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Cal football coach Jeff Tedford's annual compensation of $2,831,654 is one of the highest in the University of California system.

SAN FRANCISCO

JEFF TEDFORD'S honeymoon at Cal, fabulous and richly deserved, is history. Done. As kaput as Ben Braun's campus presence, Bill Clinton's budget surplus and Akili Smith's NFL career.

What sets Tedford apart, though, is that he can have another.

The first concluded with a thud. We'll refer to it as the Great Collapse.

Tedford and his Golden Bears entered last October at 5-0, ranked second in the country. The No. 1 ranking beckoned and the possibility intoxicated alumni and fans.

Literally moments away from No. 1, Cal responded with a three-game losing streak. The Bears fell from prominence, kept falling and fell further. They lost six of seven, finished the regular season at 6-6 and staggered into something called the Bell Helicopters Armed Forces Bowl.

No high-profile Bay Area team in recent memory had a swifter, more stunning and precipitous in-season decline.

Tedford, for most of our lifetimes the most successful football coach at Cal, was shaken to the core of his beliefs. He picked his brain, searched his soul and, eventually, acknowledged he had lost touch with his team.

So there he was Monday, seated at a round table, in a hotel meeting room, surrounded by folks wanting to know what the hell happened, what he had learned, when did he learn it and, naturally, how will he proceed.

"I'm just going to keep my fingers on the pulse of it a little bit better," he said at the annual preseason luncheon for the Bay Area's three Division I football teams.

A revealing admittance indeed. Priority 1-A for a head coach is to acquire talent. Priority 1-B is to win, by any legal means. Priority 2 is to create camaraderie, which begets trust, out of which can come a mighty bond.

Priorities 1-A and B don't mean jack unless accompanied by Priority 2.

Tedford realizes this and he still was victimized. He didn't grasp the magnitude of his team's poor chemistry until his ears were scorched during postseason exit interviews.

"I didn't do a good enough job as head coach of identifying that and addressing it," he conceded.

"Was it something that just hits you over the head? No. It wasn't. It wasn't so evident to me on a day to day basis."

Tedford got caught up. That's his story. And it's reasonable. He enjoys offense, gravitates toward the details of watching film and planning strategy and calling plays. And he's good at these things. That's why he was a good coordinator at Fresno State and a better one at Oregon.

Though this led to Tedford being interviewed for the Cal position when Tom Holmoe was fired after the 2001 season, it's not why he was hired.

Tedford was hired to manage the football program. In its entirety.

That he veered off course last season cost his team an opportunity to become one of the 10 best in school history. It shortened the lengthy rope he had earned by winning 43 of his first 63 games in Berkeley.

Understand, this is not to jump Tedford. Or stamp the Great Collapse in scarlet letters across his receding hairline.

This is to say, instead, that Tedford failed because his compulsions led him astray. While brushfires were on all sides of his house, Tedford was inside, doors closed, drawing up plays.

"We practiced hard, things like that," he recalled. "But when you get into a game situation and you get some adversity and you need to reach deep, that's when some of those things really become a factor. It wasn't so much a day-to-day thing, where guys weren't talking to each other and weren't practicing hard or were arguing with each other. It wasn't that. It was just the togetherness you have to have in tight games (was missing).

"I didn't realize it because my head was buried more into game-planning and plays."

Tedford's reaction? He hired offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who has focused on offense for 18 of his 19 seasons as an assistant coach.

We have no idea how good Cignetti will be, but it's his job to mine production from a talented offense.

Tedford has a new job. Same as the old job. Head coach. If he wins big, he'll redeem himself.

That second honeymoon is, oh, 10 wins away.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.