And then there's Stanford.
That brainiac school on The Farm is suddenly relevant on the national scene. It begins this season as the seventh-best team in the country, according to the AP poll. It's coming off a BCS bowl appearance that was unexpected by all outside the program when the season began, and an Orange Bowl win that told the college football nation it belonged.
Eight months later, many may still be looking at the Cardinal and wondering, "what are they doing here?" But the fact is that, as of right now, they are here. And many indications are that they could be here for the foreseeable future.
Stanford Football is a sexy story right now, one that has made all the major networks and college publications take notice. I can't go more than a few minutes of watching ESPN without seeing Andrew Luck posterize cal safety Sean Cattouse in last season's signature play. And it's really freaking cool.
They may still be grossly under the radar in the Bay Area, but Stanford Football's journey this year is starting off as a feel-good story. It certainly contrasts with most of the other stories you're currently seeing around the rest of the sport.
There's no denying it. College football's image is taking a beating. So, can Stanford Football save it?
If it can, there could be no better poster boy for the cause than Luck, the reluctant rock star at quarterback. The kid who happens to be the best player in the country at the most important position in sport is also a humble guy who excels in the classroom. He very well may be the best embodiment of what happens when the term "student-athlete" is taken seriously.
But for the Cardinal, Luck is the rule, not the exception. This current Cardinal crop has not only raised the bar in the "athlete" department, but they also have the "student" part down pat, too. Let's be honest here: we've watched Stanford take the field over the years with kids who play the piano and can break down an equation with the best of them. Too often, those kids were overmatched on Saturdays.
Now we're watching Stanford players who paint their faces, sport tattoos, and kick the other team's tail on Saturdays. And I don't think there is much of a coincidence there. Yet, there is no indication that the school's academic reputation has been undermined. This isn't like the University of Washington under Don James. Or like U$C at almost every point in its football history. These kids aren't mercenaries, like they are at just about every other program in the country. Stanford's very nature just won't permit that.
But if Stanford is to help save college football's image, it must keep winning. And it must keep winning with the integrity that has been its trademark.
That may be the most amazing part of this story, because it's hard to win with integrity these days. It must be. If it weren't so difficult, U$C wouldn't be in the NCAA doghouse right now. Ohio State and Miami wouldn't be bracing for nuclear winter. And programs like Oregon's wouldn't be very, very nervous right now. If it were so easy to win with integrity, so many more high-profile programs would actually be doing it.
Seriously, the more I think about it, I realize how incredibly difficult it is to win without any marks at all on the violation sheet. And the NCAA is partly at fault for this, with its Byzantine compliance rulebook. Have you seen some of the seemingly innocuous things that coaches, players, recruits, and compliance offices are supposed to avoid? Do you really think anyone is going to seriously enforce what kind of toppings are allowed on the training table bagels, even though there is a portion of that rulebook devoted specifically to just that?
Logic-defying rules like those bogging down the NCAA are part of the problem, not the solution. Hell, I would be willing to bet you everything you own that the number of FBS programs that doesn't have any violations among any of its players is zero. And that's why I'm not naïve enough to believe that the Cardinal are 100% squeaky clean. Would you be surprised if there was a Stanford kid accepting an illegal dinner here or making an illegal long-distance phone call there? I wouldn't.
But I would be floored if Card players were spending all their free time flashing big-time cash, driving luxury automobiles, cavorting on yachts, and canoodling with hookers. Which sounds an awful lot like the itinerary of a typical Bootleg tailgate.
Could another successful season give the NCAA ammunition to prove that winning with integrity can truly be done on a championship scale? Could another big run for the Cardinal force others to follow a similar blueprint?
Yes. And no.
The NCAA will be all too happy to jump at the chance to point to another great season for Stanford and crow to everyone, "See? True ‘student-athletes' can compete on our biggest stage!" That's nice and all, but I'm sure that message will resonate for about 20 seconds. Then the other university presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and players will all go back to chasing the money.
More importantly, no other school will join Stanford in bucking the trend and trying to win by raising its ethical and academic standards. Actually, Miami tried that under Randy Shannon…and look what it got them. No ACC championships. And they're still headed to the NCAA's hoosegow anyway.
But it won't happen largely because of simple fact: these schools don't have to change how they operate. And more telling, they don't want to. Raise the academic standards to Stanford's levels, and by and large you get kids who play the piano better than they play football (well, unless you're Stanford these days).
That's not conducive to winning. And losing isn't conducive to revenue. It's hard to remain virtuous when cash rules everything around you.
That's why another big-time campaign for the Cardinal this year will reverberate well beyond the Eucalyptus Curtain. The NCAA may very well be weighed down with problems that ultimately prove beyond solution. But, for one season at least (and hopefully beyond), the answer to some of the NCAA's image problems may reside at Stanford.
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RANDOM PAC-11 THOUGHTS
Players tossing oranges from the podium. John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Condoleezza Rice leading the cheers. Toby Gerhart pumped and excited. Our band playing our songs. Our fans cheering nonstop in the stands, not wanting the party to end. David Shaw soaking it all in with his family. Heck, someone from the stands even giving me a shout-out as I walked across the field. ("Hey, Clardy! Hey, Bootleg guy!") I will never forget that postgame scene after the Orange Bowl for as long as I live…
Here is the one major question I have for this year's team: do we still have the toughness (or nastiness) on both sides of the ball that became Stanford's trademark under Jim Harbaugh? If we do, I think we're going to be very hard to beat. Again…
By the way, I wish Harbaugh the best with the 49ers. Judging from what I've seen from them this preseason, they're going to need it. And why does something tell me that Harbaugh is nutty enough to make sure the 49ers are in position for the top overall pick in next year's draft?
Some of you may be asking why I call it the Pac-11. It's simple. Only 11 teams in the conference are eligible for the postseason. This means that, to me, that other team is irrelevant. So don't expect me to talk about that team a whole lot again this year…
Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict has first-round talent. But he has a temper that may push him to the bottom of the draft. The next time I see him go through a game without getting called for a 15-yard penalty will be the first…
cal is moving to AT&T Park this year? Cool. Now that building gets to house two teams that haven't won squat in 50 years! (oh wait…those guys won the World Series last year. Damn…)
Not a Pac-11 thought, but… the Big 10 now has twelve teams. And the Big 12 now has ten teams. To steal the line from Vince Lombardi, "What the hell is going on out here?"
Not a Pac-11 thought, but… is it me or is Texas A&M seriously overestimating its value? And do they really hate Texas that much so that they are willing to get their tails kicked in the SEC, instead of being pretty competitive in the Big 12? I just don't understand the Aggies' endgame here…
Not a Pac-11 thought, but… the only surprise about the Raiders taking Terrelle Pryor in the supplemental draft is that they didn't grossly overpay to do s0. I was totally prepared for them to take him with a first-round pick…
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Troy Clardy is in his 19th year of following the Cardinal as a columnist, broadcaster, and announcer. Beginning its 10th season of Cardinal commentary, Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays during the college football regular season on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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