by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Welcome back to the gridiron big time, Stanford!

Indeed, seeing the Cardinal ranked in the top ten is something of a shock for a generation of fans who a few years ago could be excused about wondering if they even played football anymore on The Farm. But they sure do these days for HC Jim Harbaugh, who, in reconstruction terms, might as well be referred to as the Ulysses S. Grant of college football. That’s because anyone who saw the Stanford team Harbaugh inherited three years ago would have figured that it was about as likely for Jerry Brown to be re-elected as governor of California than the Cardinal getting into the top ten anytime soon.

Well, so much for that analogy.

Nonetheless, we would advise the Stanford faithful to enjoy Harbaugh while they can. Because if football history on The Farm repeats itself, Harbaugh probably isn’t going to stick around Palo Alto much longer. More on that in a moment.

Even though sorts such as Erin Andrews and the new-wave ESPN crowd would probably have no idea, a colorful football history indeed exists on The Farm. There is a long and illustrious gridiron background in Palo Alto aside from John Elway and the band and being on the wrong end of "The Play" at the end of the 1982 Cal game (Stanford folk don't like to talk about that game, so we won't bring it up again).

And yes, the school’s teams were known as the Indians until March of 1972. For historical accuracy, we’ll refer to the pre-‘72 teams as the “Indians” throughout this piece. The teams were then unofficially known as the “Cardinals” (although some referred to them as the “No-Names”) until 1981, when “Cardinal” was officially adopted as the nickname.

The gridiron tradition on The Farm is a rich one, much of it long before Elway (who never took Stanford to a bowl, by the way) stepped on campus in the fall of 1979. The names associated with Stanford football roll off the tongue like a who’s who of the sport: Walter "The Father Of Football" Camp, who coached at the school in 1892, 1894-95. Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, coach in 1900. Glenn "Pop" Warner, coach from 1924-32, including three Rose Bowl teams and a national champion in 1926. Clark Shaughnessy, coach from 1940-41. John Ralston, coach from 1963-71, including back-to-back upset Rose Bowl winners in his last two years in charge. Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy winner in 1970. Bill Walsh, coach during two different stints between 1977-78 and 1992-94. All except Walsh are members of The College Football Hall Of Fame, and Walsh of course made a greater mark on the pro game, and has been immortalized in its HOF at Canton.

Camp, Yost, and Warner are recognized as pioneers of the game, and Shaughnessy (left) was one of the most influential coaches in the history of the sport, as he was the "Father Of The T-Formation." Before arriving on The Farm, Shaughnessy coached at the University of Chicago and examined the Pro-T used by George Halas and his early-NFL Chicago Bears team. Shaughnessy was tinkering with ways to improve the formation, but before he could implement them, U of Chicago dropped the sport.

Hired at Stanford before the 1940 season, Shaughnessy inherited a 1-7-1 Indians team and proceeded to introduce his version of the “T-Formation,” a brand new offense that was dismissed by traditionalists and single-wing devotees. The famed "Pop" Warner who had coached Stanford from 1924 through 1932, was one of the critics. "If Stanford wins a single game with that crazy formation,” said the legendary Pop, “you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean." We don’t know if Warner followed through on his threat, but Shaughnessy fooled him and everyone else when Stanford’s “Wow Boys” went 10-0 and defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl 21-13, and named College Coach of the Year in the process. But, in a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent generations, Shaughnessy abandoned The Farm after just two seasons. Although it was the outbreak of World War II, not an offer of riches from elsewhere, that prompted his move from Palo Alto after the 1941 campaign, as Shaughnessy correctly predicted that the school would shudder its gridiron program during the war.

Preceding the “Wow Boys” were the legendary “Vow Boys” of the mid 1930s, coached by the outgoing Tiny Thornhill (right), who ran something of a loose ship. The “Vow Boys” were so named because a group of freshman who entered school in 1932 “vowed” to never lose to USC and Howard Jones’ Thundering Herd, which had beaten the Stanford varsity 13-0 in the fall of ’32. That freshman class extended the “vow” to hated rival Cal as well, and never lost to either the Trojans or Golden Bears for the rest of their careers on The Farm. Over the course of their three varsity years, the “Vow Boys” compiled an impressive 25-4-2 record and went to the Rose Bowl three straight years, finally winning one on the last attempt against SMU, 7-0. As for Thornhill, he allowed his players to come to practice late if necessary, and installed no curfews. Indeed, it was hard to tell who ran the Stanford practices in those days, but that sort of independence manifested itself on the gridiron. Another Stanford trait that would be repeated in future football generations.

