Second-year coach Denny Green’s philosophy had Stanford’s most experienced offensive lineman accepting a more reduced role in 1990. The fifth-year senior felt change in the trenches, coming in the form of freshman Glen Cavanaugh.
“I was a guy who played every down for three years,” remembers Gillingham, now a prosecutor for the County of Santa Clara District Attorney’s office. “And there I was getting spelled for three or four series a game. It was the first time I realized what a meritocracy was. You learned that even if you were experienced, you would take a back seat to someone behind you if they had the talent to do it better, even for a few plays.”
Stanford’s path from feeling good about a 5-6 record to a five-loss season causing panic turned 25 this year. The Cardinal’s 5-6 finish in 1990 felt like an achievement. A patchwork roster light on seniors and heavy on transfers created high expectations for the future, a major development at the time. The Cardinal entered the season without a road win in three years. A murderous schedule included two wins Stanford fans will savor forever.
But it was the Cardinal’s methods that remain significant to this day. Green and his talented assistants didn’t just make the Stanford ground game a true threat. They reversed a decades-old trend and transformed an entire brand. Last-second wins at Notre Dame and Cal – together with the emergence of a behemoth offensive line – were proof that Stanford could finally bully an opponent into submission.
Gillingham started at right guard after playing both center and guard. Per offseason orders from his head coach, he played above 300 pounds (315, up significantly from 280) for the first time. Opposite him and senior Darron Baird, the left side was even more potent. Guard Brian Cassidy and left tackle Bob Whitfield also eclipsed 300 pounds and paved the path.
“It sounds cliché, but football really is a game of blocking, won at the line of scrimmage,” Gillingham said. “It’s amazing how far the program has come since then. I think David Shaw, as young and impressionable player at the time, saw what was going on in those years. I think he carries that with him to this day.”
It’s fitting to connect Stanford’s success of this era (63-15 since 2010, by far the best six-season run in the program’s history) to Green’s blueprint. The marquee features the offensive line, just like in 1991 when the Cardinal won seven straight for the first time in 40 years. The o-linemen, groomed in their head coach’s image, made headlines for outweighing NFL counterparts.
But uncertainty greeted Stanford football as it entered the ’90s. A 3-8 record in Green’s first season marked the program’s eighth losing year (and fifth of four wins or fewer) since 1981. Attendance was in decline. Olympic sports on The Farm gained the spotlight. Remaining fans wondered how committed the university was to its most high-profile sport.
Increased admissions standards forced coaches to expand recruiting like never before. The opening-night starting lineup at Colorado featured nine players from outside California (Pennsylvania-bred Ed McCaffrey would have made it ten, but he sat out with back spasms). In 1980, just five starters on offense and defense combined came from out of state. The Buffaloes featured 17 seniors on their two-deep roster. Stanford had just five.
Transfers like Glyn Milburn (Oklahoma), Ellery Roberts (Miami) and Ron George (Air Force) added to the flavor. George, who grew up on an Air Force base in West Germany, was especially green. “I wasn’t even raw when I came out of high school,” he said in 1992. “I was like the seed they plant to grow sugarcane.”
Growing pains ensued to start the year. After taking the Buffaloes to the brink before Eric Bienemy’s last-second touchdown leap, Stanford blew a late lead at UCLA. San Jose State beat the Cardinal for the sixth time in 11 years. Hope seemed in short supply as the 1-3 Cardinal traveled to South Bend to face the No. 1 Irish.
But a more even playing field was taking shape throughout college football. The NCAA had instituted rules going beyond the recent 85 scholarship-limit. There were tighter academic standards and increased steroid testing. There existed unprecedented television exposure (seven Stanford games were broadcast live on national or regional TV, a record at the time). All that combined to produce a wild 1990 season, where five teams – Virginia included – took turns atop the AP poll.
Stanford’s contribution to the madness involved a 36-31 shocker, Notre Dame’s first home loss in four years, Lou Holtz’s first season. The Cardinal’s current status as Irish rival? Unthinkable at the time.
“I was on a fraternity retreat and only heard about it much later that night,” remembered Stanford radio play-by-play voice Scott Reiss, then a Stanford sophomore. “.[That’s] life without smartphones. Campus was crazy that night. … I suppose the rivalry [with Notre Dame] is somewhat unlikely. Obviously Stanford’s rise to prominence has increased the game on a national level.”
An ensuing three-game losing streak would have buried lesser teams. Not Stanford.
“The coaches knew how to challenge us and appeal to our collective common sense,” Gillingham said. “They wouldn’t let us get down. And you could look around and see talent. When you’re backup quarterback (John Lynch) is a first-ballot Hall of Fame safety, you know you have a good thing going.”
Opponents were starting to notice. Stanford won 23-10 at Tuscon, ruining Arizona’s homecoming. The Cardinal amassed 244 rushing yards, by far its biggest rushing output ever against the Wildcats. Milburn dashed for 142 yards on 7.1 yards per rush. “The single biggest threat in the whole league,” Dick Tomey called him.
McCaffrey and Milburn finished first and second, respectively, in the Pac-10 for receptions. Quarterback Jason Palumbis led the nation with a .686 completion percentage.
The individual superlatives occurred in a season that featured unheard happenings on the outside. The San Jose State game featured a Beach Boys concert. Halftime in Eugene saw the most famous chainsaw in Stanford Band history. Link.
Stanford football will never have another year like 1990. Veterans of those days want to see Stanford continue to innovate and break new ground.
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