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FILE -- Cal head coach Jeff Tedford must prove this season that he is a better coach now than when he arrived. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

The annual inspection and analysis of Jeff Tedford began in earnest Monday, with the Cal football coach facing an inquisition so achingly familiar it has to irritate his psyche a little more each summer.

Distilling it to a single question would result in something like this: Hey, coach, is this the year you distinguish yourself again as an offensive wiz?

Asked if he feels he has something to prove in 2010, Tedford replied that he does not.

Oh, but he has plenty to prove.

The natural progression of a professional is to seek, expect and deliver gradual improvement. Because Tedford has not met the results end of this equation, he is left in the position of proving to himself and to those who follow his team that he didn't peak early. He must prove, as experience should dictate, that he is a better coach now than when he arrived.

Nine years into a job that was an eyesore when he took it, Tedford has settled into the uncomfortable routine of trying to outdo his own legend. He took over a program coming off five consecutive losing seasons -- and a 1-10 record in 2001 -- and flipped it to 7-5, then 8-6 in 2003 and 10-2 in '04.

Suddenly, the Golden Bears and the alumni who had suffered through four winning seasons in the previous 22 were far better than the mediocrity to which they had once aspired. They grew accustomed to being in or near the Top 25.

But the soaring arc of Tedford's early years has become flatter than his team can get at the oddest times. After going 25-13 in his first three years, he's 24-15 in his past three.


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Moreover, the 2009 Bears were on the blunt end of such unsightly beatings as 42-3 at Oregon, 30-3 at home to USC, 31-14 at home to Oregon State and 42-10 at Washington -- all of which kicked Cal out of the major bowl picture and into the acutely nondescript Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. In that game, a 37-27 loss to Utah, the Bears took a 14-0 first-quarter lead only to be outscored 37-13 the rest of the way.

Emotions of the alumni took a wild ride, from apprehensive before the game, to griping at halftime, to outright indignation while filing out of Qualcomm Stadium in the fourth quarter. I saw it and heard it.

Those emotions have spent the past seven months on simmer.

"I welcome it, understand it," Tedford said. "But I can't be consumed with it. I understand where they're coming from."

Yet the coach has his own frustrations.

"The first place I look is in the mirror," he said, "to see how I can improve as a head coach."

He has tried taking different angles to his tasks, spending more time teaching and less time managing, and at other times, being more of a manager and less of a teacher. He has spent more time with quarterbacks, then spent less time with them.

His latest change involves an attempt to add levity in hopes of creating an atmosphere more conducive to performance.

"I need to change my attitude, make sure we're having fun and not stressed out," he said, conceding he at times is captive to his stress.

Tedford may be evolving, but the evolution has not necessarily brought progress.

His legacy, wherever it settles, will be tied most closely to his quarterbacks. Tedford played quarterback in high school, in college and in the Canadian Football League. Since becoming a coach, he has helped tutor such first-round NFL draft picks as Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and David Carr.

Tedford earned rave reviews at Cal for his ability to utilize one season with Kyle Boller and transform him into a first-round pick. And for discovering and developing Aaron Rodgers, a first-round pick in 2005 who might be the best young passer in the NFL.

Yet QB performance at Cal has diminished since the departure of Rodgers. One year later, offensive coordinator George Cortez, who worked with Boller and Rodgers, also departed.

Tedford should want to prove he can recruit or develop someone who can meet the standard set by Boller and Rodgers -- and do so without Cortez, now a Buffalo Bills assistant.

Tedford announced Monday that senior Kevin Riley, whose best work has been in relief roles, is his starter.

"Even though he feels like he has a lot to prove," Tedford said, "I don't want him thinking he has a lot to prove."

Riley has plenty to prove, but not as much as Tedford. He's the one contractually obligated to return next year, and I'm sure he'd like to avoid the topic altogether.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.