How Stanford flipped the script on USC
It was the spring of 1996, and I was a Junior at Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes CA. A highly rated TE and DE, I had just been visited by John Robinson from USC and Barry Alvarez from Wisconsin and offered scholarships to both school. Just before the end of spring football I was called out of class because then Stanford Head Coach Tyrone Willingham was on campus and wanted to talk to me. I was fully expecting another scholarship offer. That wasn’t going to be the case though. After about 20 minutes with coach Willingham he made me a conditional scholarship offer, meaning I would need to get accepted to Stanford before it could be consider a real offer. He also recommended I run for student council to up my chances with the admissions people, I guess a 3.8 GPA and a very strong SAT score wouldn’t suffice for the Stanford Cardinals if the late 1990s. In contrast, even USC with its higher than normal standards only required a 2.5 GPA and other colleges a 2.0 GPA from their incoming student athletes. On top of lower GPA requirements most athletic departments provided you with a very abbreviated college admissions experience, not the 20 hour process that was the Stanford college application. Needless to say, as an in demand recruit with several offers in my pocket, this bit of info knocked Stanford right off my list, as I’m sure it did with many high school recruits of that era. For me at the time, it seemed like a lot of work to go to a school that was a perineal at the opposite end of the PAC 10 standings.
However, it didn’t knock Stanford off my parents’ list. What parent wouldn’t want to say their child is going to Stanford? So not only did I fill out the ridiculously long application, but I also ran for and won a position on the student council like they recommended. In the fall, I received my acceptance to Stanford and the formal scholarship offer all in the same package. When official visit season rolled around I took my trips to USC, UCLA, ASU , and. Stanford. I was planning on tripping to Texas, but I didn’t follow through after committing to USC. All my trips were great, like something you would have seen in the movies. Girls, parties, and people kissing your ass. Except Stanford, It wasn’t a bad trip, it was just different. First off, I didn’t recognize the faces or names of any of the other recruits. Since my Sophmore year I had attended several combines and All American functions, this was my 3rd official college visit and I didn’t recognize a single other recruit. I just recall thinking they were much smaller and nerdier than the guys I had seen on my other trips. When all was said and done with the class of 1998, I don’t think Stanford had offered a single other guy in my recruiting class at USC, which included Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu (both solid students) and most of the top players in California. If I’m being honest I just didn’t fit in there. I’m smart, but not nerdy, and Stanford was a bit nerdy. Which isn’t a bad thing, just not what I was looking for. Most of the time on the trip was spent in the dorms with a bunch of guys and the one night we went out we went out to some freaky bar in San Francisco, one of our hosts got busted by the cops for peeing in public and we ended up having to go back to campus early. Stanford nickname was the “the farm” and that is exact what it felt like, a farm. The facilities were underwhelming. The practice field looked like a pasture and the weight room consisted of a circus tent with some weight machines in it. The coaches who recruited me told me about how difficult it was living Palo Alto on the subpar coaches pay and even in my short time around the program I noticed several coaches leaving the program in favor of higher paying jobs at other Universities. Weak facilities and coaching turnover may not seem like a big issues but it was emblematic of the Stanford football program prior to 2006.
Factors like this give recruits the impression that football isn’t a priority for the school and coaching turnover can cause huge setbacks for players having to learn new systems year in and year out. Anyways, I didn’t fit in there, it didn’t give me the academic and athletic balance I was seeking and I ended up accepting the scholarship to USC. I think this was the case for many recruits who opted out of attending Stanford for similar reasons during this era. For top recruits it just didn’t hold the type of football cache as USC. For recruits looking for a good balance of football and academics USC was the place.
Things have changes a lot at Stanford since then. The Nineties and early 2000’s were years of mediocre records and regular beatings at the hands of PAC 10 opponents. Not to say the Cardinals never had success, they won a PAC 10 championship with Willingham, but ended up falling right back down to the bottom of the conference once he left for Notre Dame in 2000. What changed? How did the Cardinal doormats or yesteryear become a pillar of the modern day PAC 12? How did the Trojans go from consistently beating up the Cardinals to losing eight of the last eleven meetings? The answer is not so simple.
