Why hold up Stanford as the measuring stick? Because, simply, UCLA and Stanford are similar in many ways.
-- If there is another program in the country that has to abide by more stringent academic requirements for its high school football prospects than UCLA, it's Stanford.
-- Because of this, and being in the same state and conference, UCLA and Stanford annually compete for many of the same high school prospects.
-- Stanford doesn't have a big fan draw. Last season, when it had one of its best seasons in its history, it averaged 40,000 fans at its home games. It couldn't sell out its new, beautiful stadium, which seats only 50,000. Last November, in perhaps one of the biggest showdowns in recent years when Stanford hosted Arizona, it drew only 37,000 people. While UCLA isn't this bad in terms of attendance, it's closer in terms of fan interest to Stanford than it is, say, Michigan or LSU.
-- Stanford's recent football history, over the last couple of decades, has also been fairly similar to UCLA's. Stanford had a good, big-named coach in Bill Walsh leave the program (on his second stint at the Farm) in the ‘90s, much like UCLA's Terry Donahue. After that, Stanford went on a streak of hiring three ultimately unsuccessful coaches in Tyrone Willingham, Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris.
-- Stanford doesn't like to pay its coaches very much. When Jim Harbaugh was hired at Stanford in 2007, his original salary was $1 million per year, which was less than what Neuheisel was hired for at UCLA a year later ($1.25 million/year). And then here's the kicker: After Harbaugh turned around the program, by the end of the 2009 season, he was given a contract increase to $1.25 million and many in the Stanford academic community were up in arms. Read this article in which the Harbaugh's salary increase to $1.25 per year was deemed "repugnant." Stanford, then, has the same kind of resistance to paying its football coach much in the same way that UCLA does.
And then here's an interesting tidbit: After the 2010 dream season, Stanford reportedly offered Harbaugh $3 million per year, which was a considerable bump and completely out of character for Stanford. It still wouldn't have put Harbaugh among the top dozen paid college football coaches in the country (and he skipped to the San Francisco 49ers), but it proved that even a traditionally more-stingy university like Stanford was willing to get relatively competitive when it had been given a taste of what a successful football program can do for the university.
This leads us, then, to comparing what Stanford and UCLA, given both of their similar resources, have done on the field in recent years. Often times, when comparing programs and coaching tenures, it's just not plainly fair or equitable, but in this instance, comparing UCLA's program under Neuheisel and Stanford's under Harbaugh and his successor, David Shaw, is fairly justified. In fact, you could even make the case that the comparison is somewhat unfair – to Stanford – given that UCLA has less stringent academic requirements, larger fan support, was willing to pay its head coach initially more when he was hired, and a better recruiting base in Southern California.
Stanford's rise to prominence, of course, began with the hiring of Harbaugh in 2007, and this is where the similarities between UCLA and Stanford dramatically diverge. Harbaugh, in a relatively short period of time, turned around the Stanford program, one that many thought couldn't be turned around in the modern era of college football given Stanford's academic restrictions and lack of fan support. It culminated in a dream season in 2010, the Cardinal finishing with a 12-1 record and #4 national ranking.
Since Harbaugh was hired one year before Rick Neuheisel was hired at UCLA for the 2008 season, there's even a timeline that comes close to paralleling each other. Here's a pretty clear illustration of the different trajectories of the programs.
Harbaugh/Shaw Coaching Record:
2007: 4-8, 3-6, T-7th
2008: 5-7, 4-5, T-6th
2009: 805, 6-3, T-2nd, Sun Bowl, lost 31-27 to Oklahoma
2010: 12-1, 8-1, T-2nd, BCS Orange Bowl, beat Virginia Tech, 40-12. Ended season ranked #4.
2011: 3-0, ranked #4.
Neuheisel Coaching Record:
2008: 4-8, 3-6, 8th
2009: 7-6, 3-6, 8th
2010: 4-8, 2-7, 9th
As one of the BRO posters, Soccer Boy, pointed out on the BRO message boards, the trajectories are just as bit as evident in the direct match-ups between the two programs.
2007: UCLA 45, @ Stanford 17—Karl Dorrell's last season, Harbaugh's first.
2008: @UCLA 23, Stanford 20—Neuheisel's 1st season.
2009: @Stanford 24, UCLA 16. Stanford's Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck together for 1st time.
2010: Stanford 35, @UCLA 0. Harbaugh's fourth season, Stanford goes 12-1, wins Orange Bowl. UCLA 4-8.
2011: UCLA @ Stanford. Stanford is ranked 4th in the nation and is a 22-point favorite over UCLA.
Since this is the Stanford/UCLA week, the comparisons between the two programs were screaming out to be delineated. Draw your own conclusions.