How to Build a Dynasty
With seasoned coaches, savvy recruiting and its own market niche, Stanford dominates college sports.
Photo: Art Streiber
By Jeff Brazil
Even today, Don Shaw can't forget his disappointment. It was 1984, and he had just been named coach of the women's volleyball team at Stanford. His top priority: recruiting. He set his sights on the No. 1-ranked high school player in the country. If he could just get her, he thought, he could clear a spot in Maples Pavilion for a national championship banner.
But the admission office had a different idea. The player just didn't have the grades. Shaw's reaction? "You mean, after I pulled my hand out of the wall?" he says, only half-kidding. Actually, Shaw wondered if the University's hyperselective admission process would prevent him from ever fielding a team that could compete for a national title.
He didn't have to wonder long. Over the next 15 years, Shaw's teams won four NCAA volleyball titles; in 1991 he was named national coach of the year. Since 1990, his teams have won an astounding 91 percent of their matches. Along the way, Shaw has learned not to argue with the admission office. Not only because he can't win, he says, but because it's become clear that the one thing that most people believed would hamper Stanford athletics -- the University's high academic standards -- has in fact become a key to its success. How's that? Well, as former provost and three-sport season ticket holder Condoleezza Rice puts it, "We use our great academic tradition to matriculate a high percentage" of the best student-athletes. (More on that later.)
In fact, the Cardinal has erected the most impressive athletics program in the country. Stanford rules college sports the same way it does, say, Internet start-ups and the Supreme Court -- through sheer numbers. "They've built a tremendous profile in sports," says John Heisler, an assistant athletics director at Notre Dame, a school that knows a thing or two about building an athletics powerhouse.
Which brings us to the Sears Directors' Cup, awarded annually to the school with the best overall sports program nationwide. It's summer, you see, and that means Stanford has claimed the Sears Cup. Again. That's five in a row for those of you keeping score at home, and the folks at the Sears Cup, frankly, would not mind one bit if another school, any school, stepped up to take the title away from Stanford.
"It's a sticky situation," allows Phil Worth of the Sears Cup program. So sticky, he says, there is pressure to "modify" the scoring system so one school (read: Stanford) can't dominate. But such a move, Worth concedes, would invite controversy. "It's like the NFL [National Football League] -- if you ask them, 'Would you like to have one team winning the Super Bowl every year?' No, you'd like to see some parity. But you don't want to see [the NFL commissioner] hamstringing one team's halfback."
For now, Sears Cup points are based on each school's finish in up to 20 sports -- 10 for men and 10 for women. A national championship is worth 100 points. A second-place finish in most sports is worth 80 points, and so on. In the 1998-99 year, Stanford racked up 970 points. The closest competitor was the University of Georgia with 720, followed by Penn State, the University of Florida, UCLA and Duke. The Sears Cup people are taking solace that the point gap, though huge, is "closer than it has been in previous years," Worth says. After all, Stanford won the Cup last year by a margin of 1,010 to 660.
Indeed, the fifth consecutive Cup comes to the Farm in what was not exactly a banner year for Stanford athletics. After earning an NCAA-record six national titles in 1996-97 and five more in 1997-98, Stanford notched just one NCAA victory this year -- women's tennis (see page 42). But fully 16 other Stanford teams finished in the NCAA top 10, including second-place finishes by men's and women's swimming, men's water polo, men's soccer, men's cross country, and men's indoor and outdoor track and field. The men's baseball team finished tied for third, advancing to the semi-finals of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., before losing to Florida State on June 18. That so many teams had such strong seasons testifies to the breadth of Stanford athletics. "The amazing thing about their program is that they score so well in every sport," says Rick Brewer, sports information director at the University of North Carolina. UNC claimed the inaugural Sears Cup in 1993 and remains the only school besides Stanford to ever win it. "Stanford," says Brewer, "is way above everybody else."
But why? Here, according to coaches, athletics officials, University administrators, players and rivals, are 10 reasons behind Stanford's winning ways.
