We finish with a look at the present and future. Stanford's initial surge (think Biggest Upset Ever, 2007) and first real breakthrough (think What's Your Deal, 2009) are covered in Part One and Part Two.
Flash back to 2011.
As 93,000 roared to conceal ulcer-inducing nerves during the triple-overtime Stanford-USC bloodbath, now-retired Cardinal fullback Geoff Meinken stood in the midst of the mayhem on the Coliseum grass.
He wasn't concerned.
Never mind the fact that fans have theorized that they lost a decade of life expectancy from the game's stress: Meinken says he was prepared to overcome the handful of heart-palpitating moments during which a devastating Stanford loss seemed very possible, if not likely.
Throughout the rollercoaster ride that was the night of October 29, 2011, Meinken asserts that Stanford's four years of detail-obsessive preparation made defeat impossible. That's what he repeated to himself as the massive stadium pulsated with pro-USC energy.
"We're going to beat these guys," Meinken said. "We've worked harder than them. There's no way they have the mental discipline to win this game. We will win. That's what we have been trained to do."
Stanford 56, USC 48. Final. In its first return to the Coliseum since the ruthless 2009 sacking of Troy, the undefeated Cardinal's relatively newfound ability to focus and finish was tested like never before. Stanford passed with flying colors in an exhausting winning effort that drew tears of relief. The success marked another significant milestone in the epic transformation of Stanford football.
David Shaw: A Transition into Sustained Success
Bo McNally had since graduated, but he followed every snap of that 15-round prize fight with rapt attention. Even from afar, he was still familiar enough with the program's mental complexion to understand Meinken's remarkable calm in the midst of the tempest.
"We had earned the right to expect to win," McNally said. "We came into each game thinking, 'We are better than you.'"
This mentality of success took root in 2007 with the "necessary arrogance" that Jim Harbaugh had driven into a program suffering from a severe lack of swagger and closing ability. McNally was one of the pioneers that had helped implement the new ways, and though he was gone by 2011, the result of that epic USC game was of significant importance to him. It verified that Stanford's ability to finish remained steady under new head coach David Shaw.
"For the job he had to do, Harbaugh was the perfect guy," McNally said. "But when he left, it was perfect timing for the transition into the Shaw era, because [David Shaw] is the perfect guy to coach Stanford for the next 30 years. He's not as animated and fiery like Harbaugh, but he's just as competitive."
In essence, Harbaugh was the master of sparking the fire, while Stanford players agree that Shaw is an expert when it comes to maintaining the flames amidst the unique challenges of the Stanford environment. The different public temperaments of both coaches give each of them their respective comparative advantages. These surface variances also make it easy for the outside media to paint the two as markedly different characters. But truth be told, Harbaugh and Shaw possess exemplary leadership skills that are essentially interchangeable.
"There's a reason Jim Harbaugh wanted David Shaw to be here," Meinken said. "You just automatically get the sense that this guy is going to win, no matter what, and it rubs off on you. The belief in your leader is absolutely genuine with both of those guys."
Stanford's former head man armed himself with a star-studded cast of assistants that included Shaw and current San Francisco 49er coaches Greg Roman and Vic Fangio. The group was able to establish an often elusive trust-based relationship with Cardinal players who were still reeling after the zero-confidence debacle of 2006 (see 52 yards of total offense in a home loss to Arizona).
Take Harbaugh's decision to take points off the board to maintain an offensive drive at USC in 2007, or his call to run a fake field goal into the Autzen Stadium end zone via McNally, the holder, in 2008. That surprise infused the Stanford sideline with energy and bravado that had been foreign to the program's unimaginative recent past.
The Cardinal did not even have a fake field goal in their playbook under Walt Harris (though they did feature a quick-kick as part of their arsenal). Gambling for a fourth-down touchdown in the teeth of the Pac-12's most hostile crowd psychologically helped open the door to a future filled with aggressive dreams.
Considering this gung-ho approach, it's no surprise that now, five years later, there's a remarkable dynamic of trust between players and coaches, one that fosters the enthusiasm that comes with actively striving to win, instead of the boredom that comes from passively trying to avoid losses.
"Harbaugh and Shaw, they both have your back, and that's something that's pretty unique," Meinken said. "Especially in football, the programs are so large, and sometimes coaches pick 30 guys they don't care about. That's not them. And that's important to players."
Shannon Turley: The Common Link
Players say that Shaw's regime exudes genuine passion like its predecessor's, and they confirm that this intensity drives motor of the program. But when it comes to any discussion of the epic mental transformation of Stanford football, the conversation always returns to a now-familiar spot: the office of sports performance director Shannon Turley and his staff.
"Coaches can only work with us so many weeks of the year," Meinken said. "Turley's got us here every week of the year. As long as they're working here, Stanford will be fine."
Turley's unconventional ways have coupled with Shaw's precise understanding of the program's needs to create a religious attention to detail. This has given birth to a formula that now defines every layer of the Stanford football operation. It's no longer a volatile (albeit highly successful) experiment: Meinken says the program "runs more like clockwork with each passing year." It's discovered the consistent formula to focus and finish, thanks in large part to the maniacal precision that aptly-named workout staples like "Focus and Finish Friday" have supplied.
Turley's staff administers these painful-yet-productive endings to each week. These Friday rituals are highlighted by John Deere cart pushes, psychologically searing tug-of-war activities, and forced team-wide repetition when just one step of an exercise is not executed correctly, even in the face of exhaustion. "ATD": Turley's acronym for "Attention to Detail," a phrase which he barks repeatedly during the labor.
One can almost hear Harbaugh's words echo in the midst of these hellish workouts, spectacles of organized chaos that have clearly carried over into the team's performances down the stretch of hard-fought games.
"We're going to take this team and we're going to make them champions," Harbaugh said to McNally and his teammates back in 2007, in the first team meeting after his hire. "We're not talking bowl or conference champions. We're talking national champions. If you don't believe that, you need to leave."
A Full Circle Chance to Focus and Finish
Harbaugh's bullish words came with Stanford still reeling following its 1-11 campaign, quite possibly the most miserable year in program history. But his staff injected these aspirations into the team's mentality. Evidence of gradual success came through the three aforementioned milestones in the Coliseum, when the Cardinal flashed emphatic progress in their goal to consistently close games with each successive visit to Los Angeles.
"That's the mentality the whole team has adopted," McNally said. "They have those national title aspirations every year now. I loved it [when Harbaugh first said it], but at the same time, in the back of my head, even I had a hard time truly adopting them 100 percent. But by the time I left, I had no doubt. And especially now, I have no doubt that this team can do it."
So now, entering 2013, Stanford football has another chance to focus and finish in southern California, but this time on the ultimate goal, the one pronounced six years ago in that first team meeting under the new regime.
"You're either getting better or you're getting worse," reads a gigantic sign on the Cardinal's practice field. "You never stay the same."
That concludes our three-part series with featuring former Stanford football players Bo McNally and Geoff Meinken. Our goal was to preview the 2013 team's mentality but examining its foundation. Be sure to check out Part One and Part Two and stay tuned for another feature that examines the inner workings of the Stanford program.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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