The Big Game a little bigger this year

Originally Published: November 17, 2004
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

Jealousy? Dryden called it a "tyrant of the mind," while Shakespeare tagged it "a green-eyed monster." But that's just literary hooey.

Jealousy is a bunch of Stanford fans letting their frazzled thoughts wander 35 miles north over San Francisco Bay.

There they see the Temple of Tedford, glorious and strong -- even if it's a bit of an earthquake hazzard -- and headed toward the Rose Bowl. Then they frown at the Tent of Teevens, a worn canvas that could use a good hosing down.

And there is much gnashing of teeth.

That's why Stanford coach Buddy Teevens probably isn't enjoying this week's festivities for "The Big Game" as much as his counterpart, the exalted Sir Jeff Tedford (surely, he'll be knighted soon).

Teevens has read it in his mail, heard it from boosters and been around long enough to know that presiding over mediocrity or worse while a rival takes flight isn't acceptable, even for the Chardonnay swilling Cardinal adherents, who pack Stanford Stadium to more than one-third capacity every home game.

"Certainly, there are comparisons," Teevens said of himself and Tedford, hired within a month of each other.

Those comparisons aren't very charitable.

Teevens took over a program that went 9-3 in 2001 and went to the Rose Bowl in 1999. It had won seven consecutive Big Games.

Since arriving, Teevens is 10-22 and has lost two consecutive Big Games.

Tedford took over a program that went 1-10 in 2001, was yoked with NCAA sanctions and hadn't posted a winning season since 1993. It hasn't won three consecutive Big Games since 1958-60.

Tedford is 23-12, and the Bears' current No. 4 ranking is the program's highest since 1952.

In 2001, Stanford was fourth in the Pac-10 in attendance (51,534). This year, the Cardinal are ninth at 35,942.

In 2001, California was ninth in the conference in attendance (33,443). This year, the Bears are fourth (61,779).

The screws are tightening on Teevens, and not just because the Cardinal is headed toward its second consecutive 4-7 season, unless it upsets the Bears. It's also because Cal looks primed for an extended run with the nation's elite -- if, of course, Tedford doesn't bolt when wealthy suitors inevitably come calling.

"It's more, sometimes, the unsaid," Teevens said of boosters' burgeoning impatience. "Like, 'Their program has been down for some time and it's back ... how come your's isn't?'"

What also often goes unsaid is Teevens' best retort: Stanford's academic standards prevent him from recruiting junior college players, the quickest way for a program to heal itself. Cal's emergence has relied heavily on JC talent, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tailback J.J. Arrington and defensive end Ryan Riddle, each likely All-Pac-10 performers.

Here's another tidbit that surely has registered with Teevens like a shard of glass stuck in his sock: New Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, the woman charged with doing anything in her power to retain Tedford, fired Teevens at Tulane in 1996.

Ouch.

The problem for Teevens is Cal's brilliance has obscured the subtle but real improvements that Stanford has made this year. The Cardinal suffered seven double-digit defeats last year, including humiliating drubbings by 23, 35, 40 and -- holy, Fighting Irish -- 50 points.

Other than a 21-0 shutout at UCLA, Stanford has been competitive in every game, losing three times by a field goal, once by five points and -- holy, revenge falling short -- by eight at Notre Dame.

Stanford's 3-point loss to USC is the closest any team has come to the Trojans in two years, other than Cal's upset victory in 2003.

"It's been tough, but I'm proud of our team," Stanford linebacker Dave Bergeron said. "We've earned the respect of every team we've played. We've shown a lot of courage and character."

Bergeron said he and his teammates don't sit around stewing about Cal's success, mostly because that wouldn't solve much of anything. Nor do the players run into each other very often, despite the school's proximity. The trash talking is mostly reserved for fans.

Meanwhile, over in Berkeley, the upperclassmen who remember what things were like under Tom Holmoe don't spend too much time thumbing their noses at the Cardinal either. Mostly they just marvel at their long, strange trip from outhouse to penthouse.

"The guys who were around for that do say, 'Wow, look how far we've come!'" senior safety Ryan Gutierrez said. "We definitely talk about that. We talk about how bad it was in comparison to how good it is now. It's amazing. We can laugh now, but at the time, it was the worst experience."

Of course -- and how about us waiting until we're almost done for this caveat -- this is a rivalry game. Word on the street is anything can happen in these sorts of contests; that one must throw -- hurl, even -- the records out the window; that one should expect the unexpected.

The Big Game did produce The Play, after all.

The last time one of the two was ranked in the top-five, in 1951, the Bears beat No. 3 Stanford, 20-7.

And then there's this little issue of $450,000, which is what it will cost every Pac-10 team if Stanford notches the upset. A second BCS bowl team is worth $4.5 million to the conference, so Stanford's bandwagon is pretty lonely.

After seeing their bowl hopes crushed by a four-game losing streak, however, the idea of preventing Cal from attaining its first Rose Bowl berth since 1958 makes that cost seem a pittance to the Cardinal players.

"I would love nothing more than to rob every Pac-10 team of $450,000," Bergeron said.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ted Miller | email

College Football