Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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  • Cal players take the field during the grand reopening of renovated Memorial Stadium. The celebratory mood soured as Nevada knocked off the Bears 31-24.

  • Kristopher Skinner / Contra Costa Times

    Freshman long snapper Duke Moran participates in Cal's first practice at renovated Memorial Stadium. The project began 21 months ago. "It feels like … forever," Bears coach Jeff Tedford said.

  • Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Cal unveils and unravels

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

BERKELEY – Clean it, polish it, make it safer. Issue bonds for a $321 million stadium renovation, or about $70 million less than the estimated costs of Sacramento's failed downtown sports and entertainment complex.

But a stadium is still just a stadium. Lipstick only conceals so many blemishes. For Cal's Bears, playing their first game at spruced-up Memorial Stadium after a season at AT&T Park, very little of what happened Saturday afternoon was part of the plan.

Costly fumbles. Recurring miscommunications. Critical penalties.

Quarterback Zach Maynard responding to his early benching – dictated after he missed a tutorial in June – with an erratic performance. Most importantly, there was that final score: a bruising, embarrassing, stunning 31-24 loss to Nevada, the visitors from Reno.

Yep, them again.

"I'm sorry we didn't play better. We let the fans down," a subdued Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We weren't sharp. Obviously, this is a setback, and we have to treat it as a temporary setback."

If the Bears had a lousy ending – and they allowed the Wolf Pack to score with 36 seconds left – the start was an absolute momentum killer. By the time Maynard replaced backup Allan Bridgford late in the opening quarter, Cody Fajardo had driven the Wolf Pack 80 yards for a touchdown and pretty much ruined the mood. This was supposed to be a party, a reunion, not the return of Colin Kaepernick.

Twenty-one months away from home is an eternity for a program that began scheduling games here in 1923. And it's not as if 2010 was a year to remember anyway: Tedford's first losing season; Kaepernick's five-touchdown domination in Reno; and a 16-13 loss to the Washington Huskies in the pre-retrofit finale on Nov. 27, 2010.

More recent history includes a 2011 season that was spent squeezing into temporary digs at AT&T Park, baseball's crown jewel and a terrific megaconcert venue, but a far-from-idyllic facility for college football.

So while the Bears couldn't wait to get back home, they played as if they had forgotten what the place looked like. A few hints: the concourses are wider and the modern amenities more extensive; and the rickety wooden seats have been replaced by aluminum. But not everything has changed. The stadium offers one of the most arresting settings in college sports.

Budget-conscious students still congregate on Tightwad Hill. The morning fog still cloaks the trees in nearby Strawberry Canyon, on this day at least, burning off just before kickoff. The views of the Bay and The City are still expansive and majestic, and pretty much obstruction-free.

That historic façade – reminiscent of Rome's Colosseum – also was retained.

And for a kicker, the place not only is as safe as possible considering its proximity to the Hayward Fault (think very, very, very close), the project planners came in on budget.

"College sports is about tradition and history, and I think this looks and feels exactly the same," said Cal assistant athletic director Bob Milano, adding that "no public money was used. All the revenues that come into athletics – television, tickets, donations – have to pay off the debt."

All of these massive financial undertakings, of course, are accompanied with heightened pressure to win. Tedford finally got his improved facilities, which supposedly improves his ability to recruit the caliber of Shaq Thompson and Arik Armstead, which supposedly enhances his ability to make the Bears again relevant in the Pacific-12 Conference, which supposedly leads to greater satisfaction and more donations from the school's large and lusty fan base.

But after Saturday's stunning loss, Tedford, in his 11th season, probably won't argue that our state's job security and pension plans are excessive.

His Bears return six starters on defense and six on offense. Keenan Allen. Isi Sofele. Deandre Coleman. The talented Maynard, who has known for months he would not start in the opener. They weren't supposed to lose to the Wolf Pack for the second time in three seasons, certainly not in a home opener, and definitely not in the inaugural game of the new/old Memorial Stadium.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Email: avoisin@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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