1. SMART JOCKS
Stanford is the school of choice for the scholar-athlete. In the four classes entering the University from 1994 to 1997, the average freshman male athlete had logged a 3.73 high school GPA and a 1,215 SAT score, according to NCAA statistics. Female freshman athletes during the same period had a 3.87 GPA and a 1,151 SAT score. By comparison, the averages for all Division 1 schools combined were 2.97 and 997 for males and 3.29 and 1,007 for females. At Duke University, another school known for academics as well as athletics, incoming freshman male athletes had a 3.46 GPA and an SAT of 1,103, while females had a 3.51 grade-point and a 1,090 test score.
Simply put, if you're one of those rare students who excel both in the classroom and in the gym, the Farm is the place to be. Athletics director Ted Leland, PhD '83, refers to this edge as Stanford's "marketing niche." It's a niche, Leland adds, "that's almost impossible to beat." Consider Regan Freuen, captain of four high school teams (soccer, track, tennis, basketball) who was recruited to play basketball by Stanford, UCLA, the University of Arizona and Notre Dame. She graduated from Stanford in June -- earning bachelor's and master's degrees and twice being named Pac-10 player of the week in her senior year. Why'd she choose Stanford? "You can't compete with the athletics and you can't beat the academics."
All these bright students make for smart athletes. In fact, some coaches see a correlation between performance in the classroom and, say, in the pool. Richard Quick, the women's swimming coach for the last 11 years, says the better students tend to be the better swimmers: "It's always helped me to coach good students, and Stanford takes care of that for me."
Many athletes balance schoolwork and sports by sneaking in study time whenever they can find a break. Volleyball coach Shaw had to implement a "study curfew" for players who insisted on working right up to game time -- at times even schlepping textbooks to the bench. Baseball coach Mark Marquess, '69, says his athletes routinely break out their laptops on the plane to and from games. On the basketball team, there's a player whose pregame preparation includes studying in the locker room in full uniform. "Every place I've been has great students, but all the kids here are motivated," says men's basketball coach Mike Montgomery. "That's why they're here in the first place."
2. RECRUITING PROWESS
Of course there's a downside to having stringent academic standards. Stanford can only choose from an elite pool of student-athletes each year. Take football, for example: of the nation's 250 best players, about 30 typically meet the University's admission standards. In men's basketball, there are fewer than 15 top-ranked players a year who can possibly win admission to Stanford. In women's swimming, that number shrinks to about 10.
The task, then, is disarmingly simple: lure to Stanford those top athletes who do qualify for admission. For the class entering this fall, Stanford identified 29 student-athletes as its top targets. The results: 27 will be enrolling. That includes all 16 football players considered the team's best prospects. Moreover, says Leland, 14 students identified as the top national high school athletes in their respective sports will be coming to Stanford. Says Rice: "We're competing for some very, very rare people. . . . We've been very successful [recruiting] that relatively small percentage of students who can both play Pac-10 sports and do Stanford academics."
3. COACHES WHO STAY
Stanford attracts great coaches, provides them with top resources and, for the most part, keeps them on the job for years. Of Stanford's 24 head coaches in sports that anoint NCAA champions, 12 have won NCAA titles. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, three Stanford coaches led U.S. teams -- Tara VanDerveer (women's basketball), Richard Quick (women's swimming) and Skip Kenney (men's swimming). That kind of track record brings credibility and visibility to their programs -- which, of course, helps in recruiting.
Some of the winningest coaches have long Stanford tenures (see chart, below). In fact, the combined service of the 12 coaches who have won NCAA titles at Stanford is 221 years -- an average tenure of 18.4 years. Their longevity resonates with would-be recruits. After all, players prefer not to contend with a new leader midway through their Stanford careers. "You know going in that the coach has been here and is going to be here," says basketball player Jarron Collins, who was recruited by every top basketball program coming out of high school. "You look at the people the coaches have produced and developed -- Brevin Knight and Adam Keefe and Tim Young -- and it gives you confidence." Collins, who enters his junior year in the fall, also talks of the deep bonds that develop between player and coach. When the Stanford Daily ran an April Fool's story this year stating that basketball coach Montgomery was bolting to the National Basketball Association, there was panic on the team. "Some of the players were ready to call their parents," says Collins.
Coaches, for their part, credit the players for keeping their jobs interesting and rewarding. "It's hard to beat the type of student-athletes we get to work with," says Marquess, who has logged 23 years as baseball coach. "It's a very special place. That's why we all stay so long."
