Originally published February 2003 (vol. 1, no. 7) in The Bootleg Magazine. "State of the Program" by Stan DeVaughn
We're now two seasons into the new millennium. Do you know where your football program is? Do you believe that it's everything it could or should be? Is Stanford doing everything possible in football to maintain the championship excellence upon which it prides its overall athletic program? This month, The Bootleg Magazine kicks off a series that explores the state – and the future – of football on The Farm. In this installment, we take a high-altitude view of some past challenges that Stanford overcame to remain competitive and attractive to ticket buyers...
A couple of guys who had seen a lot of college football in their time were talking one evening.
"So what happened to Stanford this year?" one guy asked. The other man just shrugged and replied, "Aw, they're not football players anymore, they're scholars. I don't see how they can compete in the future. The game's changed so much it wouldn't surprise me if they dropped football someday."
The above exchange, which could have transpired last week, or last month, or after any demoralizing Stanford loss, actually took place before many of today's Cardinalmaniacs were born. It was right after the 1958 Big Game that Cal won, 16-15, which sent the Bears to their last Rose Bowl and Stanford to its worst record in a decade, 2-8. The man asking the question, a happy Cal alum, was an old friend of the other guy, my dad, a life-long Stanford fan. Wistfully recalling an era when the Indians were a perennial force on the West Coast, my father was convinced that Stanford's best years were now behind it, maybe forever. That nobody seemed to get excited about Stanford football anymore, at least not in the same exuberant way, or in the numbers that he was accustomed to. That a stark, new world dominated by the professionals on Sundays, and by non-scholars beating up Stanford on Saturdays, was the wave of the future. He was not alone in his predictions.
The National Football League and television were catapulting professional football into new prominence not just in sports, but in popular culture. In prior years, "football" meant the college game: Notre Dame, Fordham, Army-Navy, Oklahoma. For half a century, the Rose Bowl, not the Super Bowl, was the standard of excellence. In Northern California, the Forty-Niners had to share the news columns, and the market, with Stanford and Cal, USF, St. Mary's and Santa Clara. But those days were numbered. The Dons and Gaels would abandon football altogether.
Fast forward 40-plus years, and the difference in the Bay Area, especially how people can spend their leisure time and money, is stunning. The sports scene is a good example. As Cal was packing up for its date with the Iowa Hawkeyes on New Year's Day, 1959, the Bay Area could claim exactly one professional sports franchise that was firmly established – the NFL's Forty-Niners. The Giants had only completed their first baseball season here. The Oakland Raiders did not exist. The Warriors still played basketball in Philadelphia and most people in San Jose had never seen ice hockey.
In retrospect, of course, those who were writing off Stanford as a West Coast "Ivy" doomed to fail at big-time college football, unable to adapt to the harsh new realities of recruiting and economics, were just plain wrong. Reports of the demise of football on The Farm were premature.
Premature, yes, but were the skeptics just ahead of themselves? Are changes in the game, such as the lengthier season that Stanford officials are resisting, the steady decline in home attendance despite a fairly recent Rose Bowl appearance, and an aging base of hardcore fans signs of bigger trouble ahead?
Stanford has an uncommonly rich football heritage. It's the place where the "T" formation was invented and the forward pass refined into innovative sophistication. Former head coach Pop Warner, a name synonymous with the game itself, once described his Stanford years as the most satisfying experience of his career. The Farm's credentials and legacy in college football are unparalleled.
Just a few years ago, we were Pac-10 champs and the future seemed Ray-Ban bright. Two years later, the team achieved its best regular season winning percentage (9-2, .818) since 1940. Today? In fact, the fiasco of ‘02, when viewed from historical perspective is actually a continuation of ups and downs that, whether we like it not, has been a signature of Stanford football since the leather helmet era. The good news is that, like the business cycle, good times have always followed the dark moments. Stanford has always adapted and adjusted to the changes in and pressures of big-time football.
The skeptics today, of course, beg to differ. That was then and this now, they say. What's past is not necessarily a predictor of the future. No one at this magazine is lobbying for lower admissions standards or looser enforcement of the rules. But Stanford faces a combination of challenges today that amount to uncharted territory. They call for adaptation and adjustment as never before. They include:
- A late-start, 11-game schedule when opponents now kick-off their seasons one, two or even three weeks earlier;
- A dwindling, aging base of fans;
- A local market with a vast and growing choice of leisure-time activities;
- A new generation of alumni not known for passionate devotion to football;
- A deteriorating, outdated stadium that grows less tolerable every year – even for the hardest-core fans that overlook poor results on the field; and,
- Marketing efforts that, while well-managed, remain unfocused and bland.
Equally disturbing is a palpable lethargy and disinterest around campus on game days. A "so what?" atmosphere hangs as heavy in the air as the smoke from tailgate barbecues. More and more people are finding better ways to spend their autumn Saturdays. What kind of toll will this take on the program over time?
