One of the very first questions, which can roughly cut the national coaching candidate pool in half, is whether Stanford should go with an offensively-minded or a defensively-trained coach in this hire. Most of the Cardinal fanbase would answer after little or no hesitation and voice support for an offensive talent. That is partially based on the historical record, and partially out of frustration from the last few years of offensive futility on The Farm.
Without taking too deep of a dive through the annals of Stanford Football, the program has been one of the true innovators in the sport in changing and evolving conventional offensive wisdom. Appropriately to this publication, the "bootleg" play made its debut on The Farm under Clark Shaughenssy. So too did the now classic "T-formation" with the quarterback under center, as well as the emergence of the tight end as a pass catcher later with big Bill McColl. Pop Warner introduced the huddle, the reverse and the three-point stance. Bill Walsh transformed college and pro football with his ball-control passing scheme known as the West Coast Offense.
With Stanford mired in the basement several of the last five years in scoring, passing and rushing statistics, it is high time that the Cardinal reclaim their heritage as an offensive power. It can be argued that Stanford more often than not will have a chance to win ballgames on offense because of the players that can be recruited under their exceptionally selective admissions standards. Stanford has always been able to attract signal callers, to the point of earning the nickname "Quarterback U." Offensive linemen often are cerebral fellows, and they too are a pool which the Cardinal can consistently recruit. Tight ends and fullbacks are also body types which seem to lend themselves more years than not to quality on the Stanford recruiting board. Wide receivers are hit and miss, with difficulty in recent years in obtaining breakneck speed at the position, though the tradition of Stanford's passing game schemes and quarterback play has also played a role in numerous prolific wideouts. Game-changers at tailback have been the hardest to find, which is another reason why passing has been at the forefront of Stanford offenses.
There have been defensive standouts and All-Americans at Stanford, to be sure, but the top athletes and speed at most defensive positions are more difficult to recruit to Stanford. Cornerbacks and defensive tackles, in particular, appear to rank right along with running backs as the weakest positions in football where academic acumen meet athletic prowess. Stopping the potent passing offenses in the Pac-10 starts with quick and athletic cover covers and a pass rush from the defensive interior, which more often than not leaves the Cardinal crippled on this side of the ball. Safeties have been found in relative abundance, though a number of the best for Stanford at that position in the last decade-plus were switches from offense, either in high school or at Stanford. Defensive ends have held their own, sharing the same body type and profile often with the rich tight end pool. Linebackers have become an increasingly fertile position group, so much so that Stanford the last three years became an innovator with a 3-4 defensive scheme that put four linebackers on the field.
Though offensive innovators and offensive-minded coaches have been prevalent through Stanford's history, there have been as many failures as successes in those hires. Regardless of how you feel about the processes that brought about the hires, and the insight that went into them, both Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were coaches who hung their hats on the offensive side of the ball. There is a lesson to be had, in that turning a blind eye to the overall qualifications of a head coach while focusing on offensive Xs and Os can lead to failure.
One could also take a look at the returning talent on the Stanford roster for 2007 (and beyond) and conclude that the next two or maybe three years will see the Cardinal crew best loaded with defensive playmakers. Stanford played exclusively underclassmen in its defensive line rotation this year, with nobody graduating this spring and just one current redshirt junior set to graduate after the 2007 season. Redshirts, true freshmen and redshirt freshmen accounted for seven Stanford defensive linemen in 2006 - all of them talented. Six linebackers are in their first or second year at Stanford, with four of them making starts this past fall and all of them having three or four years of eligibility remaining. The Cardinal take a big hit at safety, losing their three best to graduation, but redshirt freshman Bo McNally has a bright future. Stanford brings back a wealth of starting experience at cornerback, with 18 of its 24 starts returning in a trio of players. The opportunity for success for Stanford looks more likely on the defensive side of the ball the next couple seasons, so do not discount the immediate impact that a defensively adept coach could have on this program, where pieces are already in place.
