Golden Bears rally behind the flag of the Golden State

The state of California is famous for many of its features -- sandy beaches, dramatic coastline, palm trees, and redwood forests are some of the common postcard images associated with the Golden State. The fame of Hollywood, the innovation of Silicon Valley, and the agricultural muscle of the Central Valley are also commonly used to capture the state's essence.

But if there's something one doesn't immediately associate with California, it's that rah-rah, state pride zeal of other states, all bundled up and thrust in support of a college football team. With 840 miles of coastline, jagged mountains, vast deserts, and three culturally distinct major metropolitan areas, it can seem that the state is just too big for that type of unification.

But when Sonny Dykes, a native Texan, took over as Cal's football coach, he saw matters differently. In 2013, he started a program tradition that's catching fire: Every game, a different Golden Bears' player leads his team out of the tunnel hoisting the California state flag.

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought it made sense," Dykes said. "We're the flagship university of the state. Most of our kids are from California and we wanted to develop a sense of pride in being the University of California."

The Golden Bears were down in the dumps when Dykes first arrived. The program struggled mightily in the final stretch of the Jeff Tedford era, and the Bears finished 1-11 in Dykes' first season. Dykes says that re-establishing a greater sense of purpose was a critical first step in revitalizing a culture of success in Berkeley.

"Our fight song is 'Fight for California,'" he said. "And that's symbolic. That's what a team is all about. It's about sticking together -- a unified goal. And the California flag represents that, too. Anything we can do to galvanize our players and our program is a good thing."

The Bears aren't shy about touting their university's position as the flagship campus of the University of California system. The institution is the oldest in the UC system, so its football team believes that the California flag represents its impact beyond just Berkeley.

"It has a lot to do with taking pride of where you're from," safety Stefan McClure said. "It's the Golden State, and we're the Golden Bears. We're representing California as a whole."

The Bears select a different player to carry the state flag before every game. Offensive lineman Chris Borrayo, a California native, got the nod two weeks ago in Austin.

"It was the biggest honor I've ever gotten," he beamed.

Dykes' home state, of course, is known for its Lone Star pride, so Borrayo's hard charge onto the field amidst a sea of Longhorns burnt orange made for a memorable visual.

"There was a real sense of pride for me when he charged out of the tunnel with the flag in Texas," Dykes said. "I thought that was pretty awesome."

Bears supporters agree, so the tradition is expanding beyond the football team. Ken Montgomery, a Cal alumnus and high tech executive who travels to all of the Bears' road games, saw Borrayo's sprint in Austin and immediately bought a big California flag of his own. He had it sent to Seattle, the location of Cal's next game. He's now helping organize a crowdfunding effort to support the purchase of a huge 30-foot-by-50-foot state flag for the Bears' student section at Memorial Stadium.

"When we saw the team use the California state flag, we loved the simplicity and elegance of how it immediately connects Cal with the state it represents," Montgomery said.

The team has embraced this enthusiasm on the way to its 5-0 start. At least two versions of the California flag will be present at Utah this weekend -- one for the charge out of the tunnel, and one in the stands.

"People are excited about it," offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee said. "The flag symbolizes what we're about, the team is doing well, and it's all come a long way the past couple years."