I know what you’re thinking, Longhorns. You come over to find out a little about Cal and you’re bombarded with Cal fans complaining about Mack Brown and the 2004 season. "Seriously, another fanbase that hates our guts? I can barely keep track of the teams that leave the Big 12 because they hate us so much, let alone random west coast schools!"
Well, don’t worry, Texas fans. It’s not about you, it’s about us . . . well, mostly. Allow me to explain.*
In 1959, Cal went to the Rose Bowl. It was our 8th appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All. 8 Rose Bowls in 38 years. A Rose Bowl every 5 years or so! They were pretty good times, I’m told.
We haven’t been back since. Fifty two years and counting, now. And Cal fans have become a little bit obsessed with the issue. The drought in many ways defines the fanbase. Annoying Stanford fans derisively refer to Cal as the '59ers.' There used to be a fan blog called 'Rose Bowl Before I Die.' Obsessive? Perhaps, but you might get a little fatalistic when you consider some of the circumstances.
In 1975 we just needed USC to beat UCLA, but of course the Trojans never do anything useful and lost by three, sending the Bruins to Pasadena. The next year our beloved star quarterback Joe Roth was diagnosed with skin cancer and passed away.
In 1991 the top 10 Bears took on top 10 Washington at home and fell in a brilliant game by just seven. Had they won that game they would have won the conference. As Cal fans watched the game many noticed some smoke coming up from the Berkeley/Oakland hills. The next day the remains from the fire that sent up that smoke sparked a firestorm that killed 25 people and destroyed thousands of homes and apartments. Are these events connected? Only in the minds of psychologically scarred Cal fans.
In 2006 Cal again tied for the conference championship – in part because we lost a game to Arizona that included a long touchdown pass called back when approximately 3.2 millimeters of DeSean Jackson’s toes went out of bounds, and because another wide receiver fell down at the one yard line for no particular reason, and because of a horrible pass interference call on a Cal interception and because . . . well, you get the point.
And of course, in 2004 against USC, Cal was four plays and 9 yards away from the national championship game, 9 yards away from beating what is generally regarding as one of the best teams in college football history, 9 yards away from exorcising decades of demons in the most spectacular way possible.
Now, it’s important to note that these events are the high point in Cal football history since 1959. I’ve cherry picked the best Cal teams. The rest of the time the Bears were awful. Hell, we have fewer conference titles than Baylor over the last 50 years . Prior to Jeff Tedford Cal had a record more than 1 game above .500 just eight times in 43 seasons. Hope for a successful season died in September every year, and the few times the Bears were any good, bad luck took over. So the stage has been set. Cal is 10-1, the 4th ranked team in the country, and everybody thinks that they’re going to the Rose Bowl because USC is going to the national championship game. You might say "It’s kind of a weaselly way to get to the Rose Bowl, Cal fans, backing into it without winning your own conference." To that I reply: A fan gets desperate after decades. My mother is in her 50s, and she’s attended every Big Game since her college days. Never a Rose Bowl. There are thousands like her. We are in no position to be picky.
Then we beat Southern Mississippi in mediocre fashion. Then Mack Brown made his pitch. Then, after being 4th in the country for weeks, after thinking we had it all wrapped up, after carrying Aaron Rodgers around the field with Roses in his hands . . . then we get dropped to 5th in the BCS.
Behind a school with (at the time) three national championships, 30 conference championships and 44 bowl appearances. A member of the college football aristocracy.
2004 was a chance for Cal football, and for Cal football, chances come about once a decade. 2004 was also a chance for Texas football, and for Texas football chances come at least every other year or so.
And to add insult to injury, we got bumped from playing the Big 10 champ all the way to playing a 7-4 Texas Tech squad. Talk about zero upside. This is the point where you gleefully point out that Cal got badly beaten by the same Tech team that Texas beat by 30 on the road. You will forever be able to mention that if you want to add an extra dollop of pain on top of our anger. (On a side note: you guys are good at twisting the knife!) But just know that the results of the Rose Bowl and the Holiday Bowl were nearly irrelevant to us. It was just about getting there. That's all we cared about.
Is it all Mack Brown’s fault? Nah. It’s not even mostly his fault. But the idea that the coach of Texas was complaining about not going to a major bowl just seemed a tad out-of-wack for Cal fans who hadn’t seen a major bowl for 45 years. The Longhorns have now participated in four BCS games. Cal still stands at zero. Worst of all, our 2004 team must surely stand as the best team in the BCS era to not play in a BCS bowl. True, Mack was arguing that his players deserved it for working so hard. Well, the seniors and redshirt juniors on Cal’s roster played for a team that went 1-10 in 2001. They reinvented the program. You’ll forgive us if we felt like our players were just as deserving.
You might say that the BCS system and the computers are equally to blame. Sure, fine, whatever. This isn't about logic for us. Everybody already hates the BCS. It’s unanimous. And have you ever tried focusing your rage and anguish at a computer? It’s distinctly unsatisfying. It turns out that Texas is a pretty good target for anger. Just ask fans of A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, USC, Colorado . . .
Way back in 2004 no Texas fans realized they walked into 45 years of baggage. Now, in 2011, few Texas fans realized that they would be walking into what is now 52 years of baggage. So when you see a Cal fan disparaging Mack Brown or otherwise complain about 2004, it's best just to move on. The only cure for us is the Rose Bowl.
*Dear Cal fans: You know these details already. Sorry to make you relive it all again!