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The Year of Magical Patience

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Rationalizing the upcoming 2017–18 season in true Cal style

Northwestern v California Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

With apologies to masterful writer and beloved Cal alum Joan Didion

At what point did Cal fans become defined by forced patience? At what point did the post-Pappy, post-Newell decline turn into a near-perpetual drought that became a badge of honor/shame for any Cal fan loyal enough to stay engaged?

It certainly defined the fan base by the time I joined on in the mid 90s. It defined the fan base when some fans (jokingly?) hoped Cal would lose to Rutgers to cap off a goose-egg in 2001, it defined the fan base when the BCS formula screwed us over in 2004, and it defined the fan base when a perfect home record devolved into an injury-fueled first round NCAA tournament exit in 2016.

You may have already guess this, but more patience is required.

It has been a bit more than four months since I wrote this article. Since that time I have only attempted to write a handful of short articles, and I phoned in half of them. Over the last four months I have thought less about Cal sports than I have in probably 14 years. I am even less qualified to write about Cal than usual! Yet here I am, back again. Why is that?

If there is a theme to my writing (to the extent that low-grade mumbling about the vicarious thrills of college sports can have themes), it’s the war between naive hope and cold logic. The irrational dreams inherent to sports fandom versus the factual analysis drilled into me by the very institution that now needs my irrational dreams to fund their stadium financing boondoggle athletic department.

Why haven’t I been writing since Cal’s basketball roster suffered a mass extinction event? Partly it was a planned summer hiatus. But just as much it was because the rational side of my brain was busy curb stomping on the fan side of my brain, and writing about Cal revenue sports really didn’t hold much appeal.

You see, I’m worried that the 2016–17 athletic season will be one of the ugliest in the recent history of Cal revenue sports . . . which is saying something.

Some candidates for the dourest major sports years in the last 25 years of Cal history:

2014–15 (FB 5–7, BB 18–15)
1997–98 (FB 3–8, BB 12–15)
1994–95 (FB 4–7, BB 13–14)

True, you’ll find worse than that by diving into the darkness of the late 70s and the 80s, when Cal football struggled under Roger Theder and Joe Kapp and Cal basketball was anonymous and irrelevant.

Seriously, look at those years. Most of the time over the last 25 years either Cal football is making a bowl or Cal basketball is a contender to make the NCAA tournament. Sometimes both! Even when both teams are out of it, as listed above, we’re stuck with slightly-below-.500 mediocrity rather than the type of pants on fire debacles seen at, say, Washington State or Oregon State.

What are we in for in 2017–18? If the experts are to be believed, not much. Cal football is predicted to finish last in the Pac-12 North and is generally regarding as one of the two worst teams in the conference (Hi Arizona!). I’d guess that Cal basketball will get picked, at best, 9th in the conference—and that’s a reflection on just how deep in the doldrums programs like WSU, OSU, and UW are at the moment.

And yet.

Most of us think there are real reasons for long-term optimism. Justin Wilcox is a pretty universally respected coach who has made a bunch of universally respected hires. Early recruiting returns are encouraging. While Wyking James doesn’t have the same level of experience as Wilcox, he has made a few solid hires of his own and his recruiting returns for his first full class have been even better.

It’s just that all of those optimistic signs are unlikely to have immediate payoffs. And when you root for teams generally consigned to waiting for the rare opportunity just to challenge for a conference title, you might get antsy for instant gratification . . . or give in to weariness and fatalism.

Because I don’t need to tell you that all of the positive signs and optimistic developments don’t have to mean anything once the games actually get played. Keith Gilbertson, Ben Braun, Steve Mariucci, Jeff Tedford, Cuonzo Martin, Sonny Dykes. Many of these coaches were lauded when hired. A few of them delivered high water marks of performance. None of them delivered a conference title. Even an excellent hire might not have the force of will to shift Cal out of its place in the hierarchy of college sports. The picture at the top of this article? That’s when Cal hosted Northwestern in Sonny Dykes’ debut. The high water mark for that era, despite a generational college quarterback and a spectacular offense? 8–5.

But what use is that talk in August, dammit?

Magical thinking, the idea that certain actions lead to certain results without a logical causation, doesn’t quite describe the plight of the Cal fan. For us, it’s more like magical patience—that the guaranteed pain of the present must surely lead to success in some far-flung future.

And so I’ll embrace magical patience this year. Every successful play made by a precious sophomore portends greater things in the future. Every mistake will be ironed out by the coaching staff. Our mere presence as Cal fans is a necessary ingredient towards a successful rebuild, and towards a brighter future.

The alternative is to face the idea that significant portions of our free time, money, and brain space is sacrificed towards a past time that we have absolutely zero control over.

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Nah, this stuff is too damned fun for that kind of talk. Bring on the season.