Extreme Ted

Teevens' reputation for outgoing approachability and affable graciousness threatens to overshadow his record on the X's and O's page of his resume. Where Willingham's M.O. was tight-lipped security that makes Donald Rumsfeld sound like Joan Rivers, Buddy gives the impression of a small-town pastor on a mission to enlarge the flock. So far, so good. The program could stand a little warmth, come to think of it.

It’s hard to fault Dr. Leland when it comes to athletic direction.  After all, the gleaming Irish-crystal candy jar splashing spectrum light around the Sears Wing of the Hall of Fame Room speaks for itself, no?

I mean, how can you cast aspersions on the guy who friggin’ owns – owns – the venerable Sears Cup – symbolic of D1 sport supremacy?  Guy’s gotta know a thing or two about coaches, don’t you think?  How to hire and fire, for example.  The dude could write a book.  Might be in negotiations for one right now.

So why all the nettlesome second-guessing from the legion of armchair A.D.’s in the wake of his most recent foray into the labor pool?  Hasn’t this guy shown the world something about building sports programs, which, presumably, implies that he makes astute decisions about whom he adds to the Department’s payroll?

Why?  Because it’s the football program, stupid.  And for all that Irish glass under glass, his head-coach hires have logged an un-Sears-like 54-47-2 on the old gridiron -- a winning percentage of .524. Definitely below Cup radar.  And, not coincidentally, that seven-over-.500 margin is the current winning streak in the Big Game.  Ted must be  grateful for Cal. But more on that later.

Some thoughts come to mind.  Recall that in his first chance to anoint a head coach in 1992 the good doctor never really did get to “hire” Bill Walsh for the Walsh II reign -- which itself would amount to a bitterly disappointing .500 (17-17-1).  Ted was forced into a sort of Archbishop of Westminster role at the time, relegated to basically placing the crown upon the genius’ silver mane.  Walsh, you’ll recall, virtually appointed himself to the chair of the Department of Football on the Farm.  As giddy as Ted appeared during the coronation ceremony, you have to think that sometime later – maybe during some event when Walsh might have handed Ted his top hat, cane and gloves and told him to go wash and park the car – that the doctor might have just bridled a bit and muttered something inaudible and impolitic.  End of giddiness.

Maybe, maybe not.  But, when the king abdicated two years later, leaving behind sore feelings and a program in some disarray, notice what Ted did?  Went smack out and hired the Anti-Walsh: Tyrone Willingham – in his first-ever job as head coach at any level.

Where Walsh held court, Willingham held closed practices.  Where Walsh threw tailgates for the coaches’ wives, the Sheriff threw down the gauntlet for those who would dare step too close to the program.  More important to Ted, however, where Walsh ran a loose-goose ship, at least during reign II, the Sheriff would run a bootcamp.

Not that anyone was complaining.  At least, not yet.  The Genius’s exit from Stanford in the late autumn of ’94 wasn’t exactly a Hollywood ending.  The program was in dire need of a Lou Gossett-style drill instructor clenching a whistle and snapping a swagger stick.  Willingham seemed straight out of central casting.

Now a happy guy, Ted was remaking the program into the image of the untested man he recruited and hired. Tight schedules.  Tight ship.  “Up”-tight wasn’t an issue.  Yet.

The Sheriff was Ted’s guy, all the way.  No forced appointments.  No formal coronations.  No pomp-and-circumstance walk up the aisle of the Abbey to ruffles and flourishes from the pipe organ.  Ted’s mantra at the time: what a great “fit” it was for Stanford.

Fast-forward to January ’02 and the mantra is being repeated.  In the wake of Willingham’s abrupt, awkward and bewildering departure, we behold déjà vu all over again.  Ted’s go-to strategy: do the extreme thing.  Again. This time, he hires the Anti-Sheriff.  His man: Eugene “Buddy” Teevens who knew Leland in a long-ago and far-away career in the Ivy League, of all places.  Ted hired him then, too, at Dartmouth, so the “Buddy” handle is cynically appropriate.

Teevens’ reputation for outgoing approachability and affable graciousness threatens to overshadow his record on the X’s and O’s page of his resume.  Where Willingham’s M.O. was tight-lipped security that makes Donald Rumsfeld sound like Joan Rivers, Buddy gives the impression of a small-town pastor on a mission to enlarge the flock.  So far, so good.  The program could stand a little warmth, come to think of it.

