BERKELEY -- Sandy Barbour was talking about 2004. I had asked the Cal athletic director about the best times she shared with Jeff Tedford.
She cited two. The first were some fantastic moments that year after defeating Stanford in the Big Game. Barbour and Tedford hugged, laughed and basked in the glow of beating Stanford by 35 points in the next-to-last game of a one-loss regular season.
"We had thoughts that we were headed to the Rose Bowl," she said.
Instead, the perverted BCS system was influenced by intense lobbying from Texas coach Mack Brown and sent Cal to the Holiday Bowl. Tedford took it stoically and plugged away until he became the Bears' all-time winning coach last season in a "home" game at AT&T Park while Memorial Stadium was being remodeled. He was honored before an adoring crowd -- which was the other best time Barbour cited with Tedford.
As opposed to the worst time. Tuesday morning, she fired him.
"Excruciating," Barbour said when asked to describe the process that led to the decision.
I still don't know exactly how Tedford lost his grip on the steering wheel at Cal. Barbour might not know entirely how it occurred, either. But you could see the crash waiting to happen.
Tedford, at the beginning of his 11-year term in Berkeley, always seemed like the smartest man in the room. He won his first game 70-22 over Baylor. On the first down of Cal's first possession, Tedford called a trick play that wound up as a long pass to a key freshman recruit -- I figured at least partially to show the kid he'd made the right choice, as well as to send an example to other recruits.
Man, I recall thinking, this guy gets it.
But over the years, Tedford appeared to gradually lose that intangible "it." He never did reach the Rose Bowl. He churned through assistant coaches and never seemed to grasp the rapidly developing new dynamics of recruiting with the use of social media. He seemed older than his 51 years. After inducing Cal to remodel and upgrade Memorial Stadium, he couldn't leverage it into raising up his own program.
Then came the 2012 season-opening upset loss to Nevada, when Tedford made the strange move to bench starting quarterback Zach Maynard for the entire first quarter as punishment for missing a tutoring session earlier in the summer -- but not informing Allan Bridgford about that until the day before the game. A nervous Bridgford completed just 2 of 9 passes. Maynard was sloppy when he did enter the game, fumbling the ball away once and messing up calls, drawing silly penalties.
Afterward, I asked Tedford how such sloppiness could happen after the team had been practicing for more than a month for this one game. His response was that games are a lot different from practices. Huh? Isn't that why a team practices in the first place? It wasn't a very good answer. As the weeks brought more losses, Tedford had even fewer good answers. For anything.
It was puzzling, odd and sad. Tedford clearly has a sharp football brain. But his brain suddenly looked like a square peg that was trying to fit into Berkeley's rather unique round hole -- or maybe, into the entire 2012 college football world.
Barbour was understandably not eager to specifically list the reasons she dismissed Tedford. But you could read between the lines.
"You can certainly get student-athlete input without asking for it," Barbour said, clarifying later that she believed the players "loved" Tedford but that "if you spend time around the kids, you know what they're thinking and feeling."
It was no shock, therefore, that Barbour chose to dismiss Tedford after some long discussion sessions this week. You have to presume Barbour touched base with enough Cal donors to fork over the more than $6 million owed to Tedford for the three years left on his contract--though the amount might be paid out over longer period to make the economics work. Tedford will walk away frustrated but not poor.
My bet? His next coaching stop will be as an NFL assistant. He may one day even become a head coach at that level, where he won't have to worry about graduation rates. At Cal, they sank under his leadership to 48 percent, worst in the Pac-12.
"I certainly share responsibility for that and Jeff shares responsibility for that," Barbour said. "What there is no doubt about is, that's unacceptable here."
Her own next step is the more difficult one. The Cal job is a much better one today than it was before Tedford arrived. But the job requirements are still a little different from other schools'.
The perfect Tedford successor is probably a younger guy who can connect with today's recruits (online and offline) and knows the West Coast high school landscape ... and who can hire and retain sharp assistant coaches in an area where housing costs are high ... and who can match wits with some of the nation's best head coaches in one of America's toughest leagues ... and can deal with a campus community that enjoys football but does not blindly worship the sport. That's a small hiring pool.
Barbour, in her eighth year at Berkeley, knows what's at stake and how important this hiring is.
"There is no other place on the campus," Barbour said, "where 65,000 people gather on a given afternoon or evening."
Next fall, Tedford just won't be one of them.