The Daunting Dozen
Twelve current Stanford coaches have led their teans to one or more NCAA titles
|Dick Gould||M Tennis||33||16||Assistant football coach at Mountain View High School in the early 1960's|
|Frank Brennan||W Tennis||20||10||His farther taught tennis to Jimmy Carter and Billie Jean King|
|Dante Dettamanti||M Water Polo||23||7||Makes and sells wine at his vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains|
|Skip Kenney||M Swimming & Diving||20||7||Won 18 straight Pac-10 titles, breaking John Wooden's record of 13 at UCLA|
|Richard Quick||W Swimming & Diving||11||7||Skip Kerney's son, Rich, named for him|
|Don Shaw||W Volleyball||15||4||Lived in a van with his dog, Boswell, when he arrived as assiatant coach|
|Sadao Hamada||M Gymnastics||27||3||Avid golfer with a 4 handicap|
|Vin Lananna||Track/X-Country||7||3||As promised, shaved 15-year-old beard when the Cardinal beat Cal in 1997|
|Mark Marquess||Baseball||23||2||Big Meet, ending a 25-year drought, Played football and baseball at Stanford in the 1960's|
|Tara VanDerveer||M Basketball||13||2||Her '96 Olympic team shot hoops with justices O'Connor and Ginsburg at fourth-floor Supreme Court Gymnasium, dubbed highest court in the land|
|Wally Goodwin||M Golf||12||1||Named his son Putter|
|Ruben Nieves||M Vollyball||9||1||Was a settler and defensive specialist at Stanford 1980-81|
4. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Many students choose Stanford for its beauty and mild climate. Athletes, of course, are no exception. Let's say your sport is baseball or tennis or swimming or water polo or cross country -- all of which, incidentally, are perennial top finishers for Stanford. Where better to train year-round? Baseball practice, for example, begins in September on a day set by the NCAA and followed by all schools. But in winter, while the team at Ohio State is using batting cages in a gym, the Cardinal is in Sunken Diamond, where the pitchers are throwing off a real mound and the infielders are scooping grounders off real dirt. Even those who play indoor sports appreciate the setting. "They call it the Farm, and there's a reason for that," says Collins, who grew up in Los Angeles. "It's a very beautiful campus."
Then throw in proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Don't forget, of course, the scenic 8,180-acre campus, with its verdant foothills, towering eucalyptus, golf course and bicycle lanes. "Being in California certainly has something to do with it," says UNC's Brewer a bit longingly. "It's a beautiful campus, and the weather is good most of the time." About half the players on the baseball team hail from outside California. Coach Marquess says simply, "It's not a bad place to spend four years."
5. A TRADITION OF SUCCESS
Nothing succeeds like success. Stanford has won 59 NCAA team titles since 1980, more than any other school. All time, Stanford's 76 NCAA team titles rank second to UCLA's 78. The title "NCAA Champion of Champions," bestowed on the school that wins the most NCAA titles in a single season, has been given to Stanford 11 times in the last 14 years. The winning tradition attracts top coaches, star athletes and big donations -- all of which help perpetuate the winning tradition.
This rich history is on display at the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, located on the ground floor of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center. Amid the trophies and ribbons are photos and mementos honoring football legends Pop Warner, Ernie Nevers, Jim Plunkett, John Elway; Olympic swimmers Pablo Morales, Summer Sanders, Jenny Thompson; basketball pros Jennifer Azzi, Val Whiting, Kate Starbird; golfers Tom Watson and Tiger Woods; tennis star John McEnroe; decathlete Bob Mathias. When it comes to attracting new talent, says assistant athletics director Scott Schuhmann, "We can show a long list of people who've achieved."
For some athletes, the stellar tradition can be suffocating. "You could walk down the hall here after finishing second in the nation and feel like you've not succeeded," says assistant athletics director Gary Migdol.