2006: Change is spelled BOWLSBY
Stanford really struggled following the departure of Tyrone Willingham. He was followed by Buddy Teevens, and Teevens was followed by Walt Harris. Both man had disastrous 2 year tenures complying a combined record of 16-40 between 2002 and 2006. That all changed in 2006 when Stanford hired Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby away from the University of Iowa. Bowlsby was very successful at Iowa and that success would transfer over to Stanford. Bowlsby brought big changes with him. During his tenure as Athletic Director at Stanford he increases the recruiting budget by almost 70 percent. Allowing coaches to travel nationwide and year around seeking the best recruits. Because of their strict admissions criteria they have to recruit nationwide and now they would have the budget to do it effectively. He increased the allotment for coaches’ salaries to account for the high cost of living in Palo Alto. Which in turn deceased coaching turnover. Bowlsby then switched his Focus to facilities. Within a few years of his arrival facilities spending increased almost 60%. Pledges for money increased over 200% and ultimately these funds went towards their new 21 million dollars athletic center. Gone were the days of high school style lockerooms and lifting weights in a tent. Bowlsby had brought Stanford into the 21st century. Now he needed was a coach.
The Harbaugh Effect
In 2006 Bowlsby made his big move hiring Jim Harbaugh as the Cardinals head coach. In retrospect it looks like a no brainer, who wouldn’t hire Jim Harbaugh? What we forget is that no one knew Jim Harbaugh as a coach in 2006, most people just remembered him as a semi successful retired NFL Quarterback. Bowlsby must have done his homework to find Harbaugh and ended up hiring him away from Division 1AA, University of San Diego. I can only equate it to when USC first hired Pete Carroll, no one could figure out why Mike Garrett hired him either, at first. Harbaugh brought purpose and direction to a program that desperately need it. Harbaugh brought with him a constant fire for competition and changed the entire athletics Culture at Stanford. What Harbaugh did and what has been carried on is that he crafted their scheme to emphasize and rely on the positions of kids that generally value what Stanford has to offer. When you look at the type of kids who value the education networking , location and academics of Stanford they’re typically front 7 type of kids and OL and QB’s. Harbaugh created a scheme that emphasized that, and allowed him to recruit nationally. That type of scheme (Power Run) became the exception in a world (and conference) full of spread offenses, which gave Stanford an edge. Spread offense teams, in a spread offense conference, recruit defenders that will stop spread offenses. So when it came time to play Stanford a many teams couldnt hold up against their power run attack.
Enter Andrew Luck
Harbaugh coached (2) two full seasons before Andrew Luck started a game. Stanford improved under Harbaugh during those years, but still struggled to win games going 9-15. All the culture change in the world won’t help you without a catalyst, and that catalyst was Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck put Stanford on the map. Winning the starting job in 2009 and complying a 31-7 record during his tenure at Stanford, and winning numerous awards in the process. His Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech brought Stanford in the national spotlight and opened up a whole new recruiting avenue in the Southeast. Stanford football now has the facilities, the money, and the scheme, to give recruits that desired academic and football balance they had been missing for so many years. This success and these changes paid dividends; Stanford is now competing and winning recruiting battles around the country for top lineman, tight ends, fullbacks, and QB’s. These recruiting wins would ultimately power the run heavy punishing offense that would have so much success to this day.
What Lures in the Shadows
Although Coach Shaw at Stanford adamantly denies that there has been any watering down of the admissions criteria for student athletes, this question keeps coming up, for good reason. Don’t get it twisted, Coach Shaw has to say this. Stanford as an institution does value sports, but they value their academic reputation more. I don’t have concrete proof that admissions standards at Stanford have been lowers, but as a longtime high school football coach and teacher in Southern California I have been witness to instances where Stanford has recruited and offered scholarships to athletes that they could have touched 12 years ago. I suspect that for most players recruited by Stanford the highest standards for admission still apply as they did with me, but I also suspect that these standard are occasionally bypassed for the right athlete. In college football a few special players can make all the difference.