First, some history:
Going all the way back to the end of the Vow-Boy era in the mid-1930s reveals four periods of football famine for Stanford, defined as four or five consecutive losing seasons. Starting in 1936, right after the last legendary Vow-Boy Rose Bowl, up through 1939, Stanford won a grand total of ten games. The ‘39 season was the nadir: this team was winless until meeting Dartmouth in a rare season finale the week after the Big Game – shades of Cal vs. Rutgers in 2001. Playing in New York, Stanford scratched out a 14-3 victory. But the very next year, under new coach Clark Shaughnessy, who installed a radical new offense called the "T" formation, Stanford would go unbeaten and untied, equaling the victory total of the prior four seasons and smoking Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. Never before or since has Stanford, or anyone, achieved a better year-to-year reversal as ‘39-'40: from a one-win season to a mythical national championship. Small wonder they earned the "Wow Boys" nickname.
It was 11 years, made to seem even longer due to World War II, before Stanford earned another Rose Bowl, in 1951. But it had to endure a rough patch to get there. It was right around this time that the college season was lengthened by one week. Before the war, teams generally played nine games. By 1946, the college season on the West Coast was ten games long.
The Indians were winless in 1947, and 4-6 in '48, then began to turn things around in the next couple of seasons. In '51, new coach Chuck Taylor, one of Shaughnessy's Wow Boys, worked the same first-year magic as his old coach, guiding his team all the way to Pasadena. Taylor remained at the helm for the next six years but never caught the same lightning. His teams played just-under-.500 ball after that championship season.
Right about this time a seismic event shook America – and Stanford. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. It was a sobering moment for education and applied science in the United States and Stanford's emphasis on technology, scholarship, and tougher entrance requirements grew more pronounced. Was it just coincidence that football fortunes began to sink? Certainly, recruiting became a special challenge. Never the easiest place to get into, Stanford was now dramatically more demanding in its entrance requirements. Or, as my dad was observing, "scholars" not footballers. Whatever it had become, Stanford was now anything but a football school. From 1958 through 1961, the Indians went 9-31. Not surprisingly, fans voted with their feet. Game attendance suffered as never before. Things looked bleak for football on The Farm.
But Stanford did not go quietly into that good night of dropping or de-emphasizing the game as other schools were doing at the time. It was never an issue. Instead, in 1963, the university reaffirmed football's prominence and brought in an energetic new coach whose unabashed, public goal was nothing less than a national championship. It was a risky move for Athletic Director Chuck Taylor, who rubbed many alums the wrong way by hiring a Cal graduate.
Taylor stood fast behind John Ralston, the super-salesman and recruiter-par-excellence who understood the reality of Stanford's entrance requirements. Ralston went right to work focusing on parochial schools in Southern California, believing, correctly, that they contained the highest concentration of great athletes who paid attention in class. His tireless recruiting, enthusiastic selling, and ability to attract such assistants as Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil and Mike White paid off. While he never came close to the national championship, Ralston had the Indians competing for the Rose Bowl just a few years after his arrival. He would ultimately win two of them, back-to-back: a rare feat for any Rose Bowl contestant since the inception of the game. Bigger crowds at Stanford Stadium, for games other than Cal, slowly but surely began to return. Stanford's sports information department kicked into overdrive, putting special emphasis on the local communities. By then, the 49ers and Giants had big followings and the Oakland Raiders were filling the new Coliseum. And the population of the Bay Area and Peninsula was a fraction of what it is today. But Stanford football was a draw – an exciting product in its own right and promoted locally like never before.
As the 1970 season opened, the NCAA had added an 11th game to the Division-I schedule and Stanford obliged. It wasn't a cream-puff practice tilt, either. The Indians traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to play the favored Razorbacks in withering heat. A 34-28 upset victory set the tone for Stanford's first Rose Bowl in 19 years. By year-end, Jim Plunkett's Heisman Trophy adorned the Athletic Department lobby and Stanford football was again a big deal and a hot ticket.
Next month: Cardinal Football hits heavy seas in the 1980s, its worst decade in history. Stanford fires coaches back-to-back for the first time. Ironically, game attendance hits new highs. While the 1990s see a rebound in football fortunes (no one is fired), culminating in a surprise return to the Rose Bowl, the game-day experience doesn't inspire ticket buyers and promotional efforts fall flat. A crumbling relic of a stadium, with its heavy-handed security, outdated facilities and crude grounds, doesn't help.
The Bootleg Magazine is a monthly print publication that brings Stanford fans the important and insightful feature stories on Cardinal sports they so badly crave, yet cannot find. We bring you deep player and coach profiles, behind-the-scenes scoop, looks ahead, looks back and more. To get this magazine before you miss out on any more of its unparalleled excellence, go to http://stanford.theinsiders.com/3/magazine_order.html. Buy yourself a year (or two!) of this glossy goldmine, or treat that favored friend or family member to the "gift that keeps on giving" today!