The Game Within the Game

Put down your depth chart for a moment. Close your browser window filled with team statistics. There is another layer of complexity to this Stanford-Notre Dame game, which goes back to the past relationships and remaining ties between the Card and their former head coach. The emotional upheaval that has followed looms large Saturday...

It's hard to approach a game like this and not evaluate all the matchups - all the personnel on both sidelines. Both these teams have had admitted offensive difficulties with their current regimes, and we're not sure that recent evolutions in Palo Alto or South Bend are necessarily legit. In fact, it's hard to look at this game and not see a defensive battle that ultimately is won with a deciding play or momentum-swinging play on special teams or defense.

But this Saturday afternoon matchup in rural Indiana has much more bubbling just beneath the surface. And while the psychological complexities of a game are often too subtle to grasp until after the final gun has sounded and all the locker room exhales have been recorded, the mental warfare between these two teams is clear to all. More than the battle between Leigh Torrence and Maurice Stovall... or between Jon Cochran and Justin Tuck, this is a war between Buddy Teevens and Tyrone Willingham. Between Stanford today and Stanford yesteryear.

There have been the documented recruiting tussles, with a paucity of niceties. They often get the blood boiling of the respective recruitnik fan bases. But emblematic of the greatest struggle was the post-game in October 2002 and again in November 2003. After each of those losses, a number of Cardinal players made a point to pay their respects to their former coach. While the acts were deemed laudable by outsiders, insiders knew that the umbilical cord had clearly not been cut between veteran players and their one-time leader. Two classes have graduated since, though, and the hope is that the team attachment and loyalty has greatly diminished as a result.

"Last year was the last group of seniors who had a real close personal tie to Coach Willingham," explains redshirt junior Brian Head. "Chris Lewis was real close, in particular. For me, I had only three months with the man. I was a redshirt, running card plays in practices."

"I have great respect for the man and a lot of people on that staff," Head continues. "But when he left, I was still too young to be heavily influenced by that."

For Head's class and the fifth-year seniors, there is still the gratitude of being recruited to Stanford. For some amount of time, the two eldest classes were coached by the head man and both coordinators currently residing in South Bend. Those Cardinal players say their loyalty has none of the ambiguity that the 2002 and 2003 team leaders carried.

"There is a feeling now finally that this is Coach Teevens' team," offers fifth-year senior Will Svitek. "I played two years under Coach Willingham and three under Coach Teevens. I'll end my Stanford career saying that Coach Teevens is my coach."

"There was a long line to greet [Willingham] after the games the last two years, and it was ridiculous. Like he was the President of the United States," Svitek continues. "This year there will be a long line to shake Coach Teevens' hand, to tell him you're our guy."

Time has passed, to be sure. But other events served to hasten the emotional dissociation of Stanford players from their former leader. In last year's 57-7 undressing of the home Cardinal, Willingham ran a fake punt late in the game with no person on the planet doubting the outcome of the blowout affair. Before the game, the one-time "Sheriff" of The Farm ran his team onto the field in a blatant disruption of the on-field Stanford senior farewell ceremonies with their parents. Though there are different reactions toward the incidents, they were received none too well.

"The fake punt at the end of the game? Yeah, you're trying to run up the score at that point. That kind of gets under your skin," Head admits.

Others would say that they had not enough contempt toward the Notre Dame sideline when they were so disgusted with their piss poor play on the day. "Our responsibility is to keep people off the scoreboard. It's not their responsibility," offers Teevens, who saw more than his share of throat stomping at Florida.

"As a player, I get more upset at myself," echoes redshirt junior Kevin Schimmelmann. "If we played better, they would not have been able to do that to us."

But nobody is ready to cut any intellectual slack to Willingham for his impudent attitude toward his former "fine young men" when he took his newest "young men" onto the field during Kirk Chambers' senior farewell. Rarely has there been such a contrast of class between a putative teacher and his former pupil.

"Running onto the field during the senior introductions was very disappointing," says a sore Svitek. "That was disrespect. That definitely hurt a lot of the seniors."

But Willingham surely had a more advanced agenda when he made that move. He had little to personally gain by raining on Chambers' parade and that of the other seniors. Instead, the Notre Dame team gained an emotional edge on the rattled Stanford seniors who walked into the first huddle of the game filled with hurt and bewilderment.

The ability to make a parallel play this year appears to be diminished. If you read the quotes by Head and Svitek, there is an emotional disentanglement that has taken place. Willingham holds fewer strings now, but he already made one move earlier this week when speaking with the Bay Area media on a teleconference call. The man who has used a maximum of three words to answer any tactical questions through his tenures with the Irish and the Cardinal spoke freely about how he holds an advantage in playing against his former players - understanding and exploiting their tendencies, their weaknesses. Willingham openly declared this to the one group he knew would repeat it in a visible medium that the Stanford players would read. Pull the strings. Yank 'em.

The statement came when he was asked if the game film against recent Notre Dame opponent Washington would give him or Teevens any advantages in preparation. Willingham shot that down quickly and took the chance to spring this instead: "The thing that helps us is that I still know some of the [Stanford] kids. Hopefully I know some of the little things they do... You hope you do have some insight into the manner in which they play."

So, days before the Cardinal flew to Indiana and long before they suited up in the locker room of Notre Dame Stadium, emotions were already put into play for the battle between a program and its departed coach. Some observers have charged that the revenge and bulletin board materials work in Stanford's favor - as if the game might otherwise be a sleepwalk case study from Dr. Dement's "Sleep and Dreams" course. But Teevens has been pushing for the longest time to keep his troops off the emotional roller coaster. The even keel is instead prescribed.

"Emotions can be a distraction," the Stanford coach succintly states.

There are distractions a-plenty in this matchup. If the Card want to come home Saturday night with a 4-1 record, they'll have to do it despite the mental warfare around them. It is a more formidable challenge than stopping Brady Quinn or scoring past Tom Zbikowski. It is the game within the game, and you won't see it on NBC's replay telestrator. Look for it in the heart and focus you see on the field and on the sidelines. It should win or lose this much-hyped battle in South Bend.

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