The spooky symmetry of Stanford meeting Georgia Tech in the Seattle Bowl has continued, though to a degree unexpected by many today. As was the case with the 1991 Aloha Bowl, Stanford has now joined Georgia Tech in losing the head coach they entered the season with. Stanford and Tech lost Denny Green and Bobby Ross to NFL jobs after the '91 game in Hawaii, and now the schools have lost Tyrone Willingham and George O'Leary to Notre Dame - just weeks apart.
On Notre Dame's end of the business, this ends quite an intriguing saga, where they had intimate talks with Tyrone a couple weeks ago, but left him at the altar as they searched for the magical candidate who could deliver the "wow" factor in his hiring. Gruden, Mariucci and Shanahan were on the tips of every Irish tongue in America. TW was rebuffed as having a mediocre winning record, 44-36-1, uncomfortably close to that of Bob Davie when he drew the Golden Axe. But with Notre Dame's options drying up faster than the ink on George O'Leary's amended resume, Tyrone became the most palatable of remaining options.
The Irish optimist can see the logic in the hire, though. He is one of the very few potential candidates in the country who have real experience with recruiting against admissions barriers (albeit modest at ND as compared to Stanford). He has faced obstacles in institutional support at Stanford that would be wholly reversed in South Bend, and could in turn give reason to believe he could have even greater success. There is a risk in this move for Kevin White, but that frankly isn't a concern any longer for Cardinalmaniacs™. The concern is for Stanford's welfare today, and that looks at Tyrone's successor, not his future. In fact, Tyrone is now an annual foe on the field, as well as in the recruiting wars. We wish him years of 6-5 "success."
The good news for Stanford's football future is that most of the tactical on-the-field success came from the preparation and game-coaching of the staff who worked under Tyrone. TW was not a hands-on coach who called or influenced much in the way of formations or plays - that fell to Bill Diedrick and Kent Baer. The improved success in the 1999-2001 seasons, as compared to the failures of the 1997-98 seasons, could be largely traced to improved hires on his staff. Improvement has come at the position coaching spots, as well as the coordinators. The loss of TW could quite conceivably take little to nothing away from the on-the-field winning formula that has been brewing on the Farm. Moreover, the cupboards have been left well stacked, as the result of three straight years of superb recruiting. The bad news is that the stability of Tyrone as head coach for the last seven years was a huge part in improved recruiting success, and the image of Stanford football. There is potential damage in the outside perception of where Stanford football stands as we enter 2002. Potentially.
To that point, this is now the defining moment in Athletic Director Ted Leland's career. He has seen football rise to new heights this fall at Stanford, and has the singular responsibility to continue the progress toward repeat Rose Bowls and a national championship. All eyes are now fixed on Teddy, to see with what speed he will act on this vacancy, and in what manner. He has no excuse to not have a firm list of candidates in place, and should have contact with one or more of them today. After all, this dance between Tyrone and Notre Dame is weeks old, and any unpreparedness then should have been quite remedied by now.
The immediate concern is the recruiting impact at Stanford, as we are just thirty-four days away from the National Letter of Intent Day, when recruits will sign their commitments to Stanford and other schools around the country. The saving grace today is that we are still in a NCAA-regulated dead period through Wednesday the 3rd of January. Recruits should not be able to receive the deluge of negative recruiting against Stanford until the 4th, and Stanford has an excuse to deliver silence on the future of its football program as well. Fortunately, Stanford's first great official visit weekend kicks off on the 11th, which gives a slightly longer window of time. The speed and gravity with which Ted Leland moves will send a strong and important signal to the host of recruits still considering Stanford for their future. Unfortunately for Cardinalmaniacs™, that number is unsettling in its magnitude. Just three young men have given their verbal commitments to Stanford to date, with a host of critically important recruits still on the fence. Trent Edwards may or may not be the QB of the future at the Farm. Julian Jenkins may or may not be the pass rushing monster of the future at the Farm. Beall, Vinson, Edwards, Ralph, Kezirian, Simpson and others may or may not combine to form the all-important backbone offensive line of the (very near) future at the Farm. Fortunately, this recruiting year has found an all-time low in head-to-head recruiting battles between Stanford and Notre Dame, so there is optimism that very few recruits would be redirected from Palo Alto to South Bend. The most prominent such cases is OL Josiah Vinson.
In concert with Ted's moves in the coming hours and days, the Assistant Watch is on. Tyrone will surely take some of his staff with him to South Bend, given their importance in his winning record, and the time and difficulty with which he built the assembled crew. Bill Diedrick will surely be asked, as he is the architect of Stanford's prolific offense, the core of Cardinal success the past three years. Whether BD bolts or not will be directly tied to Leland's decision to include him or not in the head coaching search.
As for the Stanford coaching search, outside names to be considered (in addition to those currently on the staff) should include some former Stanford coaches, like Dennis Green, George Siefert, Ron Turner and Tom Williams. Names from outside the Stanford family should include Mike Riley, Norv Turner and Sherman Lewis. I intentionally do not include Tim Murphy, even though Ted Leland would probably think long and hard about him. The jump from Harvard to Stanford is one so large that we would again be handed a "learn on the job" coach. There is potential for hidden greatness, but I see too much risk for a Stanford program at its current heights. Additionally, hiring Murphy would reinforce the erroneous stereotype that Stanford is "just an Ivy League" in the football world. I also see a progression that could leave Stanford as a stepping stone if Murphy did have success. Leland needs to look for a sure bet, with a high probability of stability. Of course, Tyrone was a candidate who slipped well under the public radar in December of '94, so expect the unexpected as this search gets underway.
By the way, if John Elway has ever intimated that he is interested in coaching, Ted must make the phone call to guage John's interest in joining whatever staff is assembled. The timing is very good, with Elway having just enough time away from the Broncos to get the "itch" for football again, and also with John coming closer to Stanford again in recent months and years.