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?