The Cardinal's Golden Age
In the annals of Stanford football, nothing beats right now.
By Kevin Cool
There are many ways one might evaluate Stanford’s football program at the end of its fourth straight season of at least 11 wins. This is my favorite: My son has never seen Stanford lose.
He has accompanied me to 12 Stanford home games over a span of three years, including all of them this season except Big Game. He begged off that one because, in his words, “It’s going to be a blowout.” (Do I detect a whiff of complacency?) One could hardly blame him if winning has begun to feel routine. He’s undefeated.
However, most recent fans—my 17-year-old son among them—may not grasp how unusual these past four seasons are in the history of Stanford football. Simply put, we’ve never been this good for this long.
Stanford has won two national championships, had dozens of All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy winner, but the program’s success has come in spurts, characterized by brief periods of excellence followed by long stretches of mediocrity, or worse.
Prior to 2010, Stanford had won 10 games in a football season only three times, and had never won 11. (In earlier eras, a regular season schedule was typically 10 games, so reaching that mark required going undefeated.) Pop Warner, whose legend was so large a national youth football program still bears his name, went 71-17-8 during a nine-year span in the 1920s and ’30s. Warner won 10 games once, in 1926, when Stanford went 10-0-1, tied Alabama in the Rose Bowl and won the national championship.
Clark Shaughnessy went 10-0 in 1940, and won the Rose Bowl and the school’s second national title. John Ralston had back-to-back 9-3 seasons and won Rose Bowls in 1970 and 1971. Bill Walsh, who was 9-3 and 8-4 in his first tenure, 1977-78, won 10 games in 1992, including the Blockbuster Bowl.
From an outsider’s perspective, Stanford is better known for Olympians than linebackers. Casual fans, if they associated Stanford football with anything, focused on quarterbacks. Defense was something other teams played.
When I arrived at the Farm in 1999, I got to see Tyrone Willingham’s team defy expectations and win eight games. Then, predictably, they lost to a tougher, more physical Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl.
Two years later, on the heels of a nine-win season, I had a conversation with Rod Gilmore, ’82, the ESPN color commentator, about whether Stanford could ever aspire to a national championship. He said Willingham thought he could do it. We never got to find out—shortly thereafter, Willingham left to coach Notre Dame.
After Ty’s departure, Stanford football began a slow and steady decline. Five straight losing seasons were punctuated by four Big Game defeats, an embarrassing home loss to UC-Davis (I was there; it was grim) and a growing sense of despair. The low point was in 2006, when the team barely averted the first winless season in school history, finishing 1-11. I was in the (old) Stanford Stadium when that season ended in a dispiriting loss to Oregon State. The crowd was so sparse and the venue so quiet it could have passed for a library carrel.
Then Jim Harbaugh showed up and everything changed. Ask a Stanford fan what he or she remembers about Harbaugh’s first season in 2007, and the answer will no doubt be the 24-23 upset of USC, a game Stanford entered as 41-point underdogs with a quarterback who had never taken a snap as a starter. In truth, there was a lot of awful football on the field that 4-8 season, but you could already see the transformation under way. Stanford players were beginning to believe. It wasn’t long before believing they could win morphed into believing they would win. That change in mindset eventually followed a similar arc for fans: Hopefulness gave way to aspiration and then expectation.
In 2010, after an 11-1 season, the Cardinal and their heralded quarterback Andrew Luck, ’12, dismantled Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl, providing both a national stage and a validating victory for the program’s ascent. And then Harbaugh left for the NFL.
In the past, a coach’s departure usually led to a titanic plunge. But unlike in previous eras, David Shaw’s tenure has so far produced the opposite result: perennial excellence. For the first time ever, maybe, and certainly the first time in more than 80 years, Stanford’s presence among the nation’s elite feels legitimate and potentially durable. It takes some getting used to.
Those of us who were watching Stanford before the Obama presidency are still trying to process the possibility that our team is going to be good all the time. Even now, our status as a football powerhouse feels precarious, as if we’re party crashers who have yet to be discovered. You can see us at games, grinding on every failed third down conversion or inscrutable red zone play call. And let’s face it: Mixed with the pride in a team that beat seven top-25 schools this season is nagging disappointment over losses to two weaker opponents. The resignation that followed the 27-21 defeat to Utah felt weirdly familiar, a letdown we somehow suspected was coming. Drawing back a bit, we can view that game with more perspective. In sports, sometimes you lose games against inferior teams who manage to corral their best effort at just the right moment.
Could we have played for the national championship? Maybe. But I’ve chosen to let go of all that and focus instead on so much that’s been accomplished:
- Appearances in four consecutive BSC bowls, a claim no other team in the country can make. Prior to 2010, Stanford had never appeared in any bowl more than three years in a row.
- A won-loss record of 46-7 over the past four seasons. The Cardinal has not lost two games in a row since 2009.
- Two Heisman Trophy runners-up: Toby Gerhart, ’10, in 2009; Andrew Luck, in 2010 and 2011.
- A spate of nationally televised victories over highly ranked teams. Stanford is 10-0 against top-25 opponents in the past two years, which includes twice defeating Oregon, ranked No. 1 in 2012 and No. 2 this season.
- An energized and enlarged fan base. In 2013 the stadium sold out for every home game. More than 40,000 Stanford rooters crowded into the Rose Bowl last January, belying the long-held view that Stanford “doesn’t travel.” Demand for tickets to this year’s Rose Bowl was similarly huge.
But never mind statistics. To truly convey how far the program has come and how thoroughly its reputation has matured, consider this: When USC defeated Stanford on a last-minute field goal last November, tens of thousands of Trojans fans stormed the field at the LA Coliseum. When was the last time that happened? Had that ever happened?
Stanford football has arrived, and Stanford fans have a new attitude. But before we all take a big yawn, we might want to pause and enjoy how far we’ve come. Because win or lose in Pasadena on January 1, we’re in the midst of a golden age. A certain teenager I know has the record to prove it.
Editor's note: We have a gift for you during this golden age of Cardinal football. Click here to download four commemorative STANFORD covers.
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Thanks for a nice article recalling the glorious (and not-so-glorious) days of Stanford football. For some of us arriving in the early 70's, Stanford was our initiation to this sport and to the amazing allegiances it fosters. And of course Stanford was not always The Cardinal. So as we celebrate Stanford's recent string of successes and cheer on the home team, some of us are still inclined to smile and say under our breath: "Go Indians!"...
Posted by Dr. Kalyan Dutta on Dec 21, 2013 8:41 AM