Although the highlight of the modern era in Stanford football came under the innovative Ralston (left), whose pro-style offenses and maniacal defensive units (remember the “Thunder Chickens” of the early ‘70s?) produced contending outfits and colorful Rose Bowl teams in 1970 and ‘71. Not to mention borrowing a page from Tiny Thornhill’s happy-go-lucky “Vow Boys” from nearly 40 years earlier, as Ralston allowed his boys to be independent, letting them grow their hair and sideburns long and even sporting a moustache if they wished, things that many staid football coaches of the day considered taboo.

Longtime west coast football followers, however, believe Ralston's 1969 Stanford team might have been the best of the bunch, if not the best team in the country that season, and maybe the best in school history. Plunkett (right) had established himself as a force as a sophomore the previous season, and though the decorated Gene Washington had graduated after 1968, Stanford still owned solid receiving targets in TE Bob Moore & WRs Randy "The Rabbit" Vataha and Jack Lasater. Not to mention a stout defense with potential postseason honorees on the DL (Dave Tipton and Pete Lazetich, both to play in the NFL) and at LB (Jeff Siemon and Don Parish, also both future NFL players). The Indians seemed to have the necessary experience, balance and depth to make a run at Pac-8 honors. Early lopsided wins over San Jose State (63-21) and Oregon (28-0) moved Stanford to the 17th spot in the rankings before an early-season showdown at number 8 Purdue, and an anticipated shootout between the Boilermakers’ Heisman Trophy candidate QB Mike Phipps and Plunkett.

The Indians, behind Plunkett’s 4 TD passes, took a 35-21 lead into the 4th Q, only to see Phipps rally Purdue to a pair of late scores, the last a TD strike to RB Stan Brown (Phipps’ 5th TD pass of the day) with 3:03 to play, and a subsequent 2-point conversion pass to WR Greg Fenner put Purdue ahead 36-35. Plunkett proceeded to drive Stanford into Boilermaker territory and nearing the range of PK Steve Horowitz before being intercepted by Purdue DB Mike Renie with 2:04 to play, saving the 36-35 win for the Boilermakers.

The consensus after that game, however, was that the same teams might be playing in a rematch at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. For Stanford to get there for the first time in 18 years, it would have to go through defending Pac-10 champ Southern Cal, next on the agenda at the L.A. Coliseum. And the Indians believed they had a legit shot after coming close to a Trojan team led by Heisman winner O.J. Simpson in '68 at Stanford Stadium, bowing only 27-24, in what was Plunkett's breakout game.

If the Purdue game was a thriller, the SC game was off-the-charts exciting, as the early Pac-8 showdown at the Coliseum was a wild, back-and-forth affair between the 4th-ranked Trojans and 18-th ranked Indians. Stanford jumped to a 12-0 lead behind two Plunkett TD passes, although failed conversion attempts after both scores would come back to haunt the Indians. By halftime, however, SC had assumed a 14-12 lead, with DB Ty Hudson’s 57-yard interception return of an errant Plunkett toss staking the Trojans to the halftime edge.

The teams went back-and-forth in the second half, SC taking what looked to be a final lead at 23-21 on a Ron Ayala FG with just over 3 minutes remaining, until Plunkett unleashed a 67-yard bomb to Vataha with under 2 minutes to play, setting up a go-ahead 37-yard FG by Horowitz with 1:02 to play. Down 24-23 and with no timeouts, SC’s plight looked bleak, especially after facing a 4th down inside their own 30. Coach John McKay, however, called for a Clarence Davis run to get the first down, then QB Jimmy Jones commenced an urgent march upfield, with a 14-yard pass to TE Gerry Mullins getting the ball to the Stanford 17 in the final seconds. Mullins, however, had not gotten out of bounds, and the clock was soon ticking again after the first down markers were set. Without timeouts, McKay hurriedly sent his FG team on the field, with the snap barely beating the game clock to 0:00. PK Ron Ayala proceeded to hit the 34-yard FG at the final gun for a 26-24 Trojan win, and another Stanford heartbreak.

"I can remember seeing the (Stanford) players strewn all over the field, not able to get up," All-American LB and future Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler Jeff Siemon said.

John Sande, the center, said, "That's the first time I ever cried after a game. There were a lot of us crying."

In watching and recalling football since the early ‘60s, that game rates as one of the all-time best I can ever recall, and one I would like to relive if I could. There were seven lead changes that night in the Coliseum, including one of the wildest finishes and final three minutes of action I could remember. I still recall the excited tones of SC play-by-play radio announcer Mike Walden, trying to make sense of the final minute. How I wish I could find Walden's commentary from that night!

