Stanford at the Crossroads
These are tough times for Stanford football fans.
I’m one of them. I went to Stanford and worked in the Athletic Department for a long time as Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director. Many former players and coaches are good friends.
So the program’s current struggles are painful on a very personal level.
Stanford is 1-10 since beating Oregon in double overtime last Oct. 2 and 12-22 over the last three-plus seasons. The only win in the last 12 months came over a non-FBS (Division 1) opponent, Colgate.
Perhaps more alarming are the scores of the Cardinal’s last 7 losses: Utah 52-7, Oregon State 35-14, Cal 41-11, Notre Dame 45-14, USC 41-28, Washington 40-22, and Oregon 45-27.
The last three games were not as close as the scores might indicate, as Stanford scored 39 of its 77 points in the fourth quarter, after the games were decided.
So what's the problem, and what can be done to reverse the program's decline?
Some have advocated firing the head coach. In the increasingly cut-throat world of big time college football, every coach is only a few losses away from being shown the door. And in-season firings are becoming the norm. Witness yesterday’s shocking dismissal of Paul Chryst, who had a 67-26 record in Madison.
Back at Stanford, David Shaw is the winningest coach in school history (94-48). He’s won two-thirds of his games. He’s been to three Rose Bowls. He’s been named Pac-12 Coach of the Year four times. He’s an excellent representative of the university and is one of the rare coaches in college football who actually cares about education.
With the offense struggling and the losses mounting, we had recommended changing coordinators after last season. Rather than do so, Shaw (who's never fired an assistant coach) imported a new offense featuring the "slow mesh" RPO (run pass option) used by Wake Forest.
It hasn't taken his opponents by storm. Slow mesh plays take time, while the quarterback holds the ball in the running back's gut, checks the other team's safety and decides whether to release the ball to the runner or to pull it out and throw a pass.
Problem is, you have to control the edge to give the QB time, which Stanford hasn't done, due in part to offensive line injuries.
Yet I would argue the biggest problems Stanford faces—both short term and long term—aren't any issues with its offensive system or coaching staff, but rather its incompatibility with the huge changes that have taken place over the past few years in college football, namely the transfer portal and NIL (name, image and likeness) compensation.
Each of the Cardinal's last three opponents (USC, Washington and Oregon) improved dramatically this season due to the arrival of about 20 transfers. Stanford has only one, safety Patrick Fields, and he came on his own, without any recruitment.
Shaw prefers to build his program through the traditional method of signing high school recruits and developing them. That’s not going to work anymore.
The reality is that out of 20 or so freshmen per year, only three or four will make meaningful contributions. By contrast, when teams bring in 20 veteran transfers, most of them are capable of stepping in immediately.
Like Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, Mekhi Blackmon and Travis Dye at USC. Or Michael Penex, Jr. and Wayne Taulapapa at Washington. Or Bo Nix and Bucky Irving at Oregon. In fact, nine of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12 last weekend were transfers.
At Stanford, the combination of admissions requirements, early application deadlines, and a 1% limit on transfer admits prevent the Cardinal from being a player in the transfer portal.
Yet Stanford has welcomed football transfers before, and the Ivory Towers didn't crumble.
John Ralston's Rose Bowl teams featured a number of transfers who played prominent roles in Stanford's upset victories over Ohio State and Michigan, including Benny Barnes, Randy Vataha, Bill Meyers, Dave Tipton, Roger Cowan, Mike Simone and others. So it can be done.
An administration overly concerned with "optics" also has disallowed the court-approved Alston payments ($5980 per year) for educational achievement and discouraged NIL compensation.
The reality of college football in 2022 is that most Power Five schools are using NIL not only to recruit high school athletes and transfers, but to keep players from transferring.
Even academically-oriented students, some of whom may come from well-off families, may find it hard to sign with Stanford and resist guaranteed NIL money from schools like Washington and USC.
And existing players (like running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat from last year's team) may find it hard to resist overtures from successful schools that offer them money, exposure, and a chance of getting into the College Football Playoff.
Clearly, Stanford is at a crossroads.
If it wants to be competitive in the current money-driven environment, Stanford needs to increase transfer access (perhaps by reserving more spots for transfers and delaying application deadlines), increase its recruiting staff and budget, approve the Alston payments, and facilitate collectives of donors and corporations to provide NIL opportunities to its athletes.
Otherwise, the Cardinal can resign itself to lots of 3-9 seasons or, alternatively, as we’ve proposed, take the lead in organizing an “academic conference” of like-minded universities that don’t wish to participate in what has become a rather unsavory professional knockoff.
The choice needs to be made soon, as many in the media, the cheap seats, and the halls of the university are beginning to sense impending doom.