Disappointing seasons

I remember a revealing chat with a former Stanford football beat writer. Mark Soltau, late of the San Francisco Examiner and now editor of TigerWoods.com, paid Chuck Taylor Grove a visit six years ago. The conversation involved Cardinal teams through the years where intensity was lacking.

Years removed from his last visit to a Stanford locker room, Soltau recalled a postgame excuse he heard ad nauseum.

"The phrase that I could never quite process was, ‘We came out flat,'" he said. "I'd hear that a lot. It always left me baffled. How could you come out flat? Weren't you working all week towards this one game? What's going on? You're Stanford. You can't solely rely on your own abilities or reputations."

Certain Stanford teams through the years have earned infamy for falling way short, in addition to falling flat. Here are four examples:


Preseason hype: Sports Illustrated's No. 17. The Cardinals, as they were still known, stood No. 18 in the AP's debut poll.
Actual finish: 4-7 (4-4 Pac-10, seventh)
Sample prediction: "John Elway…has the looks of a movie star who gives Academy Award-winning performances on game films….Nobody hurries him out of the pocket, from which he can look out to an army of gifted receivers." – Sports Illustrated
Hindsight seeing: An entertaining team that was a success at the gate (home attendance averaged around 60,000 per-game) but a disappointment in the standings. The Cards lost their first four games, marking the end of the program's longest run of sustained success. Not since 14 years earlier had Stanford suffered a losing season. A defense that returned eight starters from a 6-5 team was largely to blame, its members unable to make good on coach Paul Wiggin's preseason boasts ("I think you'll see improvement," he said). At least the offense compiled 4,800 total yards.


Preseason hype: The AP's No. 24 going into the opener. The Pac-10 media poll predicted a fourth-place conference finish.
Actual finish: 3-7-1 (2-6 Pac-10, ninth)
Sample prediction: "Stanford's young defense was tested - and burned - often last season. Can the kids benefit from that experience? If the answer is yes, then Stanford has a solid chance of claiming a berth in the Rose Bowl." – Riverside Press-Enterprise
Hindsight seeing: Said defense was nearly as bad as 1993. Never in recent memory has a Cardinal team failed so miserably in the clutch. Bill Walsh's last team lost three games by a single point. Eric Abrams missed last-second field goals that would have beaten Northwestern (a 41-41 tie that felt like a loss) and UCLA. Even the season's biggest a highlight, a home win over Washington in Week 9, was tempered: Steve Stenstrom broke a finger and missed out on breaking Elway's career passing records. What a year for The Bootleg to debut. Did we mention the 17 returning starters?


Preseason hype: No. 18 in the AP, No. 16 in Sports Illustrated. Team promotions materials made claims of a "Rosy Future."
Actual finish: 5-6 (3-5 Pac-10, seventh)
Sample prediction: "Stanford, barring a rash of serious injuries, has no excuses. It returns most of its best players from a team that won five straight games to close last season…Rose Bowl aspirations are realistic." – Contra Costa Times
Hindsight seeing: A squad loaded with veterans, including two of the program's five all-time leading rushers, and featuring six starters back from the conference's third-ranked defense, peaked in October's first week. The Cardinal began the season 4-1 before unraveling, coming unglued in large part because it lost the line of scrimmage. Chad Hutchinson was sacked 33 times, 15 coming in a three-game stretch that begat a five-game losing streak. Safety Tim Smith tore a knee against North Carolina in September, but there were no other notable injuries. A win in the 100th Big Game offered no consolation.


Preseason hype: After going 9-3, picked between fourth and seventh in the conference.
Actual finish: 2-9 (1-7 Pac-10, tenth)
Sample prediction: "…One of the conference's most explosive attacks of the past few seasons. The Cardinal won't miss a beat with junior Chris Lewis taking over the reins full-time at quarterback." – Oakland Tribune
Hindsight seeing: Where were you? When did you realize a bad coach was firmly in charge? Was it when Arizona State capitalized on seven turnovers and scored 65 points, 38 before halftime? Or maybe you got up to date against Washington State, when Stanford committed five personal fouls and Lewis threw 27 times for 102 yards. My warning came that summer. I happened upon Matt Leonard, then working the door at downtown Palo Alto's Blue Chalk Café. I asked how Buddy Teevens compared to his coaching predecessor. "Oh he's way nicer," the defensive lineman replied. "He's way more laid back. It's a totally different atmosphere."

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