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Taking note of Tedford's success as Cal football coach

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

Ty Willingham is restoking pride at Notre Dame, in search of swaggering Rockne-Leahy-Parsegian levels of Golden Dome yore, but the most dynamic new-coach surge may be happening at Cal.

Learn the name ... Jeff Tedford.

For a painfully long time, on a campus better known for ambitious political radicals than championship football contenders, the Bad News Bears were constant Pac-10 patsies.

Golden Bears, indeed.

Last season, the University of California at Berkeley went 1-10, ranking near the NCAA bottom in turnover ratio at minus-17. The Vanderbilt of the West. Or was it Northwestern? Or Duke?

Cal would produce the occasional stout individual, like linebacker Hardy Nickerson, but it was so risky that an eager young coach could flop in a hurry and see his career splinter.

A week ago, the Bears rose to 3-0 under new Berkeley fellow Tedford, plastering then 15th-ranked Michigan State 46-22 at East Lansing. That ugly Cal turnover stat was no more, sitting at a handsome plus-10 for an invigorating September.

Until then, I had never heard of Tedford, despite his O's-over-X's sizzle as offensive coordinator at Fresno State and Oregon. Trent Dilfer probably mentioned him and I didn't bother to jot it in my notebook.

But others noticed. Now, with his Cal Bears escalating, I learn Tedford twice was offered shots at changing Bucs history as offensive coordinator.

Why am I stunned to learn that?

In the late '90s, Tony Dungy's defense was hot, but the boring chill of Tampa Bay's offense limited the franchise. Fans booed. Critics wailed. Opponents chuckled at times.

Les Steckel became coordinator in 2000, another ill-fated offensive choice. The Bucs had tried but failed to snag the young and gifted Tedford.

"We've known for years that Tedford had one of the finest offensive minds in the game," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said last weekend in Baltimore. "Dilfer loves him. Jeff is great. I tried twice to hire him as our coordinator, including when we went with Les. We couldn't pry Tedford away from the West Coast."

Now, across America, the word is spreading about Tedford's wizardry. It was his playbook that molded Dilfer at Fresno State, before the quarterback would evolve into an up-and-down existence (1994-99) with the Bucs.

Tedford was hired by Oregon in 1998. He developed Akili Smith into a first-round Cincinnati Bengals draft choice and pushed Joey Harrington into becoming last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up.

"Jeff is the finest coach I've ever been around," said Dilfer, now operating in Seattle after winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens. "Great leader. Great teacher. Strong motivator for all those around him.

"Jeff taught me more about toughness than any coach, and I've been around some good ones (including Dungy, Mike Holmgren and Brian Billick in the NFL). To this day, I consult Jeff on all major issues I face in football."

Tedford, 40, was a Fresno State quarterback in the early '80s, setting records for touchdown passes and yardage, numbers he helped erase in the '90s with Dilfer.

Undrafted, Tedford became a solid quarterback for six seasons in the Canadian Football League. He returned to what Dilfer likes to call "the real FSU" in 1987 as a volunteer assistant to Jim Sweeney.

In search of professional stability, plus being able to pay his bills, Tedford returned to the CFL as a Calgary Stampeders assistant (1989-91) and helped them to the Grey Cup final.

Fresno State lured Tedford back in time to be Dilfer's 1992-93 guru. Dilfer became Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick in 1994. Three years later, Tedford got a big raise to become Oregon offensive boss under Mike Belotti.

Jeff's unique schemes fueled the Ducks to national prominence, topped off by a No. 2 ranking behind national champion Miami after last season. Then came Cal, the ultimate challenge.

You wonder, if Tedford had taken the Bucs' bait, coming east/south to convert Tampa Bay into offensive respectability, would Dungy have fared better and still been wearing pewter instead of Indianapolis Colts blue?

You wonder, would Jon Gruden ever have come into the Bucs picture? Might the Super Bowl celebrated by Dilfer have come in a Tampa Bay uniform? Maybe I'm pushing the what ifs, but they are intriguing.

At least the NCAA planet is, at last, learning that Tedford's methods, so successful with Dilfer/Smith/Harrington, appear to be a quick fix for long-slumbering Cal and quarterback Kyle Boller, a 1-10 loser last season who vaulted to celebrity with four touchdown passes in the demolition of Michigan State.

"Tedford is amazing," Bucs player personnel director Tim Ruskell said. "We're not at all shocked to see him making immediate positive impact at Cal."

Dilfer keeps nodding.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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