In the bigger picture, it may be worthwhile to release the fascination with an Xs and Os offensive guru. The last four head coaches at Stanford who enjoyed some measure of success brought varying skill sets and strengths to the table. Only Bill Walsh arguably deserved the "guru" label. Tyrone Willingham was and remains the farthest from that quality, while Dennis Green brought a style rather than a scheme. John Ralston oversaw excellent passing offenses with Jim Plunkett and Don Bunce, but the strengths of this former Cal linebacker were managerial as much as anything.
Much has been discussed about the role of Stanford's next head coach as a recruiter. The coach has to have energy and passion that carries into his work ethic beating the bushes on the recruiting trail. Some would interpret that to mean youthful energy, and thus would parse the list of candidates by age. Going younger may be the right idea, but youth does not guarantee the recruiting energy Stanford needs, just as another 10 years of age does not disqualify a coach from being the "relentless recruiter" which Bowlsby has described.
On this subject, it is worth mentioning that the Tyrone Willingham sighting at Stanford last week should in no way be interpreted as his having a candidacy for the head coaching position. Push aside for the moment the manner in which Willingham left Stanford, (didn't) speak about Stanford after the move and recruited negatively against Stanford. He can be disqualified from this search merely by the utterance of those two words by Bowlsby. There is, after all, a monumental difference between a "relentless recruiter" and an effective closer.
Another aspect related to recruiting which should be considered is how Stanford's next head coach will handle the Admissions Office. We're not just talking about the man's acceptance of Stanford's admissions application process and sky-high standards. It goes without saying that a viable candidate must be informed and must truly understand what he is getting himself into. More importantly, however, he needs to not wage war against the Admissions Office once in the job on campus.
What's that? The Bootleg advocating a détente in the ongoing battle between Stanford sporting success and the ever-increasing admissions bar? Not exactly. Instead, the point being made here is that the head coach has neither the responsibility nor the opportunity to advocate for his interests directly to the University. That is the job of Bob Bowlsby, and we believe that he is better capable, more strategic and more willing to communicate effectively with the other arms of the University on this matter than his predecessor. A football head coach who sheds blood in the Admissions Office is not only counterproductive in the current environment, but he also is straying from the important and pressing areas he can affect in his job leading the football program.
Bowlsby can and should probe applicants on this subtle point. It is not in the nature of football head coaches, who are for the most part control freaks, to sit silently on an issue that so clearly controls the size of their recruitable pool and thus the future talent they can stock in their stables. If the rumor is true, for example, that Jim Harbaugh has butted heads with the admissions office at University of San Diego, that certainly raises a red flag in his candidacy.
In another notable quote which Bowlsby gave last week, he expressed his desire to find "someone who understands and embraces what it is that Stanford stands for, what the place is about." That is a fuzzy quality which is difficult to gauge in candidates, unless you are in the room during his interview. There is a small subset of candidates, however, who obviously clear this hurdle. Bowlsby spoke to that group when he said, without solicitation or prompting, that he would ideally like "to have somebody who has had an experience here."
An experience can include either playing at Stanford or coaching at Stanford. Several persons in that Venn diagram have in fact been interviewed in person or had phone contact with Bowlsby in the past week: James Lofton, Tom Williams, Jim Fassel and Mike Wilson. You could reasonably add Harbaugh to that list. He was up close with the Cardinal while attending Palo Alto High School across the street in the early 1980s, while father Jack Harbaugh was the defensive coordinator under Paul Wiggin. Another candidate with an "experience" on The Farm would be Pat Shurmur, though we have yet confirm any contact with him from Bowlsby.
At this point, it should be said that not all candidates who have been contacted should be construed as frontrunners. At the same time, those who have been contacted but are not on Bowlsby's short list should not be construed as courtesy calls. Some of these people may not be likely to get the job, but it is prudent to check them because of the qualities they would offer as a recruiter, as somebody who "gets" Stanford's unique recipe and as somebody who wants to stay at Stanford. Moreover, there are inimitable insights which can be gathered by Bowlsby in speaking with these people, that could ultimately have a profound impact on Stanford's final selection.
It is also worth noting that the last three Stanford head coaches who took the Cardinal to a bowl game - Willingham, Walsh and Green - all had previous Stanford experiences as assistant coaches.
