For Cal head football coach Jeff Tedford, Black Friday came even earlier than it has for many of America's major retailers this year. On Tuesday, the university dismissed its most successful modern era football coach.
Although Tedford had turned around what had become a woeful Cal football program immediately after he was hired 11 years ago, this week's dismissal was hardly a surprise. The program had been in a slow spiral for the last several years.
We will leave it to the experts on our sports pages to dissect the reasons for that demise as well as specific speculation about Tedford's replacement. But make no mistake, Cal's football program is at a crossroads. For its football team to be competitive in the Pac-12 Conference, the program must be infused with both coaching and recruiting talent as well as a healthy dose of enthusiasm. Jim Harbaugh, now the 49ers head coach, proved that such is possible as he took rival Stanford University from the bottom to the upper echelons in four short years.
Ironically, Tedford spent nearly all of his tenure fighting to get better facilities for the football program. Most of the $500 million worth of work on those facilities, including a massive revamping of Memorial Stadium, was finally completed this year. Now it will be Tedford's gift to his successor.
That new coach will be able to point to those new facilities as he attempts to convince top-quality players to come to Cal. But that, in and of itself, will be a significant challenge. Other schools in the Pac-12 also have committed to their football programs, and the conference has struck a lucrative television broadcast deal that clearly makes the Pac-12 a conference on the rise.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the Tedford era has been that the graduation rates of the football program have plummeted to the bottom of the conference sharing that spot with the University of Arizona. At a school such as Cal, which has always touted its balance between athletics and academics, that is nothing short of a black eye. Not only is it disappointing, it should be unacceptable.
But, please, let's not pretend that big-time college athletics has very much to do with academics. It is Big Business, pure and simple. Anyone who believes otherwise simply hasn't been around it. Sure, there is the occasional student-athlete who is actually a student-athlete, but those players are the exception rather than the rule. It is why their achievements are so prominently featured on television broadcasts -- because it is news.
Big-time college football generates revenue and notoriety for a particular school, but generally only when it is winning. Why else would a school such as Cal have a head coach who is paid $2.25 million a year? And why would the school buy out a contract that has more than $6 million still owed to Tedford?
We are neither omniscient nor connected enough to know who Cal's next head coach will be, but we do know that whoever it is, he had better plan on proving himself early and often if he wants to stay.