Remember the Big Game? Whatever happened to the buzz that used to sweep the Bay Area when Stanford and Cal were preparing to tee it up for razzing rights for the rest of the year?
Oh sure, they still are going to play. This year's game is set for tomorrow afternoon in Berkeley, but where's the buzz? Where's the woofing? Sure the two teams are hardly competing for the national championship, but that's been true before. Memorial Stadium isn't even sold out. Is this the Big Game or the Big Yawn? Where are the pranks?
Actually, we have the answer to that last question. There was a prank, a classic mascot-napping in the time-honored tradition of the Big Game, but the fun was squashed right out of it by over-zealous officials at both schools.
To review, a group of alleged Cal students allegedly broke into the Stanford "Band Shak," then made off with the famous Stanford Tree costume. The group, calling itself the "Phoenix Five," not only issued a statement saying that "the act was done in good humor" and that it would not harm the tree, but furnished a perfect spirit-of-the-Big Game hostage photo showing the Tree wearing a blindfold.
This, of course, is the sort of thing that has been going on in this rivalry for... oh... 100 years. In the late '80s, a stuffed, six-foot Kodiak bear was swiped from a Cal building and several demands were issued until it was discovered, chained to a fountain at the Embarcadero Center.
And that is not to mention the lore of the axe. Stories of elaborate setups designed to steal the axe are recalled faithfully every year at this time. It is all part of the fabric of the history of the Big Game.
Not, however, if UC Chancellor Robert Berdahl has anything to say about it. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Berdahl reacted as if the Phoenix Five had taken Chelsea Clinton hostage.
Berdahl called the act "outright theft" and demanded an immediate return of the costume. Also weighing in was Stanford police Captain Raoul Niemeyer, who announced that because the Tree costume was valued at more than $1,000 and because damage was done to the Band Shak during the break-in, the responsible parties would be guilty of "a felony."
(This immediately raised a few questions. First, $1,000 for three hula hoops and a few yards of green cloth? And second, having seen the notoriously unkempt Band Shak, how did anyone realize that any damage had been done?)
In response, the Tree issued a statement, saying, "I am sick of the Farm. The Phoenix Five have introduced me to the outside world."
Niemeyer was unamused.
"There is nothing about this that is a joke," he harrumphed. "If you do the crime, you do the time."
It all played out like a bad episode of "Dragnet." Eventually, the higher-ups put such a squeeze on the students threatening prosecution that they meekly returned the Tree. Therefore, everything was preserved except for a sense of humor, which was supposed to be the point in the first place.
There isn't any question about Berdahl's motives. He's concerned about the dustups on the field among the fans after the past two Big Games, and he wanted to make sure the rivalry doesn't turn ugly.
With the game in Berkeley this year, and with Stanford fans dreading the long walk to the stadium through catcalls (and worse) from the fraternity and sorority houses, Berdahl was attempting to head off problems before they began. He even met with student leaders from the Greek system, urging them to treat the Big Game "as a real class event, and demonstrate what kind of university we really are."
No offense, Chancellor, but this is exactly the kind of university you are offbeat and zany, with a dash of anarchy thrown in for good measure. Fistfights on the field are one thing. A Tree-napping is exactly the kind of inspired tomfoolery that has made this rivalry fun.
Tonight, for example, Gerhard Casper, the formidable scholar who is president of Stanford University, will play a small role in one of the "gaieties," the cornball skits that are traditional during Big Game week. We do not know President Casper's part, but it is doubtful that it will lead to a career on Broadway.
"The plot is always the same," said professor of biological sciences Donald Kennedy, the former Stanford president who put in his time in gaieties productions. "There is some underhanded plot to steal the axe by the Cal weenies."
Of course, when it comes to Big Game nonsense, Cal is no slouch. Some students still recall the sight of then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien an internationally known scholar and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work in the field of heat transfer technology wearing what was described as "a huge foam football helmet" after the 1993 Cal win at Stanford.
From the blue-and-gold mice that were released in the Stanford library (red mice soon appeared in the stacks at Cal) to the Stanford football helmet clamped on the head of the large statue of Father Junipero Serra on Interstate 280 in 1985, these are two schools willing to go the extra offbeat mile.
Luckily, the spirit of the Big Game transcends even over-zealous administrators. When the Tree costume was returned to Stanford, Cardinal fans handled the situation perfectly. The Tree appeared at the next game, against USC, but at halftime it was announced that the costume was "contaminated" by the time it spent in Cal hands. A wood chipper was produced, and that version of the tree was shredded. A new, improved tree took its place.
Which, it seems, showed much more perspective than Captain Neimeyer. This is the 101st Big Game, and a remarkable good humor has endured. Sure, there were some punches thrown at the end of the past two games, but that is hardly the first time. There were reports of a few black eyes and "a torn suit," in one of the most famous appearances by the axe, at a baseball game in 1899.
Much has changed in Big Game week. The enormous Stanford bonfire, which endangered the lives of tiger salamanders at Lake Lagunita, has been moved and scaled down. There was a time when the boosters took over San Francisco on the Friday night before the game, with reports of the pep bands playing from the roofs of streetcars.
Those days are gone, but the Big Game endures, still a big enough event that a couple of teams who have won only seven games between them nearly can fill a football stadium. No, it doesn't make much sense, but that's part of the point. It is worth leaving a little room in our lives for high spirits and tomfoolery. The Big Game, Chancellor Berdahl, is just our annual reminder.
©1998 San Francisco Chronicle