6. WINNING WOMEN
Stanford "was one of the first schools to build a national profile in women's sports," says Heisler, the assistant athletics director at Notre Dame. That process really began after the 1974 passage of Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunities for female athletes. It took until 1980 for the NCAA to begin enforcing most of the provisions. By then, Stanford, under then-athletics director Joe Ruetz, had a big head start. Ruetz created the Cardinal Club -- sister to the existing Buck Club -- to raise funds for women's sports. In 1978, Stanford gave its first scholarships for female athletes. Ruetz's successor, Andy Geiger, made women's sports a clear priority in the '80s. He combined the Buck and Cardinal clubs into a single Buck/Cardinal Club, which made more scholarship funds available to women. "That was a major philosophical change," says Migdol, the assistant athletics director. Geiger also hired high-quality coaches for women's sports, including Tara VanDerveer (basketball), Frank Brennan (tennis) and Richard Quick (swimming).
The success of the Stanford sports program is in fact due in great part to the performance of its women's teams. Of the 76 NCAA championships won by the University, chalk up 25 to the women. That puts Stanford women on top nationally -- by a big margin. Next closest is the University of Texas, with 20 titles.
Stanford allocates higher-than-average resources to its women's teams. According to a May 1999 analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanford spends 36 percent of its budget for coaches' salaries on women's coaches; the NCAA Division I average is 21 percent. Likewise, 32 percent of the athletics department's program budget goes to women's teams compared to a 28 percent national average. Of the 808 varsity athletes at Stanford, 348 (43 percent) are women. That may not impress, given that 50 percent of undergraduates are women, but the NCAA Division I average is 38 percent.
7. MONEY TALKS
Stanford offers 280 scholarships, employs 79 coaches and assistants, and maintains 1 million gross square feet of indoor facilities and 94 acres of outdoor fields. To keep all that going, the athletics department budget draws from its own $170 million endowment (by far the largest of any university athletics department in the nation) and an operating budget this year of $38.6 million (among the largest in the nation).
Unlike other campus departments, athletics raises all its own funds -- apart from the $4.2 million a year paid by the University to run physical education classes and recreational facilities. The money comes from a variety of sources. Fund raising accounts for some $16 million a year -- $13 million of that goes toward facilities, endowment and the operating budget; $3 million is courtesy of Buck/Cardinal Club contributions earmarked for athletics scholarships. The football program kicks in about $8 million annually through gate receipts, television and the Pac-10's revenue-sharing agreement for post-season Bowl income. Proceeds from the Stanford Golf Course come to $4.5 million. The draw on the endowment provides about $5 million. And nonfootball gate receipts -- mostly men's and women's basketball -- total about $2.1 million.
The department's fund-raising success has fueled a $75 million construction boom in recent years. The result: new tennis and soccer stadiums, new department offices, improvements to Stanford Stadium and a refurbished track. A multimillion-dollar rehab of the swimming facility is in the works.
These resources aren't lost on the athletes. "I've had the luxury of seeing other colleges, and the facilities here are just tremendous," says Troy Walters, a fifth-year wide receiver on the football team. "It helps motivate you." It's not always the big things that capture a student's attention. Some note the golf carts the University provides them so they can tool around campus on recruiting visits. "That was the best part," says a half-joking Chris Lewis, the heavily recruited quarterback from Long Beach, Calif., who will be starting at Stanford in the fall.
8. THE GRADUATES
Stanford athletes not only win, they graduate. From 1991 to 1994, 86 percent of Stanford's scholarship athletes earned degrees, according to the NCAA, including every basketball player. That rate is close to the 93 percent overall graduation rate for the Stanford student body during that period. And it exceeds the rates for student-athletes at other top athletic-academic schools -- UCLA, 58 percent; UNC, 66 percent; University of Michigan, 72 percent.
Coaches say that parents of athletes are quick to notice Stanford's graduation record. But so are the players themselves. Troy Walters was aggressively recruited by Duke and the University of Tulsa but liked what he saw at Stanford. "You look at that graduation rate because that's what you're going to college for," he says. "You know football isn't going to last." Says future teammate Lewis, an incoming freshman who has yet to take his first class at Stanford: "I'm thinking way beyond my [football] career. If an injury prevents me from going on or if I'm just not good enough, I want something to fall back on."
