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Bear nightmare: In fifth season as Cal coach, ex-Cougar Holmoe is feeling the heat

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BERKELEY, Calif. — These are some of the newspaper headlines California coach Tom Holmoe awoke to last Sunday morning:

"Abysmal Beginning for Bears" — San Francisco Examiner

"Cal Just Unbearable" — Contra Costa Times

"Day of Disaster" — Oakland Tribune

So you're wondering how things are going for Holmoe, the former BYU defensive back who began his fifth season last Saturday as Cal's coach?

Brimming with confidence and hope entering the 2001 season, partly due to experienced players returning and partly due to the installation of a new offense, the Golden Bears opened with an embarrassing 44-17 loss to Illinois — the third-worst season-opening loss at home in school history.

"Well, you know that's not exactly what we had in mind for an opening game," the 41-year-old Holmoe said afterward. "If we had to script it, that would be our nightmare script."

For the past couple of years, the Tom Holmoe Dismissal Watch has been on in the Bay Area. In his four years he has yet to produce a winning season (his best campaign was 5-6 in 1998) and speculation about how long Holmoe will last has turned into a past time for some fans and media. That horrific defeat to Illinois placed the one topic Holmoe wanted to avoid this season — his job security — back on center stage.

Holmoe, who is now 15-30 overall and 9-23 in the Pac-10 since taking over for Steve Mariucci (who bolted to the San Francisco 49ers after just one season in Berkeley) in 1996, addressed his tenuous position prior to the season, knowing that the time to win is now. Or else.

"There's a real urgency, but all the pieces are in place," Holmoe said. "Our personnel is the best since I've been here. We've played some younger guys the past few years, but now they're veterans with experience in big games. Plus, we now have a coaching staff that I wouldn't trade for any staff in college football. Now we just need to go out and win some football games. We expect success."

Then came the loss to the Illini.

Now, as fate would have it, as Holmoe fights for his job, he faces his alma mater, BYU, on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. To add to the intrigue, Holmoe will be standing across the field from first-year Cougar coach Gary Crowton, who has the job that many believed would one day belong to Holmoe.

As speculation surfaced several years ago about LaVell Edwards' retirement plans, Holmoe's name surfaced as one of the leading candidates to replace Edwards. After all, he had the credentials BYU was looking for: a reputation as a solid recruiter, membership in the LDS Church and experience as a Division I head coach. Plus, he starred as a cornerback for the Cougars during the early 1980s, when BYU won four WAC championships, and later he earned three Super Bowl rings as a safety with the San Francisco 49ers. It was at BYU where Holmoe met his wife, where he was introduced to the LDS Church and where, as a graduate assistant in 1990, he launched his coaching career.

Holmoe was considered such a strong BYU candidate that Cal officials included a clause in his contract that prohibited him from becoming the coach at BYU for the first three years of his contract. The contract stated that, after January 2000, if Holmoe were to ask to leave Cal for BYU, Cal had the option to turn down that request. But last fall, not long after Edwards announced he would retire after the 2000 season, Holmoe signed a one-year contract through the 2002 season. That move put to rest any conjecture that he would return to Provo.

Meanwhile, Crowton began to emerge as a candidate to replace Edwards as he turned around the program at Louisiana Tech. Crowton and Holmoe coached against one another in 1997, when Louisiana Tech defeated Cal, 41-34.

Crowton became acquainted with Holmoe in 1982, when Crowton was a student assistant at BYU and Holmoe was a senior. After a successful seven-year NFL career, Holmoe became a graduate assistant at BYU in 1990. Holmoe later coached at Stanford under Bill Walsh, then he joined the 49ers' staff, where he won a fourth Super Bowl ring. In 1996, Mariucci hired Holmoe as his defensive coordinator. When Mariucci departed, it took Cal officials only two days to promote Holmoe to his first head coaching job. Interestingly, Crowton and Holmoe have the same agent.

"I think Tom Holmoe's an outstanding coach," Crowton said. "I know he went into a tough situation because Cal has great competition around them, they have academic restrictions and he was following somebody who had done really well, but not for a sustained period of time. That's always hard when a guy comes in and does well for a while and then, boom, he's gone. It's hard to sustain it. It's one of those jobs. He's getting it going in the right direction, he's doing it the right way, it just takes time."

But is time running out?

To some observers, Holmoe's firing is a foregone conclusion. A loss to BYU this week would only escalate that type of rhetoric by fans and the media.

"There will always be the darts and harpoons thrown at me and the players," Holmoe said. "That's where we have to pull together. There's no way we let one game deter the season."

Suffice it to say, the first day of the rest of Holmoe's coaching life at California is Saturday — against BYU.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com