The 121st Big Game is FINALLY upon us. The season ends, for the first time in 3 years, with a rivalry game unlike any other in the country. The red. The BLUE AND GOLD. The Axe. It all comes down to a kick off on Saturday, December 1st. Just in case you weren’t hyped enough. Just in case you need that extra push. Just in case you need a reason to start your pregame on Friday night. I present to you.
A Cal Pep Talk with Mike Silver.
To start, we know that you’re avid fan of not just Cal Football but all 30 of the Cal Athletics sports. Cal currently claims 98 team national championships. Which sports team will win Cal’s 100th team national championship in 2019?
Women’s hoops. Believe.
The Wilcox era is off to an impressive start, what is something you have come to enjoy from Wilcox that the rest of the fan base might not know?
I’ve known Justin for a long time, and I was super psyched when he got the job, and I’ll start by saying this: No pretense. No frills. There are plenty of amusing examples that speak to this, but instead I’ll offer up a raw and very real one: Last December, I was at a dinner in Beverly Hills hosted by Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and at one point I stepped outside to check my phone. There was a text from one of my NFL Network colleagues informing me, with great certainty, that Justin would be getting the Oregon job… like, ‘Say goodbye to your coach’ certain. Now, I won’t say I was tempted to charge into oncoming traffic—I know Justin’s agent well, and I’m used to hearing people proclaim that something is a “done deal” when it’s not actually done, and I had a pretty good sense that the powers that be at Cal understood how important it was to keep him. Still, it was an unnerving moment. I mean, it was his alma mater, and Phil Knight has insanely deep pockets, and sh*t happens. The next morning, I went home to NorCal and was about to take a shower when the phone rang. It was Justin. I braced myself for tough news. He goes, “Hey—I know there’s some stuff out there about me leaving, and it’s totally flattering, but I’m not gonna go. I want to be here.” I can’t even remember how I replied, but inside I was floating through the clouds soaking up the golden rays of the sun and staring at the most beautiful rainbow… Eventually, he says, “Can you, like, put that out there?” I laughed. “You mean, like a journalist?” He goes, “I want people to know I want to be here… I just don’t want to sound like a douche.” And so, I tweeted it—and, a few seconds later, text-taunted my colleague who’d told me Wilcox-to-Oregon was a done deal. Basically, the notion of telling all those kids he’d asked to buy in that he was bailing after one season was something he couldn’t wrap his head around.
You seem to be in contact with a lot of Cal Football alumni in the NFL. What’s the current opinion of Coach Wilcox and what he’s done at Cal in the past two years?
Well, first of all, the best player in the NFL (Aaron Rodgers) is the president of the Justin Wilcox Fan Club, and it’s no coincidence that he’s been a lot more simpatico with the program and the university since his hiring. And in general, the NFL people with Cal ties understand football strategy and team-building on a much deeper level than I do, and they’re very impressed with this staff and with the way this team has played the past two seasons, despite not having a ton of guys on the roster who are obvious NFL prospects. Ron Rivera told me something the other day: “They play as a team.” Trust me, that’s about the highest compliment he can give.
So for starters, help explain why Cal stands for all that is good and true in the world, and Stanford the exact opposite.