9. OVERACHIEVERS UNDERFOOT
Sure, Stanford fields top teams in a couple dozen sports. But the world-class athletes on campus don't stand out as much as they might somewhere else because they're surrounded by world-class physicists, engineers and poets. As a result, many say they feel more relaxed, more at home on campus -- less like circus attractions. There's a sense of belonging that makes for a more ordinary life. And there's a valuable sense of humility that comes from close interaction with top performers in other endeavors. "Everybody here is an overachiever," says basketball player Regan Freuen. "It's the norm." Says ex-provost Rice: "Bringing together people with special talents who are really at the top of their games, so to speak, is good for all of us as a measuring stick."
The University prods athletes to socialize with nonathletes. There is no "jock dorm" on campus, and freshman athletes do not room together. Some new recruits are surprised by these policies. "I thought it was kind of strange," says Walters, the football player. "At other places, all the players are together. But this helps you develop relationships outside of football. It's a real positive." Jarron Collins, a 6-foot-10 center on the basketball team, is 17 inches taller than his roommate; friends have dubbed them the Odd Couple. "There are accomplished pianists; there are a lot of smart people around," says Collins. "My brother [Jason, who's also on the basketball team] has a roommate who had a 1,600 on his SAT."
Stanford athletes say they get something that may be in short supply at many universities: respect. The Cardinal sports program is generally held in high regard on campus. Freuen chose Stanford after considering a handful of other top-tier academic-athletic institutions. "There's respect here," she says, five years after making that decision, "a huge amount of respect from other students. And we have respect for them. . . . Our student-athletes do very well academically; the other students know that." Football coach Tyrone Willingham believes this "environment of respect" has been crucial to attracting top high school athletes. On recruiting visits, he says, "They feel it, they notice it -- and it makes a difference." Says athletics director Leland: "Kids know they're going to be treated with dignity here."
Why? One key reason is that the University is unwilling to prop up athletics at the expense of academics. For example, high school standouts quickly learn that academics come first at Stanford. All recruits have to navigate the admission process -- fill out the paperwork, write the essays and be admitted -- before they receive a formal letter offering a scholarship. "Stanford was the only school that recruited me that required I fill out an application," says basketball captain Pete Sauer, who graduated in June. Some student-athletes say they're attracted to Stanford because of these demands, not in spite of them. "It really surprised me," Lewis says of being told to complete an application first. "Stanford came out and said, 'You're going to be a student before you're going to be an athlete.' But I respected that. It made it seem like a better place."
It's tempting to predict that Stanford will rule the Sears Cup competition forever. And perhaps it will -- if the scoring system doesn't change. But one proposal under consideration would revise the system, giving more points to the top finishers in higher-profile sports . . . like football. Currently, an NCAA title in football is worth the same as one in, say, fencing.
Football, to be sure, is one sport in which Stanford has struggled. The last time the team went to the Rose Bowl -- 1972, to be precise -- the Cardinal was known as the Indians. In recent years, the team has been competitive in the Pac-10 and made Bowl appearances in 1995 (losing the Liberty Bowl) and 1996 (winning the Sun Bowl). Still, football's performance is "a source of frustration," Leland concedes.
Why can't Stanford apply its winning formula to the gridiron? For one thing, competition is keener in football than in most other sports because it is such a high-profile money-making operation for universities. Football also poses a recruiting challenge. While two or three key athletes can make the difference on a tennis or basketball team, it takes an army of them to change the fortunes of a football squad, which has a roster of 100 players. At the same time, Stanford has struggled to keep football coaches in place for more than a few years at a time. Two recent coaches -- Bill Walsh and Dennis Green -- jumped from Palo Alto to the professional ranks, where the visibility and pay are higher. Willingham enters his fifth year with Stanford this fall.
Informed that the football team may hold the key to Stanford retaining future Sears Cup titles, Lewis, the heavily recruited quarterback, is nonchalant. "I've been bragging about the fact that we have the best athletics program in the country. Now we just have to do our job on the football field. We've got to go out and play with the best."
Playing with the best. That's something Stanford does well. Its academic peers -- Harvard, Yale, MIT -- cannot match its athletic record. And its athletic peers -- UCLA, Florida, North Carolina -- do not have the same academic reputation. "People get tired of Stanford being this and this and this," says basketball coach Montgomery. "But the truth of the matter is that this is a special place."
Jeff Brazil is an editor at the Los Angeles Times. He wrote about the University's endowment in the May/June 1998 Stanford.
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