Stanford's Football Future Is Uncertain
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 21, 2005

CAN STANFORD return to its former football glory? We’re not talking ancient history here. Though it’s easy to forget in light of the Cardinal’s recent ineptitude, in a 10-year period, 1991-2001, Stanford played in six bowl games, one of them the Rose Bowl, in January 1, 2000..

Critics among Stanford supporters think rising admission standards will preclude the Cardinal ever rising that high again, but athletic director Ted Leland disagrees.

“Stanford has always had high admission standards, but we’ve always been able to target good players who were also good academically. It’s not a big pool, but there are good players there. Reggie Bush could have gotten into Stanford.”

Bush never tried, of course, and Leland knows why. “The good players want to go where they have a chance to succeed, because they’re all looking at the NFL,” he said. “We had nine players taken by NFL teams last year (six drafted, three signed as free agents) and Kwame Harris and Teyo Johnson (who left early) were part of that recruiting class. But we recruited those players in the Rose Bowl year.”

Now, it’s quite different. When Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame, Buddy Teevens followed and the Cardinal won only 10 games in three years, despite having the talent to be much better. Now, Stanford has a proven coach in Walt Harris, but there’s not much talent left. It doesn’t help that the one Pac-10 team Stanford doesn’t play this season is Washington, which is the conference’s worst.

Though Stanford has won a couple of road games against Washington State and Arizona, the schedule is about to become much tougher. The remaining schedule has home games against Arizona State and UCLA, away games at USC and Oregon State and the Big Game and Notre Dame at home. It is conceivable the Cardinal won’t win any of them.

There is one ray of hope: Quarterback Trent Edwards. “If you look at the history of Pac-10 schools, and certainly of Stanford, you see that winning teams have stability at quarterback,” Leland said. “All the good Stanford teams have had outstanding quarterbacks.” That’s held true this year, too. Edwards was both a running and passing standout in the road wins. But he has an injury history that does not bode well because his backup, T. C. Ostrander is not a Pac-10 calibre quarterback.

Even when Edwards plays, it’s problematical for the Cardinal because the offensive line is weak and there’s no consistency in the running game, so Stanford doesn’t “move the chains.” An enormous burden is placed on the defense because it’s on the field so much. Arizona State, though it hasn’t lived up to its preseason billing as a top 20 team, has a high-powered offense, and the Sun Devils may overwhelm Stanford on Saturday.

Meanwhile, football attendance has dropped, which is a problem. The Stanford athletic department has a huge endowment, around $400 million, because of investments made during the boom period of the ‘90s, but Leland cautions that even that fund may not be able to make up the difference if football revenues don’t pick up. Stanford has won the Directors Cup, awarded for the best overall athletic program in the country, for 11 straight years, but, warns Leland, “We won’t be able to continue to support all 36 sports if we don’t increase our football revenues. We may have to drop a sport or two.”

THE NEW STADIUM, which is expected to be ready for the 2006 season, should help. “We’ve got bids out now, and we’ll start destruction right after the Notre Dame game,” Leland said. “We need $90 million for the entire project, and we’ve raised $88 million so far.”

The new stadium will have just 50,000 seats and, though that seems small for a major college stadium, the fact is that only the Big Game has gone much over that in the last five years. Even the Notre Dame game, once a huge draw, drew under 50,000 in 2003 and just over, at 51,780, in 2001.

Leland said an additional 8000 temporary seats can be added in the end zone for the Big Game, and he anticipates that Big Game tickets could be used as an incentive to buy season tickets. “For years, the only way to get a Big Game ticket was to buy a season ticket,” he said. “That hasn’t been true in recent years, but this will certainly put more pressure on fans to buy season tickets to make sure they have Big Game tickets.”

The current structure will be torn down entirely, including the façade. There was some concern earlier that the façade might be considered to have historical merit, but Stanford got a ruling that it did not. “We’ll have a similar part in the north end zone as kind of a memory of the original façade,” Leland said. The field will be sunk and a two-tiered structure will be built. Most of the seats will be closer to the field than the closest ones are in the current stadium, so it will be a much more intimate structure.

Leland thinks one of the reasons the Cardinal has had success on the road this season – all three wins have come in road games – is because the players have been energized by the crowds, even though they’ve been rooting for their home team. “The atmosphere at Navy was incredible,” he said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm at Arizona, too, and Washington State. Then, we come home and Walt has to prepare his players for a crowd that doesn’t make much noise and a lot of fans who leave early.”

He thinks the new stadium will lure many people from the Peninsula, alumni or not, back to the games. “When we’ve done surveys, they’ve said they like the parking at Stanford, the tailgating,” he noted. But the stadium has been a turnoff.

LELAND HAD originally thought he would stay to see the new stadium built, until he got an offer from his alma mater, the University of Pacific, to head up fundraising. He will also be a professor and teach one class a semester, which he relishes, and insiders believe he could become the university President before he retires.

“It came up suddenly,” he said. “They had called me and asked me if I’d be interested and I told them to interview their other candidates and if they didn’t have somebody they really wanted, to give me another call. After a couple of weeks, they called me again, so I went down to interview. When they offered me the job, I talked to my wife (a Stockton native) and we decided that the job might not be there next year, so I’d better take it.”

Under Leland’s direction, the entire program has thrived at Stanford, and he did an especially good job in promoting the women’s programs, helped by the fact that the endowment fund gave Stanford the chance to finance sports which produced little revenue on their own.

The one frustration for him in recent years has been the falloff in the football program, especially since he’s a former football player. Now, he has the right coach in place and a new stadium on the way. Nobody can be sure that will be enough to revive the program, but it’s a good start.

BILL KING: I’ll run a special collection of e-mails on Bill King on Saturday, in the spot where my column is usually displayed. It will be headed, “The Readers Speak On Bill King.”

TV: I’m a guest on “The Last Honest Sports Show,” airing at 6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday on KHBK (44).

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