Jeff Tedford couldn't believe the line of questioning.
It was November, 2006, and his Cal Golden Bears had won eight straight games. They had rolled to wins over Pacific 10 Conference rivals Oregon and UCLA, obstacles that were sometimes too tall to clear in the past.
Still, Tedford heard the question week after week and win after win: What happened at Tennessee?
"I can't get over it," he muttered barely minutes after Cal's conquest of UCLA. "I've never seen a loss with this kind of shelf life."
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His Bears opened the 2006 season with a 35-18 humbling in Knoxville, a nationally-televised embarrassment on Labor Day weekend. The Volunteers all but chased their guests back home, such was their dominance. Only after season's end did Tedford watch the televised account of his team's long night.
And he finally understood.
"I could see why," he said last week during a preseason press conference. "The commentary."
Mind you, Tedford doesn't blame network announcers who quickly labeled his team "overrated" and "not ready to play." Tedford no doubt blamed himself for his team's egg-laying in the deep South.
"We deserved everything that was said," Cal's sixth-year coach said. "I had forgotten we were down 35-0. I can't remember the last time we were down 35-0."
That's because it never had happened under Tedford's watch. His team, ranked ninth in preseason polls last year, simply wasn't competitive against a rank-and-file member of the powerful Southeastern Conference. It stung Cal, from trainer to Tedford, which figured its program had grown beyond such humiliation.
"After I watched it, it was an embarrassing moment and we deserved to have that stick with us for a while," he said. "We had a lot of ground to make up after that game."
That Cal recovered for a 10-3 season — finishing with a rout of Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl — says something about what Tedford and Company have built in Berkeley.
But as practice begins this week for the 2007 season, Tedford says there is much unfinished business about his program, his team, and a certain opponent dropping into Strawberry Canyon on Sept. 1.
Remember the distance Cal has traveled under Tedford. The five years before he arrived, the Bears went 12-43, a hapless run which lowered them to nearly the bottom of Division IA. With Tedford in tow the last five years, they're 43-20 with four bowl appearances (three wins), record-setting attendance and coast-to-coast recognition.
Cal, ranked 12th and picked to place second behind USC, again is expected to be formidable. For the first time in Tedford's tenure, the Bears return a quarterback (Nate Longshore) who started every game the previous season.
The Bears even claimed a share of their first Pac-10 championship in 28 years, though they backed into it courtesy of UCLA's shocking win over the Trojans. Still, the cover of Cal's media guide features the league co-title, proof that the Bears didn't exactly throw the trophy off the Campanile.
"But we're not satisfied by any means," Tedford said. "We're still very driven and motivated to win the conference championship outright and strive for a national championship."
He could have thrown in the words "Rose Bowl," a place the Bears haven't visited on New Year's Day in nearly a half-century. Then again, that goal is a given.
I think Cal's upcoming date against the Volunteers falls into the same category. Credit the Bears for their bounceback in 2006, but they can't salve such a wound two years in a row. Tedford insisted he lost no sleep after the Tennessee loss because he simply knew his team had an off-night, and the rest of the season proved his point.
But another disappointment against the Vols, this one on home turf, will not be acceptable. This is not a routine season opener. Cal's new image as a major player in football will be measured. It's probably earned a mulligan, but it can't whiff this time.
Each one of the Bears, from star receiver DeSean Jackson to linebacker/special teams standout Justin Moye (Central Catholic), knows they must be credible in the rematch.
And so does Tedford.
"People ask about revenge," he said. "It's not revenge. It's redemption."