If somebody with a Stanford experience should be hired as Stanford's next coach, perhaps the most important quality Bowlsby seeks in his hire will be satisfied: continuity. Or at least, there will be a better bet for continuity. Somebody who understands, values and appreciates Stanford for what it is may be better able to sit tight when the NFL siren comes calling.
A good friend told me last week his optimism and excitement over the prospects for Stanford in this coaching search. The 1-11 record this fall and five straight seasons could be seen as a deterrent to candidates, and the challenge that Stanford's admissions standards provide are well documented (and of late, well publicized). But as he pointed out during dinner, Stanford has been a great opportunity for coaches because the job has proven a successful springboard. That might be attractive to coaches, but it is also precisely the problem that has prevented Stanford from sustaining success in the modern era.
Stanford's last four "successful" coaches, and where they jumped next:
NFL, NFL, NFL and a school whose fanbase believe it better than the NFL. Ralston left after his second straight Rose Bowl, and Stanford did not go bowling again until "The Genius" arrived. When Walsh traded Stanford Stadium for Candlestick Park after just his second season, the Cardinal dipped into a decade-plus funk. Denny Green increased the team's win totals each year of his brief stay, and then he jumped ship the moment his set sail from the Aloha Bowl. Tyrone Willingham peaked with a nine-win regular season in 2001 that was a breath away from the BCS, and then he begged his way to South Bend. The five seasons that have followed have been excruciating.
With the exception of middling success by Jack Christiansen following Ralston's tenure and the one-year spike for Walsh's second stay after Green left, there has been decidedly poor football that has followed the departures of Stanford's winning coaches the last 35 years. The unique challenges of this program are such that it takes time, care and some lessons in order to win. Success is hard to sustain, but more so when one man is trying to step into another's shoes.
Many in the Cardinal community today are obsessing over who is the right candidate. The truth is that there are probably several people who are qualified and equipped to win at Stanford, particularly with the blessings of what is now the best stadium in the Pac-10 and the best athletic director in the Pac-10.
What is instead more important for Bob Bowlsby to ascertain is which excellent candidate will be most likely to stay long-term and build this program. He must find somebody for Stanford who values this job rather than this opportunity.
That is not just a Stanford necessity. Bowlsby may or may not have hired the best coach imaginable when he found Kirk Ferentz in 1999, but Iowa became a Big 10 power rather than a flash in the pan because Ferentz stayed put. Every single year since he broke double-digit wins, Ferentz' name has been bandied about with NFL and top-level college coaching jobs. Pro clubs and Notre Dame have tried, but nobody has yet to pry Ferentz away from Iowa City.
We cannot pretend to know precisely what inside Ferentz has made him want to stay at a school which by all measures is a small fish in a big Big 10 pond. Bowlsby is probably due half the credit, for managing his premier coaching property and providing him with the compensation and institutional support to keep him plenty content.
Ferentz and Iowa are about to play in their sixth straight bowl game. Before Bowlsby left this past summer, the Hawkeyes were able to claim four straight January bowl games. Stanford has not played in three straight bowl games since the Vow Boys held their word in the mid-1930s.
Now in his eighth year, Ferentz is famously making $2.7 million per year. That's a lot of corn. It was reportedly the third most in all of college football at the start of this season, and Iowa is a public school which ranks 10th in their conference in enrollment. Through fundraising, engendered institutional commitment and shear will power, Bowlsby rallied unthinkable financial support to keep Ferentz on campus.
Which leads us to what many consider an issue, which it in fact is probably not. Money. Stanford and Bob Bowlsby are not going to buy Steve Spurrier, Bob Stoops or Peter Carroll onto the Cardinal campus. But the self-imposed salary shackles are much looser than the last two times you followed a Stanford Football head coaching search. In January 2002 and December 2004, your ears bled as Ted Leland delivered thundering proclamations that Stanford would not pay an "exorbitant" salary for its head coach. With Rose Bowl t-shirts hanging in his closet and enough Waterford crystal from Directors' Cups to blind Delaware, Leland thought it noble and his responsibility to craft some sort of START treaty in college athletics to back away from the arms race.
