosphere for children—that’s what a teacher is all about.  And so far, Coach Dykes is nothing short (since we’re talking basketball) of Wooden-esque—or even better the man who was honored last night “Newellian”—as in the late great Pete Newell.

            I may eat my words, but at this point it appears this chess master understands kids—he understands Cal—and it looks like he might even know a little bit about football.  If you can master the first two, you can’t help be successful at the third.

            Buckle your chinstraps.  We’re set for an E-ticket ride this fall.  If present is prologue—it’s gonna be fun—and something to be very proud of.  Most important, it’s going to be a grand experience for these college kids.

            (But is he hip to the Nizmo Indian Defense?)