The seeds of self-doubt were sown early. I was just a wee lad - OK, a 260-pound sophomore at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif. when legendary head coach Norm Dow began the brainwashing. We weren't good enough. We didn't have the talent. We would need luck and considerable smoke and mirrors. Contain Monterey's option attack? Forget about it; we didn't have the speed. Run the ball against Hollister? No chance; those farm boys were too rugged for us suburbanites. Dethrone St. Francis? We better hope their bus breaks down. We would be fortunate to record a first down at Salinas, let alone score. We should feel honored to line up against Seaside, which boasts the finest defensive line in high school football history, despite being winless. We would drink our warm Tang after our three-hour practice, and, by golly, we would like it.
After losing just one league game in my three varsity seasons and watching three former Acorns start in the NFL last year, I have a hunch Dow was exaggerating our inadequacies. Still, his point rings true. As crucial as it is for inept teams to cultivate confidence, great teams must prevent its overgrowth. Stanford (4-3, 3-1 Pac-10) has a delightful dilemma on its hands as it visits bipolar UCLA (2-4, 1-2) on Saturday. The Cardinal have emphatically escaped the grim grasp of "Walt Dismal World's Never-Never Win Land," but find themselves in motivational limbo. They are too good for head coach Jim Harbaugh to resort to "us against the world" battle cries, yet not elite enough for Harbaugh to prescribe Dr. Dow's reverse psychology. By beating the Bruins, Stanford will be one seemingly automatic victory against Washington State from securing bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001. Winning at the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1996 won't be easy, but doing so would give Harbaugh the opportunity all coaches relish when the Cardinal host the clawless Cougars on Nov. 1: lecturing his players about not letting their newfound success go to their heads.
I couldn't blame Jon McDonell. In his first year as Stanford's guards and centers coach, he didn't know me well enough to realize that his comment was as unnecessary as it was esoteric. During stretching before a Monday practice in spring 2001, McDonell told me that even though he lauded my performance in the previous Saturday's scrimmage, I was "not John Hannah yet." McDonell apparently feared that the compliments he dished out would convince me I was an All-American Alabama offensive lineman from the early 1970s. McDonell had no way of knowing that my humbling youth baseball career made me immune to athletic arrogance, or that sensing my frustration after a string of erratic games in 2000, former Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham sat me in his office, saying I couldn't leave until I told him I was a great football player. I told Willingham I wouldn't lie to his face, and he let me off the hook after I reluctantly allowed that I was a pretty good player who was determined to become great.
Perhaps second to their ubiquitous misuse of the word "ironic" whenever something is even vaguely coincidental, what I most despise about sports broadcasters is their use of the phrase "playing not to lose." This idiotic idiom is not just cliché; it's completely meaningless. Ever since overtime was introduced to college football in the last decade, "playing not to lose" has been exactly the same as "playing to win," which is widely accepted as a fairly solid strategy. I understand what the broadcasters mean - overly cautious, conservative play often renders front-runners uptight, allowing the opposition to gain ground - but the concept is better applied to individual performance. It wasn't until my fourth year at Stanford that I fully appreciated the difference between hoping to succeed and preparing to dominate.
During my two seasons as the Cardinal's starting right tackle, I mostly tried to not screw up. I focused just as much on getting out of our offense's way as getting in the way of opposing defensive ends - especially as a redshirt freshman in 1999, when I knew my job wasn't to anchor our potent offense, but to simply avoid weighing it down. That changed in 2001, when I slid to right guard. With a fresh start at a new position, I knew there was no reason I couldn't become the player I was recruited to be. The defensive tackles I faced weren't vastly athletically superior to me as were some of the slick defensive ends I danced with at tackle. And as an upperclassman, I wanted our offensive production to be largely because of me, not in spite of me.
My mental transformation was both sudden and gradual. With one tip from All-American left guard Eric Heitmann - he taught me to begin each play with a quick inside step to stop a potential veer, then drive the defender with short bursts rather than long strides - football became two things I thought were impossible in college: simple and fun. My improved techniques gave me the confidence to outplay most defensive linemen, and that confidence made me a better player in all phases of the game. I was no faster than I was the previous two years, but I knew I could pull and engage linebackers and defensive backs downfield. I wasn't much stronger than I was at tackle, but I refused to let a nose tackle stand his ground. I learned that execution was useless if it lacked conviction. The bottom line? Players typically don't improve because their coaches urge them to improve, but because they finally embrace the potential their coaches saw all along.
Some things don't change from high school to college. It's normal and necessary for coaches to highlight an opponent's strengths when preparing their players for action, but hyperbole can quickly dissolve a coach's credibility. I believed wide receivers coach David Kelly in 2002 the first few times he told our offense that our upcoming opponent featured the best secondary we'd face all season. Then I sensed a pattern. I had a feeling that if Montana Tech suddenly appeared on our schedule, they, too, would possess frightening safeties and smothering cornerbacks. Kelly must have sensed that our 2-9 squad was susceptible to overconfidence.
In 2000, guards and centers coach Tom Brattan implored our offensive line to respect San Jose State's defense, even as we watched its horrific manhandling at Nebraska. The Spartans beat us for a third straight time the following Saturday, prompting tackles and tight ends coach Mike Denbrock to employ a different motivational technique in 2001. After watching the Spartans surrender more than 40 points against their previous three opponents, Denbrock wasn't about to cry wolf. He opened our offensive line scouting-report meeting with the most refreshingly honest, comically inspirational statement I've ever heard, saying, "I'm not going to stand here and tell you how great these guys are. These guys are shitty, and if you can't line up and kick their asses, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Our ensuing 41-14 victory at muddy Spartan Stadium proved that Denbrock was on to something: Embracing your own ability is far more effective than feigning admiration for your opponent.
Even in a down year, UCLA has plenty of outstanding athletes, and remains a slight favorite this weekend. Still, Stanford fans should hope that the Cardinal coaching staff spent this week detailing how their defense can capitalize on the Bruins' dicey quarterback play, rather than selling Kevin Craft as a crafty field general based on his unlikely second-half performance against Tennessee. Running backs Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble and the Cardinal offense should be excited to face a UCLA defense that allowed 323 rushing yards at Oregon, rather than convinced that the Bruins have suddenly solidified their front seven. Stanford has been humbled for too long to need lessons in humility, and its nascent swagger should be embraced rather than admonished. Maintaining respect for UCLA and all future opponents is important for the Cardinal, but nowhere near as paramount as respecting themselves.
About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03, was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2003 with an English Major and a Political Science minor. His sister, Veronica Schindler, is a Development writer at the Stanford Athletic Department.
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