The year of the Cardinal's most recent Rose Bowl berth provides a nice point of reference to begin the look-back. It was a breakthrough season in football obviously, but also across the AD, as Stanford achieved with a No.1 ranking in basketball and a spot in the College World Series title game. Maybe you still have your Bootleg commemorative shirt, the one that celebrated this "Pinnacle of Pac-10 Preeminence."
The Bootleg, thankfully, has reinvented itself since and survived. I consider myself fortunate to get to have met and gotten to know a lot of those who post here. Stanford football has an inherent irreverence to it, and it's something the Bootleg feeds.
One of my early memories of fandom came from the old Sunday afternoon highlight show. After the 1982 loss at UCLA, Pete Liebengood interviewed a forlorn Paul Wiggin. The LSJUMB carried on behind them, the sax player's Tyrolean cap sitting atop a Conehead prosthetic. You readers know the pain of crushing defeats -- and you can appreciate the value of a Stanford Band postgame concert.
Speaking in strictly football terms, of all the major developments related to Cardinal football that have occurred over the last 11 years, several stand out the most.
The first is the overall strength of the conference. The Pac-10 is deeper and stronger than ever before.
Things began to really take flight the year it hit its nadir, when four weeks went by in the '99 season without a single conference team being ranked. As Stanford chased its Rose Bowl dreams in Seattle, a formerly downtrodden program elsewhere in the Northwest was busy reinventing itself.
"We're new age Beavers, the millennium Beavers," Oregon State's Imani Percoats said that season.
Forgive the guy for being carried away (and accidentally funny). His team stood a win from breaking a streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons. OSU broke it, and then went bowl-ing for the first time since The Beatles went on Ed Sullivan. The Beavs ascended to a BCS game within a year and have shown remarkable staying power since. Mike Riley is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, and it was the success that he began that coincided with (and prompted) serious action across the league.
Cal got serious and hired Jeff Tedford. USC grew tired of underachieving and brought in Pete Carroll. Expectations subsequently went through the roof in Berkeley and South Central. In the meantime, the Pac-10 could now count on the entire Emerald State for consistent winning (and rabid fans). And by the way, only when Stanford dropped its third straight to Oregon State did Ted Leland finally decide the Buddy Teevens reign of terror was over.
The 2007 season, in which four teams – Arizona State, Cal, Oregon and USC – took turns near the top of the BCS totem pole was no fluke. A Pac-10 team other than USC stands atop the AP poll for the first time in 22 years. A Heisman finalist will likely come from Oregon, the third different Pac-10 program represented in six seasons. Commissioner Larry Scott had ample reason to make certain it was raining men (in polo shirts) in Times Square last summer. The results make the hype believable.
A paragraph removed from a Ted Leland reference comes another, less flattering one. With ticket demand mired in a steady decline, the 1999 season saw Stanford cordon off a huge expanse of its Stadium with a giant red tarp (aka "Ted's Tarp"). It was another in a series of reminders of Cardinal football's diminishing marquee value.
Cardinal fans would watch another six seasons on aluminum bleachers, vast stretches of which were normally empty (or bundled up in tarp), before the new stadium became a reality.
Common sense would have called for a major Stanford Stadium upgrade years before. In retrospect, when Bill Walsh was in charge the second time seemed to be the most appropriate time frame. College programs nationwide were busy spending into the hundreds of millions to make their own Jazz Age venues fit for a new century. Instead, Stanford thumbed its nose at what Leland derisively called an "arms race" and avoided making itself inviting to fans.
I remember wondering at the time, circa 2003, just how alienated Stanford's fanbase would become. How low would they go, considering the product's low quality together with the blighted facility that housed it? I remember asking myself which Bay Area team in desperate need of a new home – the 49ers, A's or Cardinal – would get theirs first.
The Farm won that race going away, an overdue feat, but still, one that should not be overlooked. The public got a first glimpse of an artist's rendition in the spring of 2005. The next calendar year, it was officially open for business. Using that logic, the A's should have just finished their third season in Fremont, with the 49ers well past a decade in their San Francisco stadium/mall.
Cardinal football finally joined the race instead of lagging far behind it. College programs had long realized that their head coaches' high salaries didn't pay for themselves. Ohio State, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida are just a few of those who spent the first years of the last decade on lavish stadium upgrades. While Oklahoma State has T. Boone Pickens, Stanford's has its own Daddy Warbucks in John Arrillaga.
I'm of the belief that in order to increase attendance, Stanford must follow the blueprint it used in the late '60s/early '70s. Part 1: Combine a compelling non-conference home schedule, or at least the most sensible that the Pac-12 alignment allows. Part 2: Be fun to watch, as in make sure the QB revival doesn't end with Andrew Luck. Third: Just keep winning.
The school has learned a stadium alone won't bring attendance back to even Walsh II percentages. That's how much poison remained in the well, even once Harbaugh put a winning team inside the renovated venue.
So here we are. Three of the Pac-10's top quarterbacks hail from Texas, birthplace of the Wishbone. Corvallis, Ore. is a college football town. Off to its best start since 1970, Stanford fits in just fine with this brave new world, or at least as much as those millennium Beavers.
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