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CAL AND STANFORD FOOTBALL FANS WERE USED TO BEING FORSAKEN IN THEIR PROGRAMS' rush to create more revenue, subjected to eye-popping premium-seat donation demands, "TBA" kickoff times and a glut of night games, which has, in Stanford's case, transformed what were once blissful, sun-dappled Saturday afternoons of tailgating in the eucalyptus grove to shivering huddles in the forested dark, beer in one hand, flashlight in the other.
Yet nobody thought it would come to this. Last January the Pac-12 released its 2012 schedule, and there was the unthinkable: The Big Game, the annual matchup between the Cardinal and the Golden Bears that is one of college football's longest-tenured and most-storied rivalries, had been wrenched from its traditional week-before-Thanksgiving date and shoehorned into October 20, a casualty of scheduling complications stemming from the Pac-12's expanded membership and lucrative new television contract. Fans on both sides of the Bay fumed.
Some hope that this is a one-time travesty, the Bay Area's turn at a sacrifice that will eventually be asked of Los Angeles, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. But there is no mollifying Peter Setzer, Cal '87. "I could not be more opposed to this move," says Setzer, an East Bay businessman who has attended the Big Game at least 30 times. "The Big Game either makes my Thanksgiving or ruins it. Having it in October is wrong. It's like having Christmas in July."
Like Christmas, the Big Game is preceded by weeks of anticipation and high hopes. As bad as either team might be in a given year, a Big Game win means salvation. "Even if you're 2--8 going in, a win over Stanford would make everything right," says Oakland lawyer David Waters, Cal '73.
In the week before the showdown there are rallies, pranks and plots to steal the Stanford Axe, the Big Game trophy that resides at the school that won it last. There are campaigns such as Cal's Get the Red Out, which allows students who thoughtlessly brought red clothing to campus to trade them in for blue T-shirts. There are rivalry matchups in other sports, such as the Big Splash (men's water polo), the Big Spike (women's volleyball) and the Ink Bowl, in which the staffs of The Daily Californian and The Stanford Daily battle in flag football for the X-Acto Knife trophy. Stanford students perform Gaieties, a theatrical farce centered on a Big Game theme. Not only does the October date mean a month less time to create, rehearse and produce the spectacle, says Gary Tyrrell, Stanford '83, "now they have to tell jokes the freshmen [can] get after being on campus just three-and-a-half weeks."
Along with being a season-ticket holder, Tyrrell is a Cardinal legend, the trombone player whom Cal defensive back Kevin Moen mowed down in the end zone at the end of the 1982 Big Game, the punctuation mark to the crazy, five-lateral kickoff return that begun with four seconds left, won the game for Cal and became immortalized as the Play. Every year since, the Stanford Band has named its next year's manager with four ticks left on the Big Game clock. Now what? "Do they do it at the Rose Bowl?" asks Tyrrell, ever the optimist.
The Stanford Band, like the water polo teams, the newspaper staffs and the Stanford thespians, will grudgingly adjust to this new TV-enforced reality and hope the Big Game's dislocation doesn't happen again. "Of course I'll be there," says Tyrrell. "You want to take them on any day of the week and kick their tails."
The Big Game on any day of the week? In an era of change in college football, could that be next?