California coach Sonny Dykes eyeballed the reporter with what could be described as a sheepish grin at Pac-12 media days. "Does he want to go there?" he seemed to be thinking of his connection to the Cal-Texas controversy. He'd been asked about the Golden Bears playing at Texas in Week 3, and whether he understood the deep, angry ache Old Blues still feel over the mere mention of the Longhorns and former coach Mack Brown, even after 11 years.
He went there. Sort of.
"We played that Cal team, Texas Tech, in the Holiday Bowl," he replied allowing the grin to linger before adding. "That was as talented a college football team as I’ve seen in a long, long time. When Marshawn Lynch is your third-team tailback, you’re a pretty good football team.”
Dykes was the Red Raiders receivers coach -- a year away from a promotion to offensive coordinator -- in 2004 and was therefore a participant in Cal's horribly-no-good-rotten-miserable ending to the 2004 season, one that had been the program's best in nearly a half-century.
First, the Bears, ranked No. 4 in both human polls at the end of the regular season, were nipped by Texas for the fourth spot in the BCS standings, thereby guaranteeing the Longhorns their first-ever berth in the Rose Bowl and denying Cal its first trip to the Granddaddy since 1959. What made Texas' eclipsing Cal so controversial is that Brown had lobbied hard for pollsters to elevate his team in the rankings, and several voters made dramatic changes to their ballots, particularly in the coaches poll.
Then disgruntled Cal, with Dykes dressed in red, got humiliated by No. 23 Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl 45-31.
"Most of our players were 10 years old when that happened," Dykes said Tuesday. "They are probably are going to hear about it at some point just like I have but I don’t know if it’s going to be any kind of extra motivation.”
Considering Cal is 0-5 all-time against Texas, including a 21-10 defeat to the Longhorns in the 2011 Holiday Bowl, which was previously billed as a revenge game, understand that it's a motivation for Cal fans. Though most Bears are perfectly capable of understanding that Brown was merely politicking for his team, they still seem stunned that his politicking worked and took away their greatest college football dream.
Cal, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, finished the 2004 regular season 10-1. The lone defeat came at No. 1 USC, which would crush Oklahoma in the BCS national title game. The Bears lost that game 23-17 despite outgaining the Trojans 424 yards to 205. They had a first-and-goal from the 9-yard-line in the waning moments but couldn't punch in the winning score.
They were the only school ranked in the nation's top six both in scoring offense and scoring defense. Their average margin of victory was 23.9 points, yet their fortunes swung when a they only won 26-16 at Southern Mississippi in the season finale.
That Cal coach Jeff Tedford opted not to run up the score didn't matter. That Texas was shutout 12-0 against rival Oklahoma on a neutral field didn't matter. That Southern Miss had beaten Nebraska and went on to win a bowl game and finish 7-5 didn't matter. That Texas beat 4-7 Kansas in its second to last game by four points didn't matter. That Texas beat 5-6 Missouri by eight didn't matter.
"If you've got a vote, vote for us," Brown said after his team beat Texas A&M 26-13 to finish the regular season. "This team deserves to go to the BCS. They deserve to go more than some teams that are being talked about."
While the math of how things panned out in the BCS standings has long been debated, it's not justifiable that Cal dropped from fourth to seventh on four coaches' ballots and from fourth to eighth on two others, with the voters protected by anonymity. No AP voter had Cal ranked lower than sixth. Though Cal had been ahead of Texas in every previous BCS standings and had been No. 4 since Oct. 30, that narrowing in the human polls coupled with Texas' advantage with the computers caused the Longhorns and Bears to flip flop positions.
Then Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen would describe the coaches who made changes as being "abusive toward a deserving team."
While Rodgers would specifically criticize Brown after the Rose Bowl snub, Tedford never did. He and Brown actually would become friends after the controversy, Brown said this week.
"People were critical because I stood up for my team -- people would have been critical if I didn’t stand up for my team," Brown said. "[Cal and its fans] were disappointed. And, really and truly, I was disappointed for Cal. But Texas had never been to the Rose Bowl, so it was a real special thing for our school. So I couldn’t feel bad for everybody else when it was a wonderful thing for the University of Texas.”
There were a number of ripples effects after the 2004 season. For one, the AP withdrew its poll from the BCS formula. Second, the BCS was forced to make the final regular-season coaches poll ballots public.
Further, the fortunes of both programs went in opposite directions.
Texas would win the Rose Bowl over Michigan in dramatic fashion and go on to win the 2005 national title. From 2004 to 2009, the Longhorns would never win fewer than 10 games. They played for the national title again in 2009.
Cal? It won 10 games in 2006 but began a steady decline. A year after losing the 2011 Holiday Bowl to Texas, Tedford was fired after going 3-9, and the Bears went a miserable 1-11 in 2013, Dykes' first season.
Now both programs are fighting to get back to national relevance. They are looking forward hopefully. Only the present will matter on both sidelines.
But know that the Old Blues haven't forgotten 2004.