The Cal football team has gone from being the worst in the Pac-10 to one of the best in the West since Jeff Tedford took over as coach eight years ago.
The turnaround in the classroom has been equally dramatic.
Using an academic version of a football playbook, Tedford has taken the shockingly poor graduation rate of Cal football players and raised it closer to that of such schools as Northwestern and Stanford, which lost to Cal, 34-28, on Saturday in the 112th Big Game.
The latest evidence of his success came last week, when fresh data released by the NCAA showed nearly three-quarters of Tedford's first recruiting class graduated — a 48 percent increase over the team's average from the previous decade.
"Tedford has changed the way the football players look at being student-athletes," said physics professor Robert Jacobsen, who also serves on Cal's athletic admissions committee.
"One of the things he's done is kept people in school. They don't just leave "... when they're done playing. They stay and get their degrees."
The Federal Graduation Rates report, compiled annually by the NCAA, isn't the only means of quantifying academic success. But it's the toughest standard because athletes who leave school early to sign professional contracts count as non-graduates, as do players who transfer to other schools — even if they eventually earn a degree.
The graduation rates are also the longest-standing measure,
"Jeff took a new approach and a very good approach — and he got instant results," said Santa Clara University athletic director Dan Coonan, a former Cal administrator who helped hire Tedford. "He's made the student-athletes accountable, and that's had a terrific impact."
Here are the highlights from the report (all figures refer to freshmen who entered school in fall 2002, Tedford's first season):
"It's been very rewarding," Tedford said. "Sometimes, it takes kids a little while to figure it out, and when the light goes on — you see as much self-esteem gained by success in the classroom as on the field."
Academic Game Plan
It's a Sunday evening, and Cal's Memorial Stadium is cold and dark. The players walk off the field quietly, finished with practice but not with their day.
One by one, they file into a large room inside the stadium. It's called the Big Game Room, and it is here that they review the game plan — the Academic Game Plan.
Introduced to Tedford during his final season as an assistant coach at Fresno State (1997), the Academic Game Plan helps the players prepare for their studies as they would prepare for a game. Coaches are heavily involved, and there's a premium placed on accountability. Penalties can be assessed.
There's even something that resembles a playbook. Each player has a black spiral-bound planner with a semester's worth of class schedules, assignments and grades.
One chapter is called the "Scouting Report." It provides a place to record all homework, projects, quizzes and tests.
The "Lineup Card" is where players keep their daily, weekly and monthly schedules.
Grades are recorded in the "Scoreboard" section. There's a column for "possible score" and a column for "earned score."
Every Sunday and Wednesday night throughout the season — and on other nights during the offseason — the players meet with their position coach to review the academic playbook.
"As a freshman, you think, 'What's this all about? It's just another thing I have to do,'"" junior linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "Then you put the time in, and you figure out that it really works. It keeps you up to date with everything.
"The Game Plan definitely takes time. But the time you gain from being organized far outweighs the cost."
When Tedford was hired from the University of Oregon in December 2001, the Cal football team had just finished a 1-10 season in which it allowed the most points in school history. The Bears' academic performance was no better.
Nine months earlier, the school had been found guilty of academic fraud by crediting two football players with a class they did not take. The graduation rate was annually in the 50 percent range — on par with the national average and often far below that of UCLA, Cal's sister school.
Academics simply weren't a priority, according to numerous Cal officials who requested anonymity. The Athletic Study Center, which provides academic counseling and tutors, was grossly understaffed. The players frequently skipped class. The focus was on the field.
"My position coach said academics were No."2, and football was No."1," a former player said.
Tedford was fully aware of Cal's issues and presented the Academic Game Plan during his job interview. After being hired, he worked closely with Derek Van Rheenen, who had recently been appointed director of the Athletic Study Center, to restructure the football program's approach.
They quickly realized there was a connection between bad football and bad academics.
"The first thing we did was interview every player on the team," Tedford said. "We had a laundry list of things, and it did come up that they were embarrassed to be seen on campus" — and thus in the classroom — "because of their lack of success on the field."
Tedford's academic recovery plan was two-pronged:
"The more it looks like (the coaches) care about them as people, the better they perform," Van Rheenen said. "If it looks like the coaches only care about them as players, they start to think, 'I'm being used.'""
Tedford's Academic Game Plan calls for each assistant to meet individually with the players under his supervision for 10 to 15 minutes, twice a week.
The sessions provide an opportunity to talk about families, girlfriends and life in the dorms. But the focus is on schoolwork.
By transforming assistant coaches into de facto academic advisers, Tedford sent an unmistakable message to the players:
"Part of the dynamic of being on a team is that you know there's a penalty and a reward for your performance," said Taggart McCurdy, who played for the Bears in 2003-04 and is now a graduate assistant coach.
"As a player, you take academic instruction from a coach much more seriously than from an adviser.''
Written by John Baxter, who coached with Tedford at Fresno State, the plan includes tips on note taking, study guidelines and instructions on how to present yourself in class.
Tedford has a copy, contained in a massive three-ring binder, on a shelf in his office. But the players use a condensed version — black spiral planners with the words "Academic Game Plan" emblazoned on the cover.
At the Academic Game Plan meetings, coaches review the players' class notes, discuss upcoming assignments and pepper them with questions — just as they would during a film session to prepare for the upcoming game.
"I'll sit down and say, 'Where are you with the reading on Aristotle?'"" said Ron Gould, the running backs coach.
Every assignment and grade is cross-checked against a master list provided to the coaches by Jon Giesel, the team's academic coordinator.
Players are categorized using a color-coded system. All freshmen — and anyone with a grade-point average below 2.3 — are assigned to the red group, requiring them to meet with coaches and tutors. Players in the yellow (middle) and green (highest) categories are given more leeway by Tedford and his assistants.
If players miss class or tutoring sessions, the coaching staff is alerted. At a certain point, Tedford gets involved and penalties are handed down — as was the case three weeks ago when cornerback Darian Hagan was suspended for one game for missing class.
At the heart of the Academic Game Plan is accountability.
"At so many universities, the coaches rely on the academic service staff for this," Santa Clara's Coonan said. "What's rare about Cal is how the coaches are so active in terms of academics and connecting with the students."