The marquee event each year for the Sacramento Grid Club is the Tiny Bates Award Banquet, which is presented to the outstanding senior from the Sacramento Valley region. It's been awarded since 1968 and has been given to such Cal luminaries as Fred Besana, Troy Taylor, Lavelle Hawkins, and Syd-Quan Thompson. This year the award was presented to a very deserving Jeremy Ross, and I was lucky enough to get to attend.
Of course, the main purpose of the banquet is to honor that year's award winner. But it also serves as as a chance for Cal fans in Sacramento to gather together, enjoy an excellent meal, and hear about the state of the football program and the state of the athletic department from Jeff Tedford and Sandy Barbour. And it doubled as an opportunity to rub elbows with all of this year's previous guests at Grid Club meetings, from beat reporters and recruiting experts to referees and former Cal greats.
But before we dive in to the event itself, let's talk about the history of the award. Who is Henry J 'Tiny' Bates? He was an end that played for the Bears in 1917 under head coach Andy Smith before suffering a career ending injury. But his admiration for Cal and Coach Smith was so strong that he remained close to the team as a faithful Son of California for the rest of his life. He was instrumental in the founding and promotion of the Grid Club in 1947, and upon his death the Tiny Bates Award was created in his honor.
The event began with a cocktail reception as guests slowly arrived. I got the chance to talk track and field with John Crumpacker. Man I can't wait to watch Alysia Johnson run the 800 in London! Meanwhile, a jazz quartet that included an ex Grid Club president provided some fantastic tunes while we waited for the guests of honor. A projector was set up in the middle of the dining room playing Cal recruiting highlights on loop, and I again marveled at the unbelievable break-away speed of Brendan Bigelow and the wealth of defensive line talent in the class of 2011.
And then the guest of honor and family arrived. It was practically like a receiving line to talk to him with everybody in attendance wanting to wish Jeremy well. Finally, just before dinner I was able to talk to him and thanked him for his time as a Bear. I also asked him if he was preparing for the NFL and he confirmed that he has been working out hard in preparation for Cal's Pro Day to be held on March 9th. I've always felt that wide receiver is one of the toughest positions for NFL teams to scout, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if JRoss worked his way to success much in the fashion of Verran Tucker with the Kansas City Chiefs this year.
The Sturdy Golden Bear was in attendance, decked out in his finest regalia!
And with that the program began. I was lucky enough to be seated at the same table as Coach Tedford. Not surprisingly, most of the dinner conversation focused on a certain Super Bowl MVP - Cal fans everywhere are still buzzing over Aaron Rodger's accomplishments. I asked Coach's wife Donna (who was very friendly and pleasant to talk to) if this was the 'calm' part of the year, relatively speaking. Not surprisingly, she confirmed that there's no such thing as a calm season for a division 1 football coach.
After about a half hour the program continued with the presentation of the award. Our current president Dewey Willis began by recalling some of the finest moments of Jeremy's Cal career - his game saving receptions against Minnesota, his highlight reel punt returns, his end around runs and his game winning first down rumble against Washington St. - before giving the floor to Coach Tedford.
Coach Tedford opened by talking about Jeremy as a person - a hard-working, faithful man on track to graduate with a degree in social welfare this semester. He described Jeremy as the type of player and person that Cal wants to bring into the program as a student-athlete. And perhaps most impressively, he pointed out that JRoss will retire with the record for the highest QB rating in Cal history: one pass, one completion, and one touchdown!
When Jeremy came to the podium to accept the award he briefly spoke to thank everybody who helped him throughout his football career, and I must say that I was very impressed with his humbleness and sense of Cal history. In the pregame program on senior day he mentioned the legacy of Joe Roth as something he was proud to be a part of as a Cal football player, and I think he was touched to be a part of an award that stretched back to the days of the Wonder Teams. And credit must go to Coach Tedford and his staff for keeping that history alive within the football program.
Sandy Barbour's State of the Athletic Department
While introducing Sandy Barbour, Dewey Willis spoke of the incredible achievement that she and Coach Tedford have accomplished by finishing the building of the Student Athlete High Performance Center and Memorial Stadium retrofit during such an awful financial climate. No coach prior to Tedford developed the type of excitement and sense of purpose amongst Cal fans and donors, and no AD managed to turn that excitement into actual action and progress. That drew an enthusiastic round of applause.
Sandy spent most of her talk highlighting the accomplishments of Cal's student athletes, from volleyball's epic year to recent huge wins over Stanford by both men's and women's swimming. It's a similar speech every time, but it never fails to impress me how uniformly successful our athletic programs are - top 10 programs all over the place.
She also had to mention the recent decision to retain three varsity sports but not baseball or men's gymnastics. There was an implication that baseball could still be saved and that fund-raising was ongoing. Certainly those working tirelessly at savecalbaseball.com have not given up the fight and it was indicated that their efforts might not necessarily be futile. I can't say I'm optimistic, but a tiny amount of hope is better than none.
Coach Tedford's State of the Football Program
The most interesting and relevant tidbits have already been covered by Cal beat reporter supreme Jonathan Okanes. In an example of how we Cal fans are lucky to have him, it was noted that despite nominally being on vacation, he still brought his notebook along to dinner and had a post with everything he picked up the next day. Dedication! I tried to find a spare moment to explain to him why bizarre dinosaur names pop up every time he has a football chat, but I never found a spare moment to talk to him. Maybe next year!
When he was introduced it was mentioned how close Coach Tedford is to being the winningest coach in Cal history. It gave him a chance to reflect on his long tenure in Berkeley and he said that he's proud of everything his players and teams have accomplished, with the exception of this last year.
My favorite story was when Tedford talked about the excitement of finally getting the SAHPC finished. He was tired of showing recruits plan schematics, and recalled when Alex Mack came into his office while he was showing a new recruit the plans: "Coach, are you still showing them the same plans you showed me when I was being recruited?!?"
He also reiterated what we've been hearing from various coaches all off-season: this year's recruiting class will likely have the most true freshmen contributors of any in quite some time. That's not really breaking news at this point, but I think it carries a bit more gravity when it comes straight from the head coach. And since this is a Sacramento event, Viliami Moala was singled out as one of the likely immediate contributors.
I was also surprised at how strongly he spoke about the new weight and conditioning program, which he highlighted as the biggest staffing/coaching change. Considering some really high level changes on the offensive side of the ball and the strong, strong reputation that Coach Michalczik brings back to the program I think that speaks volumes about how much they think of Mike Blasquez and his training regimen.
And with that the formalities were over, save for one thing: Lots and lots of pictures, including this one with a truly impressive trophy:
Jeremy Ross and Coach Teford pose with the Grid Club's finest
That impressive trophy would usually sit in Cal's Hall of Fame room, but it's currently in Sacramento during Memorial Stadium's retrofit. Once things are complete I'm assuming you'll be able to see it if you so desire.
And with that, the Sacramento Grid Club closed shop for another year. But Cal football will be back in a blink of an eye, and we'll begin meeting one a week to review game tape, preview next week's game and hear from those who know Cal sports best. And through a bit of good fortune I've been given the opportunity to take on the role of president of the club for the next two years. One of my main charges is to convince any and all Cal fans who live anywhere near Sacramento to join up and come on out when meetings start back up in September. So if you're a valley dweller, or even someone from the Bay Area that isn't afraid of a little traffic, I strongly encourage you to get to downtown Sacramento next fall - you won't regret it!