This is the story of a college football team, one with supreme talent and supreme expectations. One that spent more than half the season ranked in the Associated Press top-15 poll, only to finish unranked. One that lost at least four of the last five games it played. One with elite talent at, among others, wide receiver, center, running back, safety and defensive line. And one whose head coach called the offensive plays.
This is the story of the 2007 Golden Bears.
That Cal team didn’t start out as preseason No. 1, but by week eight the Bears were 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Many Pac-12 fans remember their fateful game against Oregon State, when No. 1 LSU had already fallen earlier in the day. A home win against the unranked Beavers was all that was standing between Cal and No. 1 ranking.
Instead the Bears trailed most of the game before mounting a furious comeback. Down three points and out of timeouts with 14 seconds left and the ball on the Beavers’ 12-yard line, the Bears elected to run one more play at the end zone, trying to win the game with a touchdown. Then-freshman quarterback Kevin Riley made the terrible decision to scramble with the ball, got tackled in bounds, and time expired before the Bears could attempt a game-tying field goal. Coach Jeff Tedford slammed his play-card to the ground, and the Bears’ season was never the same.
Note the fact that Tedford was in fact holding a play-card. Much like USC coach Lane Kiffin, Tedford called the offense’s plays. And the similarities between the teams don’t stop there.
The Bears’ star was wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a future first-round NFL draft pick, presumably like Marqise Lee. The defensive standout was Thomas DeCoud, a safety like the Trojans’ T.J. McDonald. Trojan center Khaled Holmes is expected to be a first round draft pick, as was Cal center Alex Mack. The Trojans have a pair of future NFL running backs in Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, as did the Bears in Jahvid Best and Justin Forsett.
The Riley scramble proved to be the obvious downfall of the Bears’ season. Likewise, Kiffin traces the downfall of USC’s season to a single play as well: senior quarterback Matt Barkley missing a wide open junior wideout Robert Woods on a would-be 87-yard touchdown pass in Arizona. Had the duo connected, the Trojans would have had a 35-13 lead.
But the most striking similarity remains the coaches involved.
Tedford was Kiffin’s coach at Fresno State, and then his first boss after Kiffin quit the team to become an assistant coach his senior year. Both are micromanagers to the extreme, and both are fond of calling their own plays on offense.
An offensive coordinator for nine years before becoming Cal’s head coach in 2002, Tedford continued to call plays as the head coach in Berkley. But then, after the 2007 season, he gave it up.
“I always tried to keep my finger on the pulse of everything, but it’s hard to do it all,” Tedford said at the time. “The main reason is so I can be more efficient with my head coaching duties. I can spend more time with a lot of things that weren’t possible as the play-caller and with being so involved with the offense.”
Sound familiar, Trojans?
Now before I go any further, I recognize that Tedford just got fired and that he is not currently the most flattering comparison. No, I do not think Kiffin should be fired like Tedford. But Kiffin would do well to hire him — or anyone — as his true offensive coordinator to call plays.
After that 2007 season, Tedford said he lost touch with his players and with the locker room. His actual playcalling didn’t come into question the way Kiffin’s has, but that’s not why I believe Kiffin should give up the playsheet anyways.
Kiffin lost touch with his locker room over the season. He, over the course of this season that wasn’t, became so engrossed with the Xs and Os and the gameplan that he lost his team. He forgot that he is coaching 20-year-old students with class and homework and group projects and the like. Asa motivator, he failed miserably.
The Trojans repeatedly emerged from the locker room — be it to start the game or at halftime — looking lethargic and disinterested on the field. They were outscored in the first and third quarters this season 172 to 142. Five times they were held scoreless in the third quarter, four times in the first. Of the 24 halves of football USC has played this year, the opponent has scored first in 12 of them — a fairly accurate reflection of the Trojans’ record.
Anyone who watched the Trojans this year could tell that there was a distinct lack of passion on the field, especially as the season became progressively more disappointing. The grumblings from students on campus are not about the playcalling, but rather about what they hear from their friends on the team: It isn’t fun to play for Lane Kiffin.
He doesn’t command the respect of his players. He doesn’t make them look forward to practice. He doesn’t make them care about Trojan football.
Tedford put down the playsheet for the good of his team. The Bears went 9-4 the next year and finished the season undefeated at home. They played with pride and with passion. Kiffin would be wise to follow on the path of his mentor.
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