I’ve done this before, for California Golden Blogs and others, and I’m not sure I can do it any more eloquently this time around, when I’m thousands of additional brain cells down in the count. Let me start by saying this: I feel like the vast majority of this audience, by definition, already knows the answer. When we prevail in sporting events such as Saturday’s, it’s not an indication of our superiority; it’s a validation. And deep inside, we’ve known how good we have it for a long, long time. Some of us who attended Cal applied to Stanfurd, and others didn’t; some really, really wanted to go to that other school (blessedly, I was not one of those people). But one thing I’m pretty sure we all have in common is this: Once we actually got to college, and were able to ascertain the difference between the two schools and cultures, we felt like getting down on our knees, kissing the ground and giving eternal thanks that we ended up at the good place. Granted, Cal is not for everyone. There are many, many people, lots of whom were able to perform exceptionally well on standardized tests, who would rather be coddled and told they are special (instead of being forced to prove it), who feel more comfortable sitting back and judging and staying passive and investing in things like school pride and the outcome of sporting events only as it suits their purposes (meaning, when the risk is low and the reward is likely). If you’d rather hang on a golf course than in a forest, if you’d prefer to be in a swanky hotel ballroom than at an urban pool party, if you freak out when you have to parallel park in traffic or walk up a hill in the rain… then yeah, you’re probably not a proud Golden Bear. But for those of us who came to understand that “Never easy” and “typi-Cal” are not merely mantras, but badges of honor, there’s an overlap of experience that transcends time and place and lasts a lifetime. When some rando in an airport sees you wearing a Cal shirt and yells “Go Bears!” from across the gate area, it’s not just a shared sports fandom or a whiff of nostalgia that causes you to respond so emphatically. No, it’s a sense that both you and this other person, regardless of your ages or circumstances, understand innately what it’s like to attend an incredible academic institution where your hand is never held; where you’re taught to be defiant and creative and to think outside the box as a matter of righteousness; where you’re loud, proud and unbowed; and which spits you out into the real world ready to seize your destiny and fight for your right to shape the future, with predictably tremendous results. So, in truth… we’ve already won. That said, we REALLY want to win this football game on Saturday. We want it so much more than they do, naturally. Some (myself included) might say we deserve it. But alas, as Clint Eastwood’s William Munny said to Gene Hackman’s fallen Little Bill in ‘Unforgiven’: “Deserve’s got nothin to do with it.”
Onto the 121st Big Game. Do you have any personal Big Game traditions?
Ah, there are so many. I mean, my friends and I started ‘the little game’ when we were freshmen… using a mini football, and graduating to The Duke the following year… on the Friday before Big Game. We’re now in our fourth decade (which explains why we were a bit muddy in ’09 when we met Tepper at the Bear’s Lair). Little game lore’s a whole ordeal we’ll get into some other time. We also, as per tradition, head to The Dutch Goose in Menlo Park after Big Game road victories and obnoxiously belt out the Cal Drinking Song in all its gloating splendor. That’s a tradition I’d really like to reprise, and soon.
Favorite Big Game victory? Favorite victory excluding The Play?
Well, given that I was at the ’82 Big Game, it’s good that you added the second question, cause No. 1 remains pretty obvious. As for No. 2… the contenders are ’09 (when we came from behind as road underdogs to win for the seventh time in eight years—should have been eight straight but don’t get me started)… ’86 (biggest upset in Big Game history, Joe Kapp’s last game)… ’93 ( Dave Barr threw an early pick six—and we proceeded to blow them out on the road, ending the 0-5-1 nightmare)…. and 2002 (Year 1 of Tedford, when we smashed the seven-year losing streak in emphatic fashion). Given where we are right now, I’m channeling ’02. After that game the students rushed the field, tore down the north goalpost and carried it out of the stadium… and down Bancroft… and all the way to Sproul Plaza, where they lovingly placed it on the steps. I wouldn’t mind seeing that again in my lifetime.
Are there any past Big Game unsung hero(s)?
Also: The Cal offensive line in 2009. On the evening before the game, some of my friends and I went to the (old) Bear’s Lair, and offensive tackle Mike Tepper met me there. As he was playing his most important game of the season the next day, he obviously didn’t join us in drinking beers… or did he? Hmmmmm… I’m old, and I’m a little fuzzy on the details… though I do seem to recall that he assured me the underdog Bears would win, and he may or may not have revealed the broadstrokes of the offensive gameplan: “Run, run and run the m------ some more.” A little more than 24 hours later I was hugging him on the field as the Axe circled around us and Shane Vereen and his torn MCL detoxed from a 42-carry, 193-yard, three-touchdown display of massive huevos. Vereen was the ‘sung’ hero, and deservedly so. Tepper and the other boys up front were the unsung ones.
Do you have any favorite place(s) that is not Memorial Stadium to watch Big Game?
Wait, what? Um… Stanfurd Stadium, I guess. I’ve only missed two of these since 1982—the tie in ’88 at Memorial (which was basically a loss, given that they blocked our 19-yard field-goal attempt at the buzzer), and the 2015 game at the Furd, because it was a night kickoff and I had to be on GameDay Morning in L.A. at 6 a.m. I watched that one at a Cal bar on the Westside, and it was fun, but it’s not an experience I’d prefer to repeat, as the separation anxiety was rough.
So on to the actual game. How does Cal win on Saturday?
