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BERKELEY - It started with a phone call. Well, it actually started before the phone call, but I'll tell you about the phone call first.

It was 9:30 p.m. on Monday Aug.2, and I was upstairs reading and heard the phone ring downstairs in my office. By the time I got down there, the caller had hung up. I pressed the button on my answering machine and the caller was Cal football coach Jeff Tedford — Jeff Tedford? — asking me to phone him back no matter how late I got his message.

I knew what it was about. That afternoon Tedford had attended the Bay Area College Football Media luncheon and I had asked if he had anything to prove and he said, no. I wrote he did have something to prove and I wrote he came off complacent. The newspaper posted my column online. It could not have been there more than two hours — and here was Tedford calling.

So, I took a deep breath and phoned him back and he thanked me for calling and apologized for troubling me so late on a Monday night. As we spoke, I recalled how some other coaches might have handled this deal with anger and profanity and I remember thinking, "This is a real gentleman."

Tedford blamed himself for misinterpreting my question — took all blame on himself — and asked if we could try again, one-on-one, at my convenience in his office. Sure. And that's why I found myself a few days ago driving up to the trailer that is the Cal football headquarters while they re-do Memorial Stadium.

Tedford came out in a gold Golden Bears T-shirt and in a hearty voice — an athlete's voice — said hello and he shook my hand and ushered me into his office.

I said, "Jeff, let's do it again. Do you have anything to prove?"

He smiled at being hauled back to the beginning and said, "I don't wake up in the morning thinking, "What do I have to prove today?' I'm not entering this season with the thought on my mind that we have to do something to fulfill a need of mine. I would like to recognize our full potential to make everybody happy."

He meant — and I believe him — the focus is on the team, not on him. And he revealed, without meaning to, he is a normal person, normal ego — no NFL coach's ego.

Don't misunderstand. He understands he is Jeff Tedford and he knows what that means. The regular guy in him looks at the coach he is with a certain awe.

He kept talking about complacency. The word obviously troubles him.

He said, "After last season, my health wasn't real good."

He meant he cares and takes things to heart, and the Bears lost their final two games and turned a very good season into a pretty good season.

What was the issue with his health last season and is he well now?

"I'm healthy now," he said. "I was stressed out at the end of the year. I really was. Worn down and stressed out.

"At one point last year when we were 8-3, it felt to me like we were 3-8. We didn't finish the season very well and that bothered me. A lot. When you sit back and look at the program, the way I do things, the way the staff does things, what environment am I creating if I'm stressed out for the players, the coaches?

"It was something I had to evaluate in the offseason to be able to put things in the proper perspective. Some of it last year had to do with some of the external things that were piling up on us."

What external things?

"The blogging and all the stuff," he said. "It's so readily available now to just say whatever they want, to just blurt criticisms out. Even though I try to insulate myself from that, because it doesn't do anyone any good to listen to or read all that stuff, but it's amazing when even your friends call and say, &‘Are you doing all right? I'm reading all this stuff they're writing about you.' No matter how much you try to stay insulated, it gets back to you at some point. I had to learn to deal with that toward the end of last year. Again, if I didn't care and was complacent, it wouldn't bother me."

I told him of all Bay Area coaches, with the possible exception of Jim Harbaugh, who's still in a honeymoon period at Stanford, he gets less criticism than anybody. Compare him to Don Nelson. I asked why he would care about the blogging or my article.

"You're Jeff Tedford," I said.

"That's exactly my point, I'm not complacent," he said. "It does bother me. I do care. And it's funny because of the lessons I learned last year, I went into (Media Day) saying, &‘I am not going to get caught up on what anybody says.' I went into that day saying that. (He laughed.) So my wife, she hits a thing on the computer that comes up with anything that's been written. She says, &‘You should see this.' So I found myself caring about that again.

"That's when I called you. And I told the team, &‘You know what, I didn't practice what I preached to you guys yesterday. I had what I thought was a bad article written about me and I reacted by getting caught up in it.' I said, &‘My bad. I shouldn't have done that. We can't do that. We can't listen to things that we perceive as negative because they're opinions of other people.' So what I said I was not going to do, I did right off the bat."

Tedford backed off play calling a few years ago because calling plays took away from his other duties as head coach. When he was the play caller he would lie in bed at night and every move he made in bed was a block or a throw.

"Any little thing is always football," he said. "Your dreams are football. Your movements are football. It's a weird deal. You're so consumed by it, you can never turn it off."

When Tedford was younger, he would walk in his sleep thinking about football.

"Things are real to me in my sleep," he said. "I'd say something to (my wife), &‘We've got to do this' or &‘we've got to do that.' And she wouldn't pay attention to me. And I'd say, &‘No, this is real. We've got to do that.'"

The interruption of his sleep and the way he used to sleep four nights a week on a couch in his office — it's down to two nights now — made him tired, and that troubled him, especially if his players thought he looked frazzled. He wanted to convey calm and mastery.

"The game is going to go on, on Saturday," he said. "You can't say, &‘Hey, memo: We're going to postpone this meeting till Sunday.' The progression of the week has to happen."

All of which means Tedford is not the least bit complacent. He earns a lot of money and that almost seems beside the point. He is a football coach and the air he breathes is football and in football season all he does is football. He calls himself a "grinder."

I reminded him of his phone call.

"When you talk to your wife," I said, "give her my apologies for ruining her evening."

Tedford laughed a healthy, carefree laugh.

"It was OK," he said. "It really was. It didn't ruin the evening whatsoever."

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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