34-year national title streak in jeopardy

For the 34 seasons from 1976-‘77 onward, Stanford has won a national title each and every school year. It has become a tradition as indispensible on the Farm as Full Moon on the Quad, a rite of passage every bit as regular as Finals. This year though, two short months remain on the clock, and a 34-year streak is in serious jeopardy.

Men's gymnastics? Second place.

Women's soccer? Second place.

Women's swimming? Second place.

Women's basketball? Second place.

Joining in the runner-up fad for good measure was synchronized swimming, though not an officially-recognized NCAA sport. Men's swimming took fourth and men's cross-country finished tenth – both were top-two squads heading into their NCAA Finals.

To be clear, all of the above programs had seasons other schools envy, and, to be clear, there are plenty of Stanford teams still alive in their quest for a national title. Women's rowing will look to defend its national title come June, men's volleyball and women's water polo are No. 1 and No. 2 in the country respectively, and men's tennis, women's tennis and softball are all in the bottom half of their respective top 10s. Outside the top 10, men's and women's golf and baseball would need a Hoosiers-like run to claim a national title, but men's golf did just that a few seasons back, and baseball need look no further than Corvallis for inspiration.

Still, 22 sports have come and gone, and, dropping rifle, women's and ice hockey and skiing, 18 of them are sports the Cardinal field teams in. And across those 18 sports, nary a team has finished their season having achieved the goal each of those squads shot for back in September: a national title. University-wide then, a seriously underpublicized -- and seriously cool -- streak is on life support. The modern-day Stanford student is humble beyond a fault, but if we may stick our chests out a little: Can you think of a more meaningful, or difficult, streak to accomplish in college athletics than a school winning national titles in 34 straight seasons? (UCLA rightfully celebrated its 100th national title a few years ago. If it were in the middle of a streak like this, it would be holding annual ticker-tape parades. Stanford Athletic Department: I know plenty of you guys read here. Start promoting our 34-year national title streak before it's too late.)

Plenty of squads have fallen from ahead, as women's swimming, leading with a day left, men's gymnastics, leading with one rotation to go, and women's basketball, leading at halftime, did in their respective national championships. Plenty of squads failed to live up to lofty expectations, with Final Four-caliber women's volleyball getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament early by Michigan, men's cross country ranked No. 1 the day before the national championship and No. 10 after, and the running women fading all the way to No. 16 on a brutal Indiana morning. Some teams never had a realistic shot, cue football and field hockey, and some played their hearts out, only to have those hearts broken in the end anyway. Women's soccer and women's basketball each gave it their all; neither could conquer North Carolina or Connecticut, the giants in their respective sports.

So after the dust has settled and the tears have dried, the Stanford fan is left with standings and data that only confirm what his heart has known all along: there have been bright spots, but this is an extraordinarily unexceptional stretch for Stanford athletics. On the whole, Stanford athletics has been as dominant as ever: the Cardinal are steamrolling toward yet another victory in the "Cardinal-proofed" Directors' Cup, admissions policy seems more favorable than it did under the previous Athletic Director and Dean of Admissions, football and men's and women's basketball are on the upswing, non-marquee sports continue to shine. (Indeed, Stanford has been immune to the cuts in non-marquee sports from which schools across the country are suffering. Accordingly, we would expect the Cardinal, with its massive endowment, to do better, not worse, in tough economic times.) One would be hard-pressed, therefore, to find a ready explanation for the recent and startling drop-off in national titles.

This year, no firsts, four seconds (men's gymnastics, women's swimming, women's basketball, women's soccer).

Last year, two firsts (men's gymnastics and women's rowing), two seconds (women's volleyball, men's water polo).

2007-‘08, one first, three seconds (women's basketball, women's volleyball and men's gymnastics).

2006-‘07, two firsts (women's cross country and men's golf), three seconds (women's volleyball, women's water polo, men's swimming).

2005-‘06, two firsts (women's cross country, women's tennis), two seconds (men's water polo, men's crew).

2004-‘05, two firsts (women's tennis and women's volleyball), three seconds (men's swimming, men's water polo, women's sailing).

2003-‘04, three firsts (women's tennis, women's cross country, men's cross country), two seconds (men's swimming, men's water polo).

Add it all up and in the four seasons from 2003-‘04 to 2006-‘07, Stanford took nine firsts to 10 seconds. Hard to get more even than that.

In the nearly three seasons since, Stanford has won three firsts to nine seconds.

What's changed? Too much and not enough.

In the too much change category, women's cross country and women's tennis used to be national-title machines, winning five of a possible eight national titles, with no runner-up finishes. Since, they haven't been heard from. (We'll leave it to the experts to discuss reasons for the downfall, but we will note that Dean of Admissions Robin Mamlet took over in 2000 and left in 2005, meaning she oversaw admissions for the Classes of 2004 through 2009. This could be completely coincidental, but our "before" halcyon era transitioned into our "after" always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride era in 2007, or right when Mamlet's admits and would-be admits became upperclassmen.)

In the not enough category, men's and women's water polo continue to take second-place finishes (which mean a lot less than in other sports given how shallow the depth is in these sports) but cannot get over the hump: no national titles and five second-place finishes, nicely cancelling out women's tennis and cross country's penchant for winning.

Plus, there's the matter of Stanford's new power programs simply being not good enough yet to win it all. Of the seven programs responsible for Stanford's top-two finishes in the last three years, three had no top-two finishes in the four years prior: women's basketball, men's gymnastics and women's swimming. While their recent success is commendable, women's basketball can't get past Tennessee and Connecticut (0-2 in national title games), men's gymnastics has one national title to two heartbreakingly-close runners-up finishes, and women's swimming has a runners-up finish and no national titles. That's a combined 1-5 for these new powers.

Replace the 5-0 from the old powers, women's cross country and women's tennis, with the 1-5 from these new powers, men's gymnastics and women's basketball and swimming, and add in water polo's continual inability to capture a national crown, and we've neatly explained Stanford's recent falloff in national championships in one tidy sentence. For the Stanford fan, the short-term hope is that men's volleyball, women's water polo or women's rowing keeps the 34-year streak going this year, and the medium-term hope is that, if the recent falloff was in part an effect of admissions policies, Stanford manages to keep the national-title streak alive another year or two, until the effects of the, by all accounts, friendlier admissions policies of Dean Mamlet's successor, Richard Shaw, fully materialize.


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