Texas and Cal don’t share a deep on-field past. They’ve played six times, including last season and in 2011. The Longhorns are a boring 5-1, having blown out the Bears four times between 1959 and 1970. Whatever, really.
But when the Horns visit Berkeley for a game Saturday night (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), they’ll do so behind a loaded recent history. That’s because Texas once got between Cal and a Rose Bowl that Cal badly wanted to play in, and Cal doesn’t forget.
Here was Aaron Rodgers on College GameDay two weeks ago, (correctly) picking Texas to beat Notre Dame and saying he could only do it because Mack Brown was no longer the head coach in Austin:
The backstory is a reminder of how the sport used to be.
In 2004, Cal finished its regular season 10-1. The Bears were ranked No. 4 in the country in the AP Poll and the BCS standings, and they seemed fairly assured of getting a bid to the Rose Bowl, being held (as usual) in their home state.
It didn’t work out that way. Texas finished the regular season an identical 10-1, but ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll, two spots behind Cal. More importantly, the Horns were No. 5 in the BCS standings.
Texas’ last game was a 26-16 win against Texas A&M, while Cal ended with a 26-16 nod over Southern Miss.
Then Brown used some of the political skills one needs to survive as the head coach at a place like Texas. He lobbied hard for Texas to get bumped forward, past Cal, in the BCS standings.
Whether it was because of Brown’s lobbying or not (and it probably wasn't), it happened. The Horns jumped Cal from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final pre-bowl standings, taking the Rose Bowl bid Cal wanted and thought it would get, as California power USC was headed for the non-Rose Bowl BCS title game.
Here’s a full-season accounting of that year’s BCS race. The Bears were judged not to have done well enough, apparently, in their final win.
Here’s Rodgers, back in 2004:
"I thought it was a little classless how Coach Brown was begging for votes after the [Texas A&M] game," Rodgers said then. "I think a team’s record and the way you play should speak for itself, and you shouldn’t have to complain about the BCS system."
Here’s an impassioned missive from our California Golden Blogs, summing up why some Cal fans are so angry about this.
So the stage has been set. Cal is 10-1, the 4th ranked team in the country, and everybody thinks that they’re going to the Rose Bowl because USC is going to the national championship game. You might say "It’s kind of a weaselly way to get to the Rose Bowl, Cal fans, backing into it without winning your own conference." To that I reply: A fan gets desperate after decades. My mother is in her 50s, and she’s attended every Big Game since her college days. Never a Rose Bowl. There are thousands like her. We are in no position to be picky.
Then we beat Southern Mississippi in mediocre fashion. Then Mack Brown made his pitch. Then, after being 4th in the country for weeks, after thinking we had it all wrapped up, after carrying Aaron Rodgers around the field with Roses in his hands . . . then we get dropped to 5th in the BCS.
Behind a school with (at the time) three national championships, 30 conference championships and 44 bowl appearances. A member of the college football aristocracy.
2004 was a chance for Cal football, and for Cal football, chances come about once a decade. 2004 was also a chance for Texas football, and for Texas football chances come at least every other year or so.
Brown probably wasn’t the reason this happened. But that’s not the point – not when Texas was Texas, and Cal was a team that hadn’t been to a Rose Bowl (or any other major bowl, really) since 1958.
Is it all Mack Brown’s fault? Nah. It’s not even mostly his fault. But the idea that the coach of Texas was complaining about not going to a major bowl just seemed a tad out-of-wack for Cal fans who hadn’t seen a major bowl for 45 years.
Cal is a great school, but it’s not had an easy football life. Texas has been an elite football school for ages, and the Bears felt like they had something taken from them when Texas went to their Rose Bowl.
Via The Dallas Morning News, here’s now-former Cal coach Jeff Tedford:
"It was very unfortunate," Tedford said. "It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in my coaching career was announce to our team that we weren’t going to the Rose Bowl. ... It stunned our football team. It stunned our program and our fans."
And here’s Brown, defending himself:
"What I do remember about it is, I was asked after the A&M game if I thought our team was good enough to be in the BCS, and I said yes," Brown said, recalling that "people were taken aback that I would pull for our team. … And I would do exactly the same thing again."
The Associated Press would later send a cease-and-desist letter to the BCS, angered about the impact BCS-minded politicking might have on the poll’s integrity. The poll had been part of the BCS formula. (Cal didn’t actually fall behind Texas in AP Poll, which is important to remember.)
The Bears played in the Holiday Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl, and they lost 45-31 to Texas Tech. The AP Poll stopped being a part of the BCS’ calculus, and the BCS died a decade later. Cal hasn’t had another crack at anything like the Rose Bowl, though it made a follow-up Holiday Bowl appearance in 2011. It was against Texas. The Horns won.
Texas heads to Berkeley this year as a College Football Playoff contender.
Cal isn’t, but the Bears could put a massive dent into Texas’ dreams if they pull an upset. After all these years, Rodgers and legions of Cal fans surely wouldn’t mind that.