The Remarkable Ascent Of Stanford Football Has Yet To Reach Its Peak

Jul 26, 2013; Culver City, CA, USA; Stanford football linebacker Shayne Skov, head coach David Shaw and outside linebacker David Yankey speak to the media during PAC-12 media day held at the Sony Studios Lot. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University has produced countless outstanding alumni. Cardinal graduates in any number of disciplines go on to excel in their chosen field. David Shaw is one of them.

The 1995 alumnus returned in 2007, helping transform his alma mater’s struggling football program from cellar dweller into pace setter, and in remarkably short order.

“I chuckle a little bit when people say ‘now you can be a national [championship] contender,’” he says, seated at a table in Culver City, Calif., a modest crowd of five-or-six reporters joining him.

David Shaw is decked out in a black polo shirt with a cardinal-colored block S, an unlikely emblem of football success. He looks like he could still put on pads, strap on a helmet and catch for a couple hundred yards on the Cardinal receiving corps.

That would take him away from the sidelines though, and from there Shaw has succeeded at the standard Stanford sets for its graduates.

Of every astounding development in college football the past few years, Stanford’s ascent into the upper echelon of programs might be the most unlikely.

Last season, the Cardinal won its first Pac-12 Conference championship since 1999, appeared in its third consecutive BCS bowl and won the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1971. Stanford fell all of 10 points shy of playing for the national championship.

All that in a supposed rebuilding year.

“I get a little smile on my face when somebody says, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe you guys are still doing well,’” Shaw said. “We built the program the right way. It wasn’t just, ‘hey, we’ve got one great player; let’s ride that great player.’”

The “one great player” to whom Shaw refers is Andrew Luck, the quarterback who helped Stanford snap an eight-year bowl drought in 2009 and make consecutive BCS appearances in 2010 and 2011.

The departure of No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Luck after the 2011 season left a tremendous void in the Cardinal offense, and cast uncertainty over Stanford before its 2012 campaign kicked off.

And indeed, Stanford struggled to replace the outstanding, three-year starter Luck. Josh Nunes never quite found a rhythm, captaining the Cardinal offense in each of its losses. SU scraped together a combined 26 points in narrow defeats at Washington and Notre Dame.

In the latter third of the season, Shaw made the bold decision to start redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan. The Washington, D.C. Gonzaga Prep product was a highly touted recruit, one of the many such National Signing Day victories the program has scored in recent years. Hogan’s talent was never in question, but his place in the offense was an unknown because of his style.

Part of what made Luck so special were his dual abilities, but he wasn’t dubbed “dual-threat.” There are certain implications with the label, and the dual-threat label was applied to Hogan immediately. How would his brand of quarterbacking translate to a Cardinal offense built on power football?

So far, the answer is pretty well. He helped the Cardinal score 89 combined points in wins over Oregon State and UCLA, two of the conference’s better defensive teams. Hogan is now a central figure in the growing buzz around this year’s team.

And there is a very palpable buzz. The complete allotment of season tickets for 2013 was sold out last week. Some pundits are projecting another conference title.

With a loaded defense and promising quarterback, the 2013 Carindal could add a crystal ball to a trophy case that includes national championships as well as Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

Stanford is known as the Ivy League School of the West, boasting academics on par with any of the nation’s top universities. Unlike the Ancient Eight, Stanford also competes at the athletic pinnacle.

Recruiting young men as talented in the classroom as they are on the gridiron presents a unique challenge.

“We’re getting a lot of interest from a lot of kids, but 75 percent of them we can’t recruit,” Shaw said.

The pool from which Stanford can pull recruits is shallow — more so than any other program in the Bowl Subdivision.

There is a recent surge among the top academic universities’ football programs. Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame combined for 31 wins and were all ranked in the top 25, and Rice went to its third bowl game since 2006 after a nearly four-decade drought.

But even these academic heavyweights lack some of the more rigorous standards that define Stanford.

“We have some great academic schools that are phenomenal, but no one has the standards we have,” Shaw said. “A kid has to get admitted to school before we’ll send them a letter of intent. We’re the only one that has that.”

Stanford’s rise isn’t remarkable simply because of the university’s academic standards, but also because of where the program started when Shaw arrived as an assistant to Jim Harbaugh in 2007.

Jan 1, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford football linebacker Alex Debniak (42) pours the gatorade on head coach David Shaw after winning the 2013 Rose Bowl game against the Wisconsin Badgers 20-14 at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports


The Cardinal won a combined seven conference games from 2002 through 2006, and never more than two in a season. Stanford football hit rock bottom in 2006 at 1-11.

Harbaugh arrived as the program’s fourth head coach in six years. The new staff’s impact was felt immediately. The Cardinal was still just 3-6 in conference play and 4-8 overall that campaign, but among those four wins was one so significant, it was commemorated on t-shirts sold on the official athletic website.

Stanford went to the Coliseum a 41-point underdog, but left a 24-23 victor. The win snapped a six-year, 35-game home win streak for the mighty Trojan empire.

“That 2007 game against USC…I call that the beginning of the program,” Shaw said. “For a brief moment in time…it was the only game on [TV].

“This lowly Stanford team, coming off a one-win season; we got seen by everyone in the country,” he added.

USC went on to win that season’s Pac-10 championship, as well as the next year’s. But 2008 marked the last in USC’s seven-year dynasty. That October night in Los Angeles, the torch was passed.

Three seasons after The Upset, and just four years removed from losing 11 games, the Cardinal won 12. Two more years, and Stanford was hoisting the conference championship and laying the foundation of a potential BCS title in the season to come.

“Recruiting for us…changed a lot [after the USC win]. We got a lot more national interest,” Shaw said.

Andrew Luck signed in the winter following The Upset. But as Shaw points out, the program’s success so far transcends one player. Stanford’s recent recruiting classes rank among the nation’s top 10, coming from a national pipeline.

“We’re recruiting against geography, because there’s no one school we’re recruiting against all the time,” Shaw explained. “Great kid from Georgia, we’re recruiting against Georgia. Great kid from Michigan, we’re recruiting against Michigan and Ohio State.”

Shaw said the program has been able to recruit upper echelon talent without compromising the university’s core values.

“Shayne Skov is a great player…but he’s also an example of who we are. David Yankey is an example of who we are. Ryan Hewitt is an example of who we are,” Shaw said.

Of the many career paths that Stanford opens to young people, the football program is increasingly paving the way for the NFL. Luck, Richard Sherman, Toby Gerhart, Coby Fleener are just a few of the Cardinal to make the leap under the Harbaugh-Shaw regime. That list will continue to grow.

Shaw says those players who set the foundation continue to build upon it.

Topics: Football, Stanford Cardinal

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