Then ask the question: Would the Bears be in the same position they are now?
It's a question Cal fans are thankful they'll never have to answer.
Lewis decided not to get on that plane on that Wednesday in December, forcing Cal athletic director Steve Gladstone to turn his attention to an offensive coordinator at Oregon named Jeff Tedford.
The rest isn't just history. The rest made history.
Tedford accepted the job Lewis turned down and proceeded to write a handbook on building a national power. The Bears went 1-10 the season before Tedford arrived. By his third season, they were in contention for the national championship and finished the regular season ranked fourth in the country.
Tedford opens his sixth training camp at Cal on Monday and has the Bears entrenched as a national power. The Bears are ranked No. 12 in the USA Today preseason top-25 poll and are considered a legitimate threat to qualify for their first berth in a Bowl Championship Series game. Cal shared the Pac-10 title with USC last season and easily handled Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl, 45-10, finishing No. 14 in both major national polls.
Tedford comes to town
"In retrospect, isn't it great?" said Gladstone, who stepped down as athletic director in 2004 but remains the school's crew coach. "It's no knock on Marvin. Marvin is a good man, but he was headed to the pros. That's when the hand of God came in and helped us make the right choice."
Lewis called Gladstone just before he was scheduled to fly to the Bay Area to tell him he was no longer interested in the job. He became the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals 13 months later.
Gladstone had a handful of other candidates to choose from after Lewis begged out, but he said it was Tedford all the way.
"I wanted Jeff," he said. "It's absolutely perfect, just the way it is."
College football insiders had admired Tedford and the acumen he had demonstrated as the offensive coordinator at Fresno State and Oregon, but nobody could have predicted the construction job he's forged in Berkeley. At the time of his hiring, he had just turned 40, coached in a major conference for just four years and never been a head coach.
Tedford led Cal to a 7-5 record in his first year and hasn't experienced a losing season. After their breakout season of 2004, the Bears slipped a tad to 8-4 the following year but still finished No. 25 nationally. If the Bears have the type of season most experts anticipate in 2007, they could have double-digit wins three times during a four-year span.
"When I heard Jeff got the job, my initial reaction was 'Cal is about to get it going now'" ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "But as much as I loved Jeff as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, I didn't know he was going to be this good this quickly. There are certain guys in this business, when you meet them, your first impression is they really have that 'it' quality. I always felt that way with him."
There have been other dramatic turnarounds in college football, but it's hard to find many in which a program that was in such shambles became so good, so quickly.
Bill Snyder is widely recognized as engineering the greatest turnaround in the history of the game. He took over the helm at Kansas State in 1988 after the Wildcats had gone 2-30-1 during the previous three seasons. In Snyder's 17 years, Kansas State had 11 winning seasons and finished ranked in the top 10 nationally six times. The Wildcats had five winning seasons during the previous 54 years.
Still, it took Snyder a while to get it going. While the Bears knocked on the door of a BCS game in Tedford's third year, Kansas State was just 4-7.
"I can't sit here and tell you I thought he was going to go 10-2," Gladstone said. "But I felt confident he would be an outstanding coach when we hired him."
Current athletic director Sandy Barbour held the same position at Tulane when she hired Tommy Bowden to take over the football program in 1997. In his first year, Bowden led the Green Wave to its first winning season in 16 years. The following season, Tulane went 12-0 and finished ranked No. 7 in the country.
Still, Barbour says the job Tedford has done at Cal is unparalleled.
"It's probably the most impressive turnaround that I know of," said Barbour, who signed Tedford to a new five-year, $10 million contract shortly after arriving in Berkeley. "What Jeff has done has far exceeded anything I've seen."
Entering an elite class
Tedford built Cal's program with almost immediate recruiting successes. His 2003 recruiting class was ranked No. 23 nationally by scout.com, and that was before the Bears had really reached the national elite.
The 2004 season provided a further boost to recruiting and Cal's 2005 class was ranked ninth in the country. That group was highlighted by All-American wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was considered one of the top prospects in the nation at Long Beach Poly High School. The fact that Jackson chose the Bears over USC was yet another sign of the football empire Tedford was building.
"Everybody from (Southern California) was expecting me to go to USC," Jackson said. "Coming to Cal was a big step for me, and coach Tedford had a lot to do with that. I'd say a good 85 percent of the reason is because of coach Tedford. You could see the program was changing around."
Gladstone said Tedford was able to recruit top prospects even before the program became a national power because he is a "direct and honest person. I'm guessing when he comes to a house and sits with an athlete and his family, that's a breath of fresh air."
"Honesty is the best way to go about it," Tedford said. "I think to have a rapport with them and honesty is something we will never get away from."
Of course, it's a little easier for Tedford to recruit now that prospects consider Cal on the same national level as USC, Florida and Michigan. It's what got the program to that level that keeps observers marveling at Tedford's accomplishments.
"He had some experience being around a winning program as a coordinator, so he knew what it took," Herbstreit said. "He gets it. Forget all the Xs and Os and how much he excels on the offensive side of the ball. I'm talking about his leadership qualities. He's just a genuine man. He has that personality that you just look at him and believe in him."
Contact Jonathan Okanes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TEDFORD: BEFORE AND AFTER
A look at Cal's record immediately before and after Jeff Tedford arrived at Cal:
*Cal later forfeited all four of its wins from the 1999 season.