Holiday Road, or, 2004 And All That

(I had half of this already written before today's front-page episode of The Thorn Birds and The Winds Of War Meets Rashomon, but I hate to bang out a thousand words for nothing and then waste it in a comment thread, so I apologize for the redundancy and beg your indulgence and will refund the full purchase price of this post upon request.)

I haven't had a lot to say about Cal football this year, because it's been such a weird season. Five stadiums in the first five games. Home games at AT&T Park, which is singularly unsuited for full-time football with one side of the stadium sending all its noise into the bay. A major shift in offense with the return of much of the old staff (we're getting the band back together!) and the sea change in quarterbacking. In short, this is a highly anomalous and outlying year for Cal football, and it's felt strange from day one.

But to cap it all off, the gods of football have thrown one last wrench into the Wackadoo Machine - the bowl game. Because the Pac-12 finally has two teams in the BCS, because the automatic bowl tie-ins were rearranged with the addition of the Alamo Bowl to the lineup, and because USC is ineligible for postseason play, the stars have somehow aligned to send a 7-5 Cal to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, site of the infamous 2004 flameout. And their opponent is none other than the 2011 incarnation of the team that effectively took their Rose Bowl berth: the Texas Longhorns.

To recap: Mack Brown basically attempted to beg the Longhorns into a BCS bowl, largely because his own job was in jeopardy after yet another loss to Oklahoma. Enough writers and poll voters shifted their votes to put Texas at #4 in the BCS rankings and drop Cal to #5. Because Utah - a non-BCS-conference team - came in at #6, the rules guaranteed them a BCS at-large berth, and because Texas was in the top 4 of the overall BCS rankings, the rules guaranteed them a BCS berth, and because USC was the champion of the Pac-10 and recipient of the automatic bid, that left Cal with no room at the inn, and that's how the #4 team in both human* polls wound up in the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech, who had themselves been bumped one spot up in the bowl system by the promotion of two Big-12 teams to the BCS bowls.**

And Cal lost. The explanations are plentiful - some will point to the amazing power of Mike Leach's infamous "Air Raid" offense and the 500+ yards of passing that night; others will point out how Cal was down to one starting receiver by December and yet still insisted on throwing the ball to try to catch up quick through the second and third quarters. My explanation has always been straightforward: Jeff Tedford is simply not the kind of coach who can rally a team from an emotional blow. Look at the post-Big Game losses to Washington in 2009-10, or the slow collapse of 2007 - once the shoulders slump and the heads begin to hang, the odds that Tedford will rally the troops to fight back vary from slim to nonexistent. And since the Holiday Bowl was the last place on Earth that the Golden Bears wanted to be, they played like it - with predictable results.

But for whatever reason, it happened. And to add insult to injury, Texas went on to a one-point win in the Rose Bowl followed by a national championship against USC in the very same Rose Bowl the following year. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers turned pro, Nate Longshore had a season-ending injury in 2005 and a season-destroying injury in 2007, DeSean Jackson was ruled out of bounds against Arizona in 2006, USC payrolled their way to half a dozen consecutive Pac-10 titles and auto-BCS bids, and the era finally culminated for Cal in a Holiday Bowl obliteration of Texas A&M in 2006 and a prompt demolition of Tennessee in the 2007 opener before, well, we know what happened. So with apologies to HST...

Strange memories to come on that nervous night in San Diego. Five years later? Seven? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. Cal football in the middle 2000s was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run ...but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant ...

History is hard to know, because of all the BCS bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole football program comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe a dozen evenings—or very late afternoons—when I left Memorial half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the Jetta across the Bay Bridge at twenty miles an hour wearing blue Oakleys and a a short-sleeve Cal rugby ...booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of San Francisco, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too jittery to find the goddamn EZ-Pass in the glovebox) ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where Golden Bear fans were just as crazy and excited as I was: No doubt at all about that ...

There was madness in any direction, every week. If not in Berkeley, then up in Oregon or down 101 to Palo Alto or in Arizona .... You could get wins anywhere. (Except Los Angeles.) There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...

And that, I think, was the excitement—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Bad History and Inevitability and the Pac-10. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our Bears would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ....

So now, about five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Berkeley and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back...

As I alternately sulked and raged that night in San Diego, my wife told me "Well, now you're officially a Cal fan." I had only come on board when Tedford did, in 2002, so I was only there for the rocket ride up - but I think I knew at some level that we had lost something that doesn't come around that often, something that may not come back around for a while - if ever. And that explains why the rage has grown unabated ever since - not just that Cal didn't get the chance, thanks to the perfidious trio of Mack Brown, Pete Carroll and the BCS, but that we don't know if the next chance will ever even happen, let alone in our lifetimes. And the magnitude of what was lost grows with every passing year.

* Well, the AP at least. A sportswriter is kind of like a human.

** It has to be added that on top of everything else, a 3-loss Pitt squad was guaranteed a BCS berth thanks to the inexplicable decision that the Big East somehow rated an automatic bid. Even if it were justifiable then, it's absolutely risible now with five Big East football teams (including the aforementioned Pitt) having decamped for the ACC. Conference titles are nice, but having a situation where a team like Pitt in 2004 or UConn in 2010 can somehow land a seat on the starship only makes me think that there shouldn't be any automatic BCS berth for any conference winner and that the final top 10 teams should get the goodies irrespective of conference. That would go over like a fart in church outside the SEC, although I suspect after the last decade Oregon might be on board…

The opinions expressed in a FanPost are, in every way, reflective of the opinions of every California Golden Blogs Marshawnthusiast. Moreover, they are reflective of every employee of SBNation, including Tyler "Blez" Bleszinski.

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