Bay Area Football
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 25, 2005

In just three years, Cal has overcome Stanford’s edge in Bay Area football, and there is serious doubt whether Stanford’s athletic and academic administrations have the will to reverse that trend.

The football history of both school’s is spotty, with glory periods surrounded by periods of mediocrity or worse. Both schools had outstanding coaches in the ‘20s, Andy Smith at Cal, Pop Warner at Stanford. Both had three-year stretches in the Rose Bowl, Stanford with the “Vow Boys” teams that appeared in the 1934-36 Rose Bowls, Cal with the Pappy Waldorf teams that appeared in the 1949-51 Rose Bowls.
Overall, though, the edge in the 20th century and two years beyond went to Stanford, which has played in 12 Rose Bowls, starting with the very first one in January, 1902, compared to seven for Cal. Since the Bears last went, after the 1958 season, Stanford has gone three times. In head-to-head competition, in the Big Game, Stanford has a 54-42 lead, with 11 ties.

Three years ago, the disparity seemed to be widening. Stanford had been in the Rose Bowl in January, 2000, and had won seven straight Big Games. The Bears were in disarray. In five seasons, Tom Holmoe’s record was 12-43. The school was on NCAA probation because two players had received credit for a course, though they had never showed up for class. (Four games won by Cal when the two played were changed to losses.)

Then, Buddy Teevens was hired to replace Tyrone Willingham, who had left Stanford for Notre Dame, and Jeff Tedford was hired to replace Holmoe at Cal. Those decisions turned both programs around.

Both coaches had been offensive coordinators, Tedford at Oregon, Teevens at Florida, but it quickly became evident that Tedford had what it took to be a successful head coach and Teevens did not.

Coaching at the major college level or in the NFL is an all-consuming job. Successful coaches, with the conspicuous exception of Bill Walsh, are not men with multiple interests. They spend too many hours looking at videos and drawing up game plans to even think about what else is going on in the world.

Tedford fits that mold. During the season, he sleeps in his office four nights a week, so he can spend more time game planning. Before the final game of the 2004 season, the game against Southern Mississippi, his schedule said that Thursday he and his coaches would be off – because Thursday was Thanksgiving. Asked when he had last taken a day off, Tedford had to think for awhile. “I think I took a day off in July,” he said.

Teevens does not fit that mold. When I’ve interviewed him, we’ve spent time talking about subjects like train travel in Europe, or his son’s surfing.

If I were at a dinner, I would much rather be seated next to Teevens than Tedford, because the conversation would be lively and varied. But, because he is so focused, Tedford is an excellent head coach. Teevens lacks that focus and he does not project the authority that a head coach needs. He embarrassingly lost control of his team in the last three games of the 2003 season and in the final quarter of the 2004 Big Game.

Before Tedford arrived, many Old Blues, including this one, felt as Chicago Cubs fans must feel, hopeful that there would be a better day, but resigned to the reality that our hopes would always be crushed. Still, there was always interest, even if it wasn’t reflected by game day attendance.

Cal is a very large university and, because its student body is prrimarily from the state, many of its graduates remain in the Bay Area. When the coaching search was ongoing after Holmoe’s departure, I would be approached at non-sports venues – plays, symphony – by people who wanted to know what I’d heard.

Tedford’s success has turned that latent support into actual people in the seats. More than 30,000 season tickets were sold last fall, for the first time in Cal history, and near-capacity crowds were
at every game (the Big Game, of course, was a sellout).

To be successful, Cal has to recruit from the center out. In the recent past, prep stars in the East Bay were going to schools as far away as Miami (Ken Dorsey, D. J. Williams, for example). Now, Tedford is getting the top players from the region and doing well throughout the state; websites which track recruiting rated Cal’s recruiting class in the top 10 nationally this year, for probably the first time.

With a new contract that rewards him financially for his on-field success, Tedford seems to be set at Cal for some time. He is doing what all successful college coaches do: Putting together a program that guarantees consistent success because top players want to come to the school.

Because of its high admissions requirements, the highest in the Pacific-10, Stanford has had to recruit much differently. Advertising itself as the equivalent of an Ivy League school but with a big-time athletic program (not to mention a much superior climate), Stanford has recruited nationally among the pool of top athletes who are also top students.

Though the admissions office claims that standards remain constant, there seem to be periods where they’re tightened or loosened, if only slightly.

