A Meeting With Ted Leland

terry meets with Stanford AD Ted Leland to discuss Stanford football.

In November, I sent a letter to Ted Leland regarding the football program. I received a reply from Ted in which he suggested that we meet to discuss the situation. What an offer! I don't know if he was just being polite or what, but I decided that since he offered, I was going. I invited another Stanford supporter (and Bootboarder) to come along.

Last Tuesday we met with Ted. I figured Ted would give us a few minutes of polite but meaningless conversation, or maybe try to get us to support the Buck/Cardinal Club. I was wrong. It turned out to be a really good meeting -- way beyond what I expected. The meeting lasted well over an hour, and we just talked about Stanford football. Ted was very open. He responded directly and candidly to our questions. He talked about big picture issues, but he also talked about details, such as specific players, specific admissions decisions, recent coaching changes, etc. There was no "company line," no excuses, no attempt to whitewash the negatives, no attempt to "process" us through his office. I was surprised he was willing to spend so much time with us. We're both alumni and season ticket holders, but not major donors or big shots. He just really seems to love talking about football.

Going into the meeting, I wanted to get a sense for whether Ted would be satisfied to have a football program that permanently hovers around .500, occasionally rising to 6 or 7 wins & a minor bowl. Clearly, he doesn't think that's good enough. He's looking for a way to go to the Rose Bowl, not the Aloha Bowl. Ted isn't satisfied with the performance of the team over the last two years. He's particularly unhappy with 1997 because Stanford had a lot of good players, but the team's performance in the second half of the year was very disappointing.

Ted wants to build a program that wins consistently. He reviewed Stanford football's recent history. He referred to the long string of winning seasons that Stanford was enjoying back when Ted was an assistant on Bill Walsh's staff. In the '90s Stanford has been through "up & down" cycles. Ted believes Stanford's lack of consistency is related to the lack of coaching stability. He thinks no recent coach has been around long enough to learn all aspects of the job, become really good at it, and enjoy the benefits. Green won with Elway's recruits and left, Walsh won with Elway/Green recruits and left before he could build his own program, and Willingham initially won with Walsh recruits. Ted said his strategy for building a consistent winner, "as flawed as it may be," is to provide coaching stability. He mentioned Montgomery, Tara, and Gould as examples. Of course, he recognizes that stability is a good thing only if you have the right coach. He thinks he does. He didn't say what might cause him to lose confidence in the coach or what specific results he expects the coach to achieve. But Ted thinks things are going to improve. There have been a couple of good recruiting classes, and Ted expects next year's team to be better than this year's team. At one point I asked "what if we win 2 or 3 games next year." Ted seemed to find that possibility both unlikely and too painful to contemplate.

As you would expect, Ted fully appreciates the importance of football. He quoted figures regarding the financial impact of having another 10,000 - 15,000 people in the seats and of appearing more frequently on TV. He is keenly aware that the best way to sell more tickets and get on TV is to win more games. For example, he said that if Stanford had one additional win in its first five games last year, we would have had at least one more televised game. He said there is no way, other than building a new golf course, that the Athletic Department can generate the same kind of incremental income that could be generated from doing better in football.

Ted said that when he took over as A.D., there was a significant budget shortfall, and he slashed expenditures for football marketing. His thinking was that if the team won, people would come to games anyway; if the team didn't win, marketing wouldn't do any good. Ted now thinks he made a mistake. He has decided he needs to do more marketing for football. As some of us observed, there was a stepped-up football marketing campaign last fall. The football marketing campaign probably will be expanded again this fall.

Ted knows that there is a perception in some quarters that the athletic department cares about the non-revenue sports and doesn't really care about winning at football. He disagrees with that. Despite the breadth of his responsibilities, he obviously keeps track of the football program very closely. His background is as a football guy, and it shows. He clearly believes in the importance of football. On the other hand, Ted said that Stanford will never be like Florida State, where it is obvious from the moment you walk in the athletic department that football is everything and other sports are an afterthought. But I saw no evidence to support the view that the athletic department is an anti-football, pro-Sears Cup cult. (BTW, Ted had a large poster on his wall commemorating the 1991 Big Game -- good choice!)

Regarding facilities, Ted said that over the last few years the athletic department has renovated the football weight rooms, practice field, locker rooms, etc. -- all of the football facilities except the stadium. The athletic department has also spent $6 million to $8 million on the stadium. Some of that money went for the metal benches, but most of it went into areas that don't provide much visible benefit. For example, the entire electrical system had to be replaced to meet safety codes. The architect who handled these improvements also did a study of possible major renovations. They have considered replacing the benches with individual seats having backs and arms. Two new seats would replace three old seats, which is somewhat of a problem because it would reduce the number of seats between the goal-lines. They have looked at the possibility of removing the track, lowering the field by 20 feet, and adding new rows of seats down to the new field level. One estimate for a major overhaul totaled $80 million. Obviously that would require a major fundraising effort, which couldn't start for several years due to other planned university-wide fundraising initiatives.

Ted said the university President doesn't have much effect on football one way or the other. The athletic department funds itself, and the President doesn't control the athletic budget. The President traditionally takes a "hands-off" approach to admissions in general, including athletic admissions.

We talked for quite a while about admissions. I got a strong sense that football admissions are just as mysterious as other admissions at Stanford -- it all depends on the individual, not the numbers. Ted gave examples of recruits with identical grades and SATs where one guy was admitted and one wasn't, and he explained why -- factors like motivation, effort, input from the kid's school, impressions of the kid himself, what else is "in the file," etc. Ted recognized that some people believe admissions standards for football have been raised, but he's not sure that's right. Ted noted that football's highest-priority recruits were admitted this year.

Regarding the schedule, Ted said last fall's home schedule (3 home games by Sept. 19) was a real mistake, which he tried to change but couldn't. Ted described Stanford's current scheduling approach (Notre Dame, San Jose St., another tough non-league opponent) as John Ralston's model. The recent NCAA decision to add a 12th game in certain years will give Stanford a chance to balance its schedule in those years. Stanford is looking at flip-flopping the home/away Big Game rotation so that we don't have back-to-back home games with Cal & Notre Dame. But first, Ted's waiting to see if Notre Dame joins the Big 10, which would require Notre Dame to drop a number of its currently scheduled games. ND would probably keep Stanford on its schedule (the current agreement runs through 2016), but nothing is certain. Also, our 2001 home game against ND will be in October rather than after Thanksgiving because of another commitment by ND, so after this year we won't have Cal/Notre Dame home games back-to-back until 2003. That gives us some time to resolve this issue.

Maybe this just reflects our natural inclinations, but we both walked out of the meeting feeling better about Stanford football than when we went in. It's too bad all of us can't have a meeting like this one about once a year!

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