Jeff Tedford in his debut season at Cal in 2002 had Michigan State. Jim Harbaugh five years later at Stanford had USC.
But what has first-year Cal coach Sonny Dykes' team achieved this season that might provide a spark for the program's future?
So far, nothing tangible. At 1-10 and without a win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, Dykes and the Bears have one more chance to make a splash.
"If we beat Stanford," linebacker Michael Barton said, "we'll have a lot of steam rolling into next year."
But as 32-point underdogs Saturday, the Bears are the biggest long shot in Big Game history.
Tedford and Harbaugh both won the Big Game in their first season, but not before victories that provided momentum and belief.
Tedford inherited a 1-10 Cal squad and by Week 3 of the 2002 season had posted a resounding 46-22 road upset of No. 15 Michigan State. The Bears went on to a 7-5 record, and two years later they were 10-2 with a No. 9 national ranking.
In 2007, Harbaugh took over a Stanford team that won just once the year before. The Cardinal was 1-3 and coming off a 38-point loss when it visited Los Angeles to face a second-ranked USC team that had won 35 consecutive home games.
A 41-point underdog, Stanford pulled off one of college football's biggest upsets, winning 24-23 on a last-minute touchdown pass. Three years later, Stanford went 12-1, won the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh was hired by the 49ers.
"That game was the start," former Stanford safety Austin Yancy said in a 2009 interview with this newspaper. "That was the first glimpse of the possibilities for this program."
Dykes and Cal have not had that moment this season -- a glimpse of what they hope their future can become.
They have lost nine straight games, extending droughts against Pac-12 opponents (13 straight) and FBS teams (15). Most Saturdays, the Bears haven't even sniffed victory. The average margin of their 10 defeats: 23.2 points.
In some ways, their season is more comparable to what Mike MacIntyre experienced in his first year at San Jose State in 2010.
Working with a roster reduced by NCAA academic sanctions and further depleted by injuries, the Spartans lost 48-3 to No. 1 Alabama in their opener and finished 1-12. They didn't beat an FBS team and lost their final 10 games.
But the Spartans were competitive late that season, losing by margins of two, four, seven and three points in overtime in four of their final five games, albeit against the second tier of the Western Athletic Conference.
MacIntyre, now in his first season at Colorado, said the absence of a signature victory was a hindrance but not a death knell to their dreams. Two years later, the Spartans were 11-2.
"You do what you always do -- keep building trust in young men, being positive with them, being firm," he said. "They start to believe, and their work ethic on the practice field and off the field all ends up culminating in a victory. And that validates what you're doing."
Dykes says there has been progress, even if it's not evident on game days.
"It's hard to see that when you're not around our players all the time," he said. "It's guys doing the right things off the field, being good students, being good teammates, caring about each other.
"The culture of working together is really critical. That's what makes good teams."
Sophomore wide receiver Bryce Treggs said the Bears have refused to give in to the losing.
"We practice like an undefeated team," he said. "The one thing we can take without any victories is our work ethic. We just need to learn how to transfer that work ethic to game day."
Dykes came to Cal from Louisiana Tech, where he won only six of his first 17 games. But the Bulldogs put together seven straight wins to close the 2011 regular season, sparking a run of 16 victories in 18 games.
"It didn't happen as fast as you'd like. You want to come in and sprinkle some dust and make it happen -- that doesn't last," Dykes said. "Rebuilding's tough, it takes time."
That was Harbaugh's message in a 2009 interview with this newspaper about Stanford's budding success. "Everything we've been through -- everything -- has built us to what we are, the good and the bad, the horrible and the great."
Even if "horrible" best describes this Cal season, Dykes believes a foundation is being laid. The road ahead includes hours in the weight room and on the recruiting trail, and probably more game-day frustrations.
"We know at some point we'll get the results on the field," Dykes said. "The results are the last thing that happens. We're hoping to get them Saturday."
WHAT'S ON THE LINE?
A Cal victory averts a winless Pac-12 slate and gives Bears a huge win in otherwise disappointing season.
Stanford leads 58-46-11. The Cardinal has won the past three meetings, including 21-3 last season at Berkeley. Cal's most recent Big Game victory was 34-28 at Stanford in 2009.
still seeking first win vs. an FBS team.