The REAL Big Game – Why Washington Mattersby Nam Le on Nov, 01 2012
Even as the Bears roll through to the end of another disappointing – and likely bowl-less – season, one game still looms large on the schedule, a game that will be full of intense emotion, and fueled by a deep desire for revenge. It is a game that has been circled for months on the calendar of many a Cal fan, and even longer in the minds of Cal players.
But it is not the one you think it is.
That game is not against Oregon, even though the Bears are still seeking to avenge their devastating 15-13 loss from two seasons ago.
That game is not against Oregon State either, even though the Beavers ended Cal’s shot at a #1 ranking back in 2007 [don't those seem like the good old days now?].
No, that game will be played on November 2nd under the bright lights of Memorial Stadium – with the Washington Huskies on the other sideline. But to understand how a match-up between two middling Pac-12 programs got to be so important, you have to know the whole story. A story of hope. Promise. Potential. Betrayal.
Despite high academic standards, mediocre facilities and average results on the field, the Bears have recruited surprisingly well in recent seasons, with their classes regularly ranking among the top 25 in the country. Their success on that front was largely due to a little known name – former defensive line coach and recruiting ace Tosh Lupoi, who actually played for the Bears himself in the early 2000′s.
But what Lupoi had in anonymity, he made up for in results. Players he helped bring to Berkeley are everywhere on the 2-deep today. Names the blue and gold faithful all recognize: Keenan Allen, Brennan Scarlett, Chris McCain, Avery Sebastian, Richard Rodgers, Aaron Tipoti. That list, as expansive as it is, also leaves out his stockpiled talent still waiting in the wings.
But at the 2012 U.S. Army All American Bowl, Lupoi outdid himself.
That day, Cal was the talk of the college football world, securing commitments from 5 star defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy, 5 star safety Shaq Thompson, and 4 star receiver Jordan Payton on national television. Perhaps more impressively, they beat out the likes of more prestigious programs like Oregon, USC, Notre Dame and Alabama in doing so.
For many schools, any one of those names would have been considered a major victory.
The Bears had pulled in all three, adding them to a den already full of talented freshmen like Zach Kline and Bryce Treggs. Indeed, with Thompson and McCarthy in the fold, thoughts of a top 5 recruiting finish – the best in school history – were quietly being whispered.
Tosh pitched these players on the idea that Cal would eventually return to prominence, and it seemed that that return was getting closer than ever; the smell of Roses surely only a season or two away.
New stadium, new facilities, new talent – it was a Golden time, to say the least.
And just as quickly, those dreams fell apart. One morning in mid-January, Cal fans awoke to a headline ripped straight from their nightmares.
Tosh Lupoi had left for Washington.
It caught everybody off-guard, even program insiders. Rumors had begun to swirl in the day or two leading up to his departure, but many assumed that Lupoi’s Bay Area roots and time in the program would ensure his loyalty, that there was no way Cal would let him get away.
They were wrong.
The details of the negotiations remain murky, and differ depending on who you talk to. Tosh may or may not have broken a promise to stay, and a boat may or may not have been involved. But because both parties have since moved on, the true story may never come out.
What is clear is this: Lupoi left Berkeley for what was essentially the same position, remaining as a defensive line coach and recruiter up in Washington.
His departure sent ripples through the 2012 recruiting class, who had been bonded under the label of “#CalGang”. For many of those players, Lupoi was a large reason they had come to campus, and understandably, they did not want to be in Berkeley without him. Some, like McCarthy and receiver Kenny Walker, decommitted nearly immediately. Others, like defensive lineman Arik Armstead, were on the verge of committing to Cal but ended up elsewhere. Even players who were solid in their commitments flirted with other programs briefly.
The biggest loss, though, was Thompson, who would’ve been a starter from day one. After watching Alex Logan struggle badly through the season’s first three games, it is hard to think that a player of his athleticism and physicality wouldn’t have made a difference. Doubling the sting of his decommitment was the fact that Thompson came from blue and gold bloodlines – his brother Sydquan was a 4 year starter in Berkeley before moving on to the NFL.
Though both sidelines have downplayed the events of January, make no mistake – the Lupoi situation still matters, but not for his leaving. That much is expected in college football, a profession where staff turnover is as inevitable as the rain is in Berkeley. Rather, it is how suddenly it happened, and how quickly he began badmouthing his alma mater that is of note. After selling players on the greatness of Cal just a few days earlier, Lupoi was reported to be scaring those same players away from it when he became a Husky, effectively turning his back on a school he grew up with.
Friday marks Lupoi’s return to Berkeley, the first time he has returned to Memorial Stadium after bolting in early January. Many of the players – players he spent years recruiting and building relationships with – still remember the sting of having him leave without warning. And you can be sure it will be a motivator for them, no matter what they say publicly. There will be no excuse for coming out flat to this one.
With a win on Friday, the Bears could enjoy some well-deserved schadenfreude at the expense of the smug, smack talking Steve Sarkisian, and avenge two consecutive last second losses to the Huskies. Those are already worthy reasons in themselves, whether or not the team is bowl bound.
But more importantly, a win on Friday would be a win over the man who sold players on a future in Berkeley, only to be a sellout himself.
Author’s note: If you’re here from Dawgman, I just wanted to say that I’m humbled by your pageviews. Never had my work take off like this before. I want to be clear – I have nothing against your institution, or even Seattle, since Ichiro was the first player I ever liked in baseball. Just your DL coach. And your normal one.