In the early ‘60s, for instance, there was the first push to be the “Harvard of the West.” Stanford lost all 10 games in the 1960 season and had only one winning season in eight years. A coincidence? Probably not. John Ralston, who became head coach in 1963, persuaded the administration to allow him to bring in some junior college players. In 1970 and ’71, Stanford won the conference title and followed with two Rose Bowl triumphs. A coincidence? Probably not.

Those were great times, not just because of the Rose Bowl wins, but because college football was a great story in the Bay Area.
Some claim that tailgating was started at Stanford; certainly, with the vast amount of parking, it was a natural. Crowds of from 60,000 to 90,000, the capacity of Stanford Stadium at the time, were the norm.

Those times are long gone, as the Stanford fan base has steadily eroded over time. Fewer than 28,000 came to Stanford’s final home game, against Oregon State, in the 2004 season.

There are several reasons for the falling attendance. One is that some of the best parking sites have been used for state-of-the-art sports facilities for tennis, swimming and track-and-field. The shifting of games times to fit the television schedule has hurt. It’s never wise to force fans to break a habit. Fans who used to automatically set aside game days now make game-to-game decisions. Too often, the decision is to do something else.

The Stanford student body has changed, too, as the school has reached out to the international community. Students coming from foreign countries have no football background and aren’t likely to develop an interest simply because they’re at the school.

The surrounding community has changed, too. The old Stanford fan base went beyond just alumni to residents of the surrounding area who enjoyed the whole spectacle of college football, including tailgating. Many of those fans were blue collar workers. With the stratospheric house prices on the peninsula, those people no longer live in the area.

Stanford has the most successful intercollegiate athletics program in the country, supporting 34 men’s and women’s sports. What some refer to as the “Orinda sports” – tennis, golf, swimming, etc. – will continue to do well, but the commitment to football and basketball is marginal.

Those close to Mike Montgomery think one of his motivations for leaving to coach the Warriors was that he thought the admissions standards would not give him a chance to get enough high quality players; the current team has only 10 scholarship players.

While football head coaching salaries in the Pac-10 are heading to the $2 million-a-year level, Stanford is holding the line. New coach Walt Harris is reportedly getting about $600,000 a year, though there are incentives that will raise that figure if he’s successful. “Schools have gotten creative about getting money to coaches, and we are, too,” said athletic director Ted Leland, “but everything we do is approved by the trustees.”

Some think the academic administration is putting pressure on Leland to keep coaching salaries in line with faculty salaries, which they are not at other Division 1-A schools, but that seems to be in line with Leland’s thinking.

“I just think that, when salaries get to a certain level, coaches lose perspective,” he told me. “That’s not saying anything against Tedford, who I think is a fine person as well as an outstanding coach, or Ty Willingham, who is one of my favorite people, but I think those salaries change people.”

The irony is that, as Leland says, “We could afford to pay any salary we wanted to, because Stanford’s revenues are much higher than other schools in the conference.

An endowment program that was started in the 1950s and grew to about $250 million with the stock market boom of the ‘90s, produces about $16 million in interest every year. That money covers most of the scholarships for all sports, with the Buck/Cardinal Club making up the difference. The Stanford athletic department gets no money from the university.

That revenue also means that Stanford is not dependent on football revenues to pay for their other sports – again, a pattern that is not true at other Division 1-A schools. So, Leland can base his decisions on coaching salaries on his principles, rather than economics.

Harris was successful at Pitt, and he appears to be a good choice for Stanford.
“Walt Harris is here because he wanted to be at Stanford," Leland said, “not because we outbid Pitt.”

The question remains, though: Can Stanford be competitive with this philosophy or is it simply unilateral disarmament?

“I think they’ll do what it takes to get back to a competitive position in football,” said John Guillory, a defensive back at Stanford in the ‘60s. “Stanford takes tremendous pride in its program, and I know first-hand how important it is. Wherever I go, when people see my ring (from football) and the big S, they know what it stands for.”

With the 49ers at the bottom of the NFL and the Raiders not much higher, there’s a great opportunity for college football to regain the status it once had in the Bay Area, but it takes two successful programs for that to happen. Cal is definitely headed in the right direction. Now, it’s up to Stanford to rejuvenate its program.

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E-mail Glenn Dickey at glenndickey@hotmail.com

NOTE TO READERS: This article originally appeared in The Bootleg magazine and on thebootleg.com, which I regard as the best sources of information on Stanford sports. It is not typical of the opinion pieces I’ll be posting on this site, but I thought it would be of interest to readers who have not seen it.

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