THERE WERE maybe hundreds of conversations between us, the veteran football coach and the journalist covering his first major beat, with Bruce Snyder talking about everything from his love of jazz to the relevance of a lineman's backside.

Jazz music simultaneously soothed and inspired, he said, and good linemen tend to have big, broad butts.

For most of his time at Cal (1987-91), Snyder did the teaching and I did the learning.

Snyder, who died Monday at age 69 after a 10-month battle with melanoma, was a good football coach. He was not brilliant, didn't innovate or revolutionize. He was sound, solid and reliable.

He was, moreover, all of those things as a man — and more sensitive than I could have imagined.

An explanation is in order. Snyder and I got along fine during my years on the Cal beat. Speaking to him and others in the days before he was hired, I concluded he would be a good hire for a school reeling from the ineptitude and instability of the Joe Kapp era.

Sure enough, Snyder restored credibility. Whereas Kapp was outgoing and dramatic, prone to hyperbole, Snyder was reserved and serious and understated, spare with his wit.

Our relationship began to change in 1991, when I became a columnist determined not to let our personal ties preclude frank or unfavorable opinions.

Thus began the creation of tension.


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Snyder was at his best in '91, leading the Bears to a 10-2 record, an emphatic 37-13 win over Clemson in the Citrus Bowl and a No. 7 national ranking. It was a terrific response to the 1990 season, when Snyder led Cal to the Copper Bowl — the school's second bowl game in 32 years — and a win over Wyoming. After more than a decade of insignificance, this was proof of progress.

Within 48 hours of the Citrus Bowl win, Snyder left for Arizona State, which had better facilities, a bigger budget and — the clincher, perhaps — a greater commitment to sports.

Some of the Cal players felt abandoned. Snyder had spent previous days deflecting the ASU rumors, saying he was committed to getting a contract extension at Cal and continuing the work of trying to captivate an academic community apathetic to sports.

Then, too, there was disappointment within the ranks for not having heard firsthand from the coach they believed in. I wrote about how a man who had represented such steadfast virtue said he would stay but left anyway.

Snyder never forgave me. It was as if I had betrayed a friendship.

And believe me, we discussed it. During a trip to spring training a few years later, I phoned Snyder's ASU office to see if I could visit, hoping to provide an update for those who remembered him from his time in Berkeley. He declined, saying he didn't want to rehash old news. Besides, he added, I had been rather hard on him.

He wanted to stay at Cal, he said, but never got a clear signal the school would make good on an extension to which he had agreed. Athletic director Dave Maggard had resigned and was replaced by Bob Bockrath — who invited disaster by failing to lock up Snyder.

Typical for a class act, Snyder conveyed no real bitterness, never mentioned any of the other central characters.

Snyder did say he was hurt by what I wrote. I tried to explain that his departure hurt some of his players and that my intention was to show the collateral cost of a respected coach abruptly leaving.

Two men, once very cordial, were trying to explain the chill between them. I felt bad because I respected Snyder and thought his leaving dealt a harsh blow to a lot of young men. Snyder obviously realized that; his anguish was evident for most of the 20 minutes he spent telling me why I wasn't welcome in his office.

When I hung up, it felt like I'd stepped off the treadmill.

Among Cal head football coaches over the past half century, Snyder is second only to Jeff Tedford in building with integrity.

But Snyder was a much better man than coach. I regret that we never resolved our differences. He was honest, decent to the core. May he rest in peace.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.