Glad you asked. On paper, we have a very narrow path to victory, one which basically follows the templates of the Washington and USC games this year, or last year’s Big Game minus the momentum-crushing interception. On paper, we have to win the turnover battle, perhaps decisively, and that means we really can’t afford to give the ball away at all. On paper, we somehow have to find a way to keep Arcega-Whiteside and their other tall receivers from feasting while also keeping Bryce Love in check. On paper, we need to manufacture points, be it via gadget plays or well-timed calls or defense-driven short fields. On paper, we can’t afford bad bounces or shitty Pac-12 ref calls or other forms of lousy luck, and we may well need those things to swing the other way. That’s what we’re facing—on paper. But there’s an energy about this Cal team that is intangible and illogical, and I have a deep-seated suspicion that when that energy coalesces with the energy formed by tens of thousands of blue-and-gold-wearing devotees at Memorial at high noon on Saturday, there’s a chance for something bigger and weirder to take place. And I think to get in touch with that, we have to think positively, even if it goes against our reflexive tendencies. Yes, we have our reasons—so much unrequited adoration, so much heartache—but, at our core, we’re true believers, or at least we WANT to be, and this is a situation that calls for all the faith we can collectively muster. Last Saturday, my wife and I were driving back from her parents’ house in the Sierra foothills, with all three of our kids (two of whom are in college) in the back. For parents of our age, moments like this are precious, and yet, something was clearly off: We listened to the second half of the Cal-Colorado game on the radio, and Joe Starkey and Mike Pawlawski, announcers I typically adore, were in full freakout mode about the Cal offense. I mean, I get it—we aren’t the 1999 Rams. But with every failed third-down conversion, the doom and gloom increased, even though the Bears had a comfortable lead (thanks to pick-sixes on the first two Colorado possessions and five first-half takeaways). Starkey was saying stuff like, ‘If the Bears can’t produce on offense, there’s NO WAY they’ll be able to hold off Colorado by game’s end.” And I was like, “REALLY? We held the eventual Pac-12 north champs to 10 points. We held USC to 40 yards in the second half. We had Washington State on the ropes in a 13-13 game in the fourth quarter, on the road. I’m feeling pretty OK about this… I mean, why be negative right now?” Reality check: Things aren’t terrible. Think about the UCLA debacle, and how it felt on that sordid Saturday. I’m pretty damn pumped about the way these guys have come out and represented over the past five games, and I can see this Saturday, if things break right, becoming the most special day we’ve experienced in that stadium in a long, long time—at least a decade, and probably more. Do you feel me? Can you picture Chase Garbers, who has been steadily improving, playing the game of his young life? I can. Can you picture Patrick Laird, who is “Never easy” personified, seizing this moment and etching his name into Big Game lore? Hell yes, I can. Can you see Kunaszyk and Weaver and Bequette and friends blasting their way through a less-impervious-than-usual Stanfurd offensive line and regulating? That’s not hard to imagine. Can you close your eyes and envision each and every one of these glory-starved souls charging through the north end zone tunnel and feeling more love and appreciation from their hyped up fans than any of them could have reasonably expected… and, hours later, getting mobbed by those fans on the field as they take turns parading around with the greatest trophy of them all? Damn fucking right I can—I’m doing it right now, and the mere fantasy of it is so euphoric and orgasmic that I feel compelled to cut it off after a few seconds. And in reality—if all goes well—it will be sooooo much better than that, and the opportunity cost of NOT experiencing that (yet again) is what is on the line come Saturday.
On the flip side, how does Leland Stanford Junior University lose on Saturday and for the rest of eternity?
First we take back The Axe. Then we take over. Trust me: It’s ALL there for the taking; it’s attainable and sustainable. So take a deep breath, everyone, and get ready to scream your lungs out and do your part. I’ll see you on the 50, to the extent that I can see with tears in my eyes.
So, we get the Axe back and you’re allowed 24 hours with it. What’s your 24 hours look like?
I’m giving it to my daughter and Venmo-ing her $1000 and letting her and her fellow Cal students run wild… while I hit the bars with my wife and our age-inappropriate college friends and hug strangers and have beers poured on my head and lose my voice and intermittently laugh at the photos of The Axe making the rounds that our daughter sends to the family group text.
And that’s the newest edition of Big Game Hype Talk with Mike Silver. If that didn’t get you excited and pumped for the game, I can’t help you. Well... maybe this will help.