It was a selling job from the first day, when Dave Barr looked around the huddle and saw Sean Dawkins, who would become an All-American, and Russell White, whom California was touting for the Heisman Trophy.
They had been bullied for two years by Mike Pawlawski, but Pawlawski had left for the NFL.
Now, here was Barr, a quiet sophomore who had proved nothing, simply trying to get time on the practice field and beat Perry Klein for the quarterback job.
“What could I tell those guys? I didn’t feel I had any right to tell them anything. I had to establish my right,” Barr says.
“He’s not vocal,” says Randy Autentico, who had coached Barr at Concord High in the Bay Area. “You’re not going to get a lot of one-liners from him.”
Instead, Barr would rather lead by example, but as Cal began season preparations a year ago, there was no example, save for a few snaps in garbage time as a freshman and that shown at Concord. And who cares about high school when you have Pacific 10 Conference teams to beat?
“I had to prove things to myself,” Barr says. “I had had a few plays the year before, and it was an adrenaline rush just to hand the ball off in a college game. What was it going to be like to throw a pass?”
He found out quickly, once he had convinced the new Cal coach, Keith Gilbertson, to give him the No. 1 job. He threw touchdown passes in his first two series and for 175 yards against San Jose State. After a stumble against Purdue, Cal beat Kansas and Oregon State. The Bears were 3-1 with a sophomore quarterback who knew the way to the end zone, even if he chose not to describe the route.
“I’d rather walk the walk than talk the talk,” is the way Barr describes it.
Then the Bears’ wheels came off, and Cal finished 4-7. White was injured, and the running game sputtered. Still, Barr finished the season with 199 completions in 344 attempts for 2,343 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions. Klein ended up transferring to C.W. Post, a Division III school in Brookville, N.Y.
No Cal sophomore, not Troy Taylor or Pawlawski or Steve Bartkowski or Joe Kapp or Craig Morton, had thrown for as many yards. Only Pawlawski had thrown for as many touchdowns in a season.
A great season? It was, Barr says, miserable.
“It was such a bad season,” he says. “Everything we tried went sour. A lot of the time football just wasn’t fun. I didn’t know what to expect that first game because I had never been hit in a college football game, and then everything went so well that we had high expectations.
“It would have been a good year if we had gone 10-2, but we didn’t win. I had only lost three games in my four years in high school, and I figured we lost last year and I was the quarterback, so it was my responsibility.”
Gilbertson disagrees. “He played well, but I wasn’t always so sure about the people around him,” he says.
That’s the way it has always been with Barr, says Autentico. “People don’t understand Dave,” he says. “He’s always been his own worst critic. I’ve told him often, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself,’ but it doesn’t do any good. There’s nothing a coach can say or anybody can write in the paper that he hasn’t already told himself.”
Says Barr: “My parents kind of instilled it in me. They kind of lived by the adage: You never learn anything while talking.
“I can’t sit back and say ‘I am great,’ or even ‘I am a good player.’ That’s just not me.”
Others aren’t as shy.
“I never coached a quarterback as good as he is,” Autentico says. “At Concord High, he called his own formations, his own pass routes and then checked off the plays. Dave has such a fire in him to learn the game that he was always asking ‘Why? Why did the defense do this or do that?’ ”
That curiosity helped Barr, then a senior, throw eight touchdown passes in three quarters during a 60-0 victory over College Park High.
A shoulder separation had cost him three games during that season, and opportunities to play college football dwindled a bit. He visited Texas A&M;, Southern Methodist, San Diego State and Oregon before deciding to stay home and play at Cal.
It’s a decision the Bears have learned to appreciate.
Barr goes into the season opener Saturday night against UCLA at the Rose Bowl a more confident, comfortable quarterback. It’s his team now. Dawkins is gone to the NFL, and, though he caught 14 touchdown passes, there are receivers to take his place.
White is also gone. The big names have left; Barr is the name now, uncomfortable with acclaim, but satisfied that he will feel better about football at season’s end.
For one thing, Barr is more familiar with the offense , though Gilbertson continually adds things to the mix. For another, “I feel a lot more comfortable on a personal level,” says Barr. “I want the ball in my hand, and I want to win.”
It’s a goal that transcends statistics, save for the bottom line. “I want Cal to get the respect back, to go to a good bowl game and to play football the way Cal played,” he says. “You have to take it personal. I’m part of it. I’m the quarterback.”
The example has been set. Now it’s time to lead.