When Stanford plays Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, it will be the school’s third-straight BCS appearance. Only Oregon, Miami, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and USC (remarkably, no SEC teams) have accomplished this feat in the BCS era.
Stanford’s success is more impressive -- and even defies logic -- because its academic standards that force its football players to be student-athletes instead of athlete-students make it nearly impossible for Stanford to play on a level playing field with every other college football program. Stanford coaches have to recruit with essentially one hand tied behind their backs.
Stanford has the toughest academic standards of all the schools eligible for BCS bowls. There are only about 100-200 players a year that can play Pac-12 football and get admitted to Stanford, leaving the school at a disadvantage from the start.
"I've been searching and I haven't found any other school recently that's been ranked both in the top 5 in college football and the top 5 by the U.S. News & Report,” Stanford Head Coach David Shaw said to CBS Sports.
Further, Stanford's admissions committee refuses to compromise the school's academic reputation, which is far above those of schools like Notre Dame, Duke, and Vanderbilt that are also known for combining academics and top-notch sports programs, to admit athletes with substandard academic records.
“No disrespect to them or anybody else, but we’re still kind of in our own little universe,” Shaw told the San Francisco Chronicle of the school's stringent admissions standards. “We won’t send a letter of intent to somebody who doesn’t get admitted to the school. Our academic standards are higher than anybody, not just Notre Dame.”
And yet, after winning just one game in 2006, Stanford has transformed into a legitimate college football powerhouse (some early bird 2013 rankings already have Stanford at No. 2 behind Alabama).
After Stanford defeated Notre Dame 37-14 at South Bend in 2010 in a game in which Stanford’s Owen Marecic scored a touchdown on offense and defense on consecutive plays, Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly, who was in his first year at the school, decided he needed to build his team like Stanford’s.
Kelly was not talking about off-the-field smarts but about the on-the-field grit and toughness, and this signified how drastically the Stanford football program, under then Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck, had transformed.
For these reasons, CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman wrote that the “metamorphosis of Stanford football is one of the most remarkable stories in the sport's history,” as “the Cardinal have gone from doormat to 'the cool school' in one recruiting class's college career.”
Because Stanford is not known as a traditional football powerhouse like Alabama or Notre Dame, kids do not dream of playing football (except perhaps for some aspiring quarterbacks) at Stanford, which means the school's strict admissions standards make fielding a successful football team even more difficult. While just one player can make a difference in sports like basketball and baseball, top football teams need both talent and depth to compete at the highest levels.
When asked if the Stanford admissions committee will be more lenient with some top recruits the football coaches want after Stanford’s consecutive BCS Bowl appearances, former Stanford Recruiting Coordinator Mike Sanford remarked last year that “nothing like that will ever happen” because “there’s just too much pride in this place.”
Indeed, two former Stanford admissions committee members told Breitbart Sports that the school has often told football coaches they could not recruit some prize recruits, even some who were committed to coming to the school, because they would not meet the school’s stringent admissions standards.
As Feldman observed, Stanford's “recruiting process is opposite from virtually every other program in major college football,” because the “staff doesn't watch film of prospects until after it receives--and evaluates--a recruit's academic transcript.”
Football coaches have often been frustrated by an admissions committee that has not budged. But instead of whining or giving up, the football coaches decided to turn Stanford’s weakness (academic standards) into a positive on the recruiting trail.
The football program knew they could not change the school’s admissions process so they determined “we need to change what we do, and that the key is to work with admissions and start the work early enough so those kids who are interested can plan to take AP courses.” They also focused on recruiting kids who were tough and gritty.
Stanford’s coaches started identifying potential high school juniors who could meet Stanford’s rigid admissions standards and become “Stanford men.” They worked with potential recruits who had expressed an interest in playing for Stanford and provided them with a rigorous academic schedule. They touted the value of a Stanford degree. Having former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who has been described as the football team’s secret weapon in landing top recruits, help in the recruiting process has not hurt either.
A decade ago, Stanford could have never recruited a talent like Barry Sanders Jr. like they did last season.
When Sanders Jr., the son of the great former Detroit Lions and Oklahoma State running back and one of the most heralded high school recruits in last year's class, had intentions of going to Stanford to play football during his junior year of high school, he focused as much on his academics as football. This is indeed rare in today's college football culture. One former recruiting coordinator at an SEC school “didn't recall having a single signee that even took an AP class.”
An Oklahoma State football told the Tulsa World Oklahoma that they knew Stanford was higher on Sanders' list than Oklahoma State's because Sanders spent as much time studying in high school as he was honing his football skills:
"They knew because he kept taking the ACT and the SAT...He’s been taking AP (advance placement) classes this year — he took two the first semester and he’s taking two this semester — and I think that’s why. I mean, he qualified everywhere else and I think Stanford just wanted him to make a higher score, and he accomplished that. I think he’s done what he needs to do.”
After Sanders got the grades and test scores to get admitted to Stanford, he accepted the football program's offer. In years past, Stanford, usually devoid of talents like Sanders, would have immediately played Sanders during his freshman year. But the program now has the luxury of redshirting him.
Shaw, Stanford's head coach, observed that Stanford’s football teams had a reputation “that it could play with anybody for awhile, but that the team did not have the toughness to finish the game.” Shaw's words epitomized the Stanford program that last met Wisconsin in the 2000 Rose Bowl.
But after recruiting classes that have turned out to be good as Alabama's, Stanford has been more than able to finish and is so loaded with talent and toughness that one broadcaster described them as the smart kids who can also steal your lunch money.
When Stanford plays Wisconsin this year, they, unlike in 2000, are considered to be the tougher team. Stanford is favored to win the game and may be on its way to becoming the most unlikely college football superpower in the years ahead, as they will return redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan and many underclassmen on offense and defense.
And in an age when "student-athlete" is often an oxymoron, Stanford has proven that academics at the highest of levels need not be sacrificed to achieve greatness on the gridiron.