Big Game historical overview

I'm here to examine the significance of this year's Big Game, though I should pen another "This Week in Stanford History" piece accordingly, just to honor the mood here at Bootleg Central.

Thirty-one years ago Wednesday, Paul Wiggin boldly defied logic, math and the scoreboard. With time running out after a touchdown trimmed the USC lead to eight points, Stanford went for two. Of course it failed. You can light a candle on Big Game day to honor the anniversary of blowing a 42-14 second-half lead to Washington State. On Tuesday, did you pause to remember where you were when Buddy Teevens won his last game in a Stanford visor?

I'll stop there, yet those oh-so forgettable moments add some perspective to the Cardinal's schizophrenic ways in 2012. I sympathize with the many of you who remain spitting mad despite a 4-2 record and national ranking.

David Shaw promised a continued residence in the neighborhood of national relevance. But the miscues that led to the two losses offered reminders of so many lost Saturdays from years gone by.

If the quarterback play would have mirrored even the early tenures of Butterfield or Husak, the Cardinal brings an unbeaten record to Berkeley. Instead, Josh Nunes too often looks like he's auditioning for the lead in "Bend It Like Buckley."

The 115th clash between the old rivals is a referendum on where each side is headed. By the late afternoon, we'll know if David Shaw is in command or if he's lost control of the season. After a 1-4 start and a steady decline over the last five years, Jeff Tedford is playing for his job. We'll see if his players can translate urgency into what their head coach does best: torture Stanford.

As a fan-turned-pundit, I can't help but see the irony in the above storyline. Here we have a pair of coaches who may fall victim to the high expectations they helped create.

Shaw recruited and molded those whom Jim Harbaugh led to BCS glory. He upheld his pledge to not bask in Orange Bowl's afterglow, becoming the first head coach in conference history to start his career 9-0. He was a shanked field goal away from becoming the first to exceed 11 wins in his rookie season; He instead shares that record with Howard Jones and John Robinson, caretakers during USC's glory days.

But if the former wide receiver wants to beat the coverage of critics, a mighty obstacle stands in the way. At its best, Cal is desperate and talented enough to prolong the Cardinal misery. The Bears are more than ready to reinforce the idea that Shaw, without the Andrew Luck safety net, instead deserves comparisons to Larry Coker.

The roots of Bear backers' frustrations are the lofty heights their head coach ushered in. Tedford owns more wins than any coach in Cal football history. Should he beat Stanford, he'll grab the record for the most Big Game victories by a Cal coach with eight wins. The six coaches who preceded him at Strawberry Canyon took home the Axe seven times combined.

And consider this parallel universe: As the 2007 season unfolded, No. 2 Cal hosting top-ranked USC that November seemed a likely scenario.

With those memories fresh, patience is wearing thin for those who foot a nine-figure bill to renovate a stadium… that hosted a loss to Nevada… whose tenant began the year with the program's worst start since Tom Holmoe.

Once upon a time, Cal/Stanford was part-cocktail party, part-final straw. The firing of a head coach – Roger Theder, Wiggin, Jack Elway, later Keith Gilbertson, Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris – after the failure win a Big Game occurred with such regularity that it became an almost annual event.

With expectations ramped up for both sides these days, the scrutiny has also never been higher. May the victor claim the Axe, while the losing head coach get fitted for a Buddy Teevens visor.


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