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No. 1 approach fuels No. 8 Bears
With ambition for his players on the field and in class, Jeff Tedford asks, ‘Why couldn’t you be successful here?’

| 14 October 2004


Tedford counsels his players on and off the gridiron. (Tom Hauck photo)
Longtime Cal football fans are used to heartbreak, but that’s not what they got in the Bears’ 23-17 final-minutes loss to USC on Saturday. Despite the closing score, Coach Jeff Tedford’s team, its achievements, and its two-year turnaround shone in the national spotlight of their face-off with the nation’s top-ranked Trojans.

Golden Bear faithful remain gleeful at the new promise of the football program. The change in direction has been achieved with the tried-and-true combo of solid coaching, successful recruiting, and hard work, but also with a few not-so-classic gridiron practices employed by Tedford and his staff: caring, empathy, and a focus on the classroom.

Tedford came to Cal in December 2001, on the heels of a 1-10 year for the Bears. In his first two seasons he won more games (15) than any Cal football coach in more than 50 years. He was undaunted by the recent losing seasons, the reputed difficulty of recruiting football stars to a demanding academic institution, and the now 45-year drought of Rose Bowl appearances.
“People asked me, ‘Why would you come to Cal with all the issues — you can’t win there,’” Tedford recalls. “I never looked at it as that. I always had the greatest respect for the University of California — I felt it was a good place, plenty of talent, a great place to live, great academics. I mean, why couldn’t you be successful here?”

Tedford — who was interviewed last week on campus by Public Affairs and ESPN — has infused his team with that same feeling, helping them lap up success through a rigorous and focused football program and equally exacting attention to academics.

His first priority was to assemble “a staff of great teachers and coaches who really care about the kids,” Tedford said. “And if we could provide an environment in which the kids could feel good about themselves, then we’d be successful.”

The football staff employs what Tedford calls an “academic game plan” to keep his players on track in the classroom. The coaches help players set academic priorities, plan their days, check their class notes, and monitor their classroom progress. The emphasis is on immediate intervention when warranted. If a student-athlete takes an exam, Tedford says, “we’ll know the grade the next day, and, if they’re not successful, find out why.” The next step may be to have the student talk to the professor, seek tutoring, or retool his study habits.

Tedford envisions a target — the outer ring is red, the middle is yellow, and the bull’s eye is green — stop, pause, full-speed ahead, he says. Those in the green maintain a 2.5 grade-point average or above, in the red it is below 2.25, with yellow as the slice in between.
“We’re trying to get everyone to the green,” Tedford says, and the progress is remarkable. When he arrived, about 75 of his 105 team members were in the red zone; today only nine are there. The Bears led the conference in players named to the Pac-10 All-Academic team last year.

Tedford says success on the football field carries over into the classroom, as well. The 1-10 season in 2001, he says, “had a direct reflection on how they were doing academically. They were ashamed — they weren’t going to class, and they just didn’t feel real good about themselves.” As the team turned a corner in football, their growing confidence and self-esteem also gave them a boost academically, he said.

“But also they know that we care about them, and that we’re going to hold them accountable academically,” Tedford added.

The coach recognizes that most of his student-athletes will not play pro ball after college, so their education here is central, not incidental to their football playing. He admits he didn’t fully realize the cachet of a Berkeley degree until he arrived on campus, met with alumni, and saw that a Berkeley education was his “number one selling tool” for many prospective recruits and their parents.

“We spend a lot of time with [the players] to explain the education they’re getting and the power of a Cal degree … what the degree will do for them in providing opportunities and opening doors as they go forward in life. College really is about providing options,” he says.

What Tedford is trying to achieve on the football field — and in his athletes — is reinforced by the Berkeley ethos, he says. “As I walk through campus, it just has a powerful feeling, and you have the feeling that this place is about excellence. … When you surround yourself with great people who are well intentioned and who are willing to work hard to be successful, that’s infectious. And that’s what this place gives off.”