Ah, but then there’s that X’s and O’s thing.  Or, more to the point, the W’s and L’s – in which case the former didn’t exactly get notched in profusion during Buddy’s last – and only – stint running a D1 program.  As we’re painfully aware by now, at Tulane in the mid-1990s, Teevens’ lack of distinction stands out like Willingham at open-mike night at a comedy club.  The unhappy fact is that Buddy’s teams logged ten wins in five years in New Orleans. Even further below Sears radar.  By contrast, Willingham tallied his tenth win half-way through his second campaign.  Not exactly Nebraska numbers, maybe, but he was also on his way that year to his second straight bowl game – something no Stanford coach had done since Walsh I.

But differences this time are more stylistic and less substantial in terms of pure W’s and L’s.  Where Walsh, even in his sad-sack final year, remained on the “A” guest list at luncheons and dinners, bestowing quips and quotes the way John D. Rockefeller handed out dimes, the Sheriff could put people off just by showing up – and saying very little.  Some recent Bootleg posts reveal much about the pathos of the Stanford football fan.  One wag went so far as to comment that, while he doesn’t know if the new guy can coach, it’s a sure bet to be an improvement in the entertainment factor at booster gatherings.  I mean, how Stanford can you get?

As far as the extremes are concerned in Dr. Leland’s strategy, he’s actually following a long tradition on The Farm, more or less consistent with the decisions of his predecessors over the years. When the lacklustre era of Jack Curtice came to an end in 1962, ironically with a 30-13 thrashing of Cal (who else?), A.D. Chuck Taylor reached out to Utah State and a young Old Blue named John Ralston: the Anti-Curtice.  Curtice was an older gent.  Ralston was a bushy-tailed 30-something. Where Curtice’s style was folksy and laid back, Ralston’s was crisp and by-the-numbers.  It was also a bit of a risk for Taylor.  There were audible grumbles about Ralston’s undergraduate education.  A silly sentiment, in retrospect, which he did not completely efface until beating his alma mater in the ’63 Big Game.

Joe Ruetz was the next risk-taker as A.D.  His bet on 47-year-old Bill Walsh, a much-traveled NFL assistant-cum-offensive coordinator, was not without its second-guessing in 1977.  Word had it among the league that Walsh had been passed over repeatedly in his bid to be a head coach somewhere.  What did other people know? Questions, however quietly, were raised.  So much for the questions.  Ruetz’s choice of Walsh, whose credentials included a stint at Stanford in the early Ralston years, was his own response to Walsh’s predecessor, Jack Christiansen – a defense-minded guy who stretched a quarterback controversy across three seasons.  Walsh, the Anti-Chris, was offensive football personified and a Michelangelo who sculpted quarterbacks.  Stanford basked in the artful results.

When the Walsh I chapter concluded at the end of ’78 season, Ruetz hired the guy personally recommended to him by Walsh: Rod Dowhower, who scrambled to a 5-5-1 record before bolting to the NFL at his first chance.  In Dowhower’s wake were broken glass, hard feelings and ruffled feathers.  The stage was set for yet another “extreme” move.  New A.D. Andy Geiger took it seriously when the writers of large checks to the department dropped hints about the importance of “good fit” and “Stanford connections.”  So he hired Paul Wiggin, the Anti-Dowhower. Unwise.  Four years later, as the Wiggin Wagon careened over the cliff and tumbled into Stanford history, Geiger prepared to bring in his own Anti guy.  The ultimate Anti-Stanfordite: Jack Elway.  It failed. Four seasons later, the ugly and contentious dismissal of Elway led to estrangement of son, John, from the program.  It would haunt Stanford.

Geiger then took what was seen at the time as a risky move and brought in Dennis Green, a kind of Anti-Jack, whose own debut as a head coach, at woeful Northwestern, had been less than stellar.  Three seasons later, Green had Stanford back in a bowl game, a larder stocked with talent, and a program primed for the rough magic of Walsh II.

So where does all of this bring us?  With the appointment of Teevens, Ted is rolling the dice, to be sure.  Which is a good thing.  At the same time, there’s the unmistakable, uncomfortable scent of safe choice here, as well – a la Wiggin and Elway.  Not good. The Ted Leland imprimatur gets you hired at Stanford, almost no questions asked. At the end of the day, however, or at the end of the five-year contract (whichever comes first) Teevens will be judged not by his great fit, but by what’s in the win column.  This is as it must be and always has been.  And there’s nothing extreme about that.

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