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Cal was once peers with Oregon. Can they learn anything from the ascendance of the Ducks?
It took only two decades for the fortunes of the California Golden Bears and the Oregon Ducks to rapidly diverge.
(Apologies for the delay on this one here—travel and work took my time. This is as big picture as possible.)
It was only two decades ago that Cal and Oregon stood on equal footing.
Oregon had seemingly completed a long ascension to the top of the Pac-10 with a Rose Bowl bid under Rich Brooks in 1994. Then Mike Bellotti came in and made winning seasons a regular thing, culminating with another conference title in 2001 and a smashing of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
Then Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford came to Cal. In a matter of years, he seemingly flipped the momentum to Berkeley as the most exciting program in the conference. Cal and Oregon were deadlocked in tight battles for most of the 2000s, often battling for second behind Pete Carroll’s mighty Trojans.
In that decade, Oregon experienced the same frustrations as Cal. They were a fun, explosive offensive team with eye-catching uniforms with a unique mascot. But crazy injuries and fluke performances always seem to undo their bids at the top of the conference, and they seemed to be stuck with Cal in the category of “very good”.
However, the Ducks had what the Bears did not: Buy-in.
The local Oregon community was all in on supporting Ducks football. They had one of the most prominent figures in sports commit his full financial resources to build the program up to the next level. They had an administration that needed Oregon to be good to boost enrollment. They made the necessary changes when the program seemed to hit a roadblock, leading to offensive coordinator and head coach Chip Kelly.
Meanwhile, Cal dithered. They kept the status quo. The administration and department did not capitalize on the best era the program had experienced in five decades. They used that time to disperse the earnings across numerous other non-revenue sports. They did not embark on large fundraising campaigns to ensure a full stadium for years to come. And it took them a decade to build out a long overdue athletic center to modernize.
One program adapted and evolved. The other stood still. By the end of the 2000s, Oregon had found their formula for success, and it started with a 42-3 mauling of the sixth-ranked Bears. Cal was left in the dust, and they have never caught up since.
Two decades later, Oregon stands ascendant.
The Ducks should win 10 games for the 11th time in 16 seasons. They have won the conference five times with three different coaches. They have made it to the national title game twice, and are three wins away from their second Playoff berth.
Oregon and Cal were playing two different sports that Saturday at Autzen. After the Ducks fumbled and bumbled their way through the rain in the first quarter, the skies cleared, and Oregon outtalented Cal the rest of the way. There was not one position that Saturday where Cal was better than Oregon. The Ducks had muscle in the trenches, speed on the outside, and a team executing on all cylinders.
Oregon’s biggest enemy at the moment is Oregon, as their own mistakes cost them an undefeated season against Washington and kept them from pulling away from USC. Cal was simply present to disperse punishment.
Oregon is off to the Big Ten on a partial share, but they are one of the few programs who can live with it. They will be one of that conference’s heavyweights and will be competing for national titles for the foreseeable future. They have survived multiple coaches departing the Ducks, who have ended up dithering in their subsequent spots. The program up in Eugene has proven to be bigger than any leader.
Cal has miles of work ahead to approach that level. The Bears clinched yet another losing record in Pac-12 play that night in Eugene, and will finish their time in the conference having never achieved a winning season in this version of the Pac. They are wrapping up year seven with Justin Wilcox having never once seriously competed for the conference crown, and only twice finishing in the upper half of the conference. Many Cal fans invite change, but administrative malfesance has left us with no option but to hope Wilcox can figure it out in the next few years.
There are so many gaps right now that Cal need to be addressed in our time in the ACC. Because right now, this quality of play isn’t good enough to keep this program playing power football in the long run. Even an easier conference won’t save us.
Cal needs to find their Oregon blueprint to success. Cal will probably never be the Ducks, but they need to change the equations before it all comes crashing down.
What can Cal learn from Oregon’s meteoric rise?
Obviously, Phil Knight is not replicable. No one of that caliber has ever shown the inkling to support the Golden Bears at that level. Aaron Rodgers will renovate a locker room and a long-time Cal donor will contribute to some nice scholarships, but no one is out there to play benefactor.
What is certainly possible is a more widespread effort to pool resources. The large Cal alumni network remains ridiculously untapped, and we’ve seen early promising efforts with even the smallest amount of investment into NIL. If Cal can keep that momentum going, the Bears can certainly be resource competitive with many other major programs for players and coaches year-to-year.
Cal also desperately needs to have mechanisms to hold their athletic department accountable. It’s unclear how long Jim Knowlton will still be in charge, but whoever comes next needs to prioritize the health of football. A long-term future in the ACC is not our pathway to success. The Bears have to rebuild and field a far better football program than the one we’ve seen in this conference’s twilight.
And of course, Cal needs to hold their football coaches accountable and make changes when needed. There will be no change up top given the financial constraints on the program, but there needs to be definite shakeups on the staff. Four uncompetitive blowouts against top competition is a sign something is being missed in game prep and in-game adjustments.
Cal has beaten Washington State and might right the ship with two straight finishes, but they are still on pace for their regular 5-7 finish in all likelihood. Justin Wilcox made proactive changes to improve the offense with the hiring of Jake Spavital, and the offense is finally somewhat improved, but the defense has faded fast. There needs to be accountability for a unit that is underachieving, and some revamping is likely happening this offseason.
After enduring the gauntlet of the best Pac-12 in over a decade, Cal will have a very winnable ACC slate next season. There is an opportunity for the Bears to reload and rebuild and make significant improvements. Nearly every Cal game will be up for the taking, and the decisions the Bears make this offseason via the portal and staff changes could set them up for success.
Once upon a time, Cal and Oregon sat on equal footing in this conference. One has ascended to the upper echelon. But their pathways to success can be emulated, if done right.
Hopefully, we find our own path, with the new lifelines we’ve been afforded.