In sharp contrast, Bowlsby made no mention of money or salary in his statements last week, until he was directly asked. Even then, he did not so much as nibble at the notion that he would operate within some financial leash while hunting for his new head coach. Of course there is some limit to what he can and should spend. But rest assured that Bowlsby has lined up the support of the University and major donors to bring in the coach required to resurrect this program.
So what exactly is happening with the Stanford Football head coaching search?
The bad news is that Bowlsby is conducting the search in such a manner that information is exceedingly difficult to come by. Well, bad for all of us but good for Stanford. Information was easy to attain when Harris and Teevens were hired, as was also the case in the hire of Trent Johnson for men's basketball. But those were the Leland days, when internal leaks were commonplace and candidates were only half-heartedly concealed when interviewing on campus. This past spring, the game changed completely when Stanford interviewed for its athletic director position. There was a good deal of speculation and rumor, but never once in any conversation I heard or any article I read did Bowlsby's name even briefly arise. His candidacy was locked down tighter than a papal conclave. I freely admit that when I heard the news that Stanford was hiring Bob Bowlsby, it was a complete and total shock.
As the sitting athletic director at Iowa, much damage could have come to him and his athletic department should word have leaked of Bowlsby's candidacy in the spring. His willingness and viability as a Stanford candidate rested entirely upon the secrecy of the process, which ultimately allowed Stanford to pull off its greatest athletic hiring coup since Pop Warner.
It comes as no surprise that Bowlsby is keeping that same cloak of secrecy in his search for his football head coach. Not every candidate will abide, and some leaks may in fact be inadvertent. But you can keep in mind two rules in following this search in the public eye. 1) The candidates and their agents who are making noise and reporting contact are not viable. 2) The viable candidates should have the least leaked information, and maybe nothing reported at all.
That helps a bunch, doesn't it?
Here is what we do know. Bob Bowlsby went on the road last week to meet and interview several candidates. It was incorrectly reported at first that Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges was interviewed by Bowlsby at Stanford. It was a phone conversation that Tuesday, believed to be initiated by Borges. Bowlsby's first significant road interview travel took him on Wednesday to San Diego, where he reportedly met with each of San Diego Chargers wide receivers coach James Lofton and University of San Diego head coach Jim Harbaugh. Bowlsby's travel on that Thursday has not yet been ascertained. He reportedly met with Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, which may have transpired Thursday. The first-year Stanford athletic director returned to campus by Friday to help lead the Cardinal's official visit recruiting weekend. While back in the Bay Area, Bowlsby is believed to have interviewed San Jose State co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams.
Bowlsby had at least three planned interviews for Sunday in three different cities, which may have been trimmed to just two. Bowlsby conducted interviews in Salt Lake City and then in Chicago. The New York Times reported that those respective trips afforded interviews for Montana head coach Bobby Hauck and recent Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. Bowlsby was back at Stanford all day Monday, which appeared to mark an end to the opening round of this process. The Cardinal athletic director, however, went back out on the road again Tuesday. Following his pattern set Sunday of meeting with candidates in cities unrelated to their current residence or employment, Bowlsby is believed to have traveled to Las Vegas. He was possibly needing to travel again today.
Of all of Bob Bowlsby's reported in-person interviews conducted to date, none have involved a sitting head coach of a Division I-A school. Such interviews are unlikely to take place until the latter stages of this process, for a variety of reasons. Those head coaches cannot afford the time for multiple interviews during this NCAA recruiting period which allows and compels them to make in-home visits with their top recruits. More importantly, the risk of exposure for a sitting head coach that comes with an interview for another job discourages any in-person contact unless and until he is a finalist.
Some - or maybe all - of Stanford's top candidates have yet to be revealed. Bowlsby's travel this week may include sitting head coaches who have yet to enter the public search circus of confirmed contacts. Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach is rumored to be such a coach, though we have yet to confirm any contact or interview, previous or scheduled.
Bowlsby announced at the beginning of last week that he hoped to complete this process and have his head coach hired in "about two weeks." The timing is still on track for a conclusion either this weekend or shortly thereafter, Bowlsby updated Tuesday by phone.
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