Stanford’s 1969 heartbreakers weren’t finished yet. Two weeks later, undefeated and 6th-ranked UCLA and perhaps Tommy Prothro’s best-ever UCLA team invaded Palo Alto for another showdown. Stanford’s Rose Bowl hopes were already on life support thanks to the SC loss, but Plunkett came out firing, with a pair of first-half TD passes to Vataha staking the Indians to a 17-6 halftime edge. UCLA rallied on a pair of Dennis Dummit TD passes to reclaim the lead at 20-17 before Horowitz tied the score with a 4th Q FG. Then, after Bruin PK Zenon Andrusyshyn duck-hooked a short go-ahead FG attempt (duck hook is no exaggeration, as Andrusyshyn nearly hooked his FG to the sideline), Plunkett drove Stanford downfield for a game-winning FG try by Horowitz from 32 yards with 4 seconds to play. UCLA, however, had different ideas, with DE Mike Ballou blocking the kick and LB Vince Bischof picking up the ball and momentarily looking as if he might return it for a TD. Bischof was tackled near midfield, however, and the game ended a 20-20 tie.

"Three plays decided our season," said linebacker Pat Preston, who was second on the team in tackles that year. "Phipps beat us with the PAT, USC kicked the field goal, and our field goal was blocked by UCLA. We could easily have been undefeated."

Stanford won its final four games, beating Cal 29-28 in the finale, and the returning players vowed to turn the tide against USC the next season after 12 straight losses in the series.

”We made a pact as a team," DE Dave Tipton said. "Most of the time, players went home for the summer. We were going to spend the whole summer here as a team working out. 'We're going to beat SC and get this done.' It was a turning point for all of us."

When conducting our TGS radio show seven years ago, we went to some lengths to have coach Ralston, then in semi-retirement and working as an analyst on San Jose State’s games, as our featured guest for one of the programs. It was an honor for us, as Ralston was and still is one of the true gentlemen of the coaching profession. Ralston, who left Stanford to coach the Denver Broncos in 1972, was perhaps our most interesting guest of our 2-year run for the show, and thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing with us about the 1969 season and the old days at Stanford.

When I asked the coach if he thought the 1969 team could have been his best, he didn’t exactly disagree. “Well, it might have been,” said the coach. “Except I believe the teams in 1970 and ‘71 would probably have found a way to win those games we lost and tied in 1969. On the other hand, the ‘70 and ‘71 teams lost a few games the ‘69 team probably wouldn’t have lost. But I think those near-misses in ‘69 really fueled our next teams, especially the next year. We probably needed to go through that as a team in ‘69 to achieve what we did in 1970.”

Which was to finally beat USC (24-14) and make it to the Rose Bowl, scoring a shock 27-17 win over Woody Hayes’ heavily-favored Ohio State, which could have secured the national title with a win. To prove it was no fluke, Stanford returned to Pasadena the next year and once again pulled a major upset, beating Bo Schembechler's unbeaten Michigan, 13-12, on a last-second FG by PK Rod Garcia (left).

Still, the stunning Palo Alto turnaround authored by Harbaugh needs to be put into some sort of perspective. Rewind back to 2006, the second year of HC Walt Harris’ tenure in Palo Alto. Harris had been lured from Pitt, which he had just steered to a Big East title and Fiesta Bowl berth, for the 2005 season. At the time it seemed a homerun hire for the Cardinal, with Harris’ regional roots and success with the Panthers making him look like a good fit on The Farm, certainly better than predecessor Buddy Teevens, whose desultory three-year tenure ended after the 2004 campaign with five straight losses and an ugly 41-6 Big Game loss to rival Cal.

But Harris’ attempt to revive the program hit an early roadblock, when the Tree suffered a startling 20-17 home upset loss vs. lower-division UC Davis in the second game of the ‘05 campaign. Inconsistency continued to plague the 2005 Cardinal, which finished 5-6, but that was good news compared to the mess that followed in 2006, when Stanford fell to an ugly 1-11, ruining the debut season of its sparkling new stadium on campus. Injuries hit the Cardinal hard, and KO’d future NFL QB Trent Edwards along the way, but it was apparent that Harris (right) had lost the team at some point during the season. We saw up close the depths to which the Cardinal had fallen, witnessing Oregon State’s 30-7 romp in late November, a game in which Stanford QB T.C. Ostrander endured a frightful beating. Only a 20-3 win against a desultory Washington side in mid-November at Seattle prevented a winless campaign.

Before assuming that the wine-and-cheese Stanford crowd in Palo Alto has better things to do than run its coaches out of town, think again. Harris was sent packing after the 1-11 embarrassment in 2006, but he wasn’t the first Cardinal coach forced to walk the plank a bit sooner than most would expect. The fact is that Stanford has been pretty demanding with its football coaches, and hasn’t tolerated mediocrity for very long. In 1976, the school pulled the plug on Jack Christiansen despite the fact that “Chris” hadn’t fielded a team with a losing record in his 5-year tenure. The peripatetic Rod Dowhower left on his own accord after one season in 1979, abandoning a young QB named John Elway to take the offensive coordinator post with Red Miller’s Denver Broncos. Paul Wiggin succeeded Dowhower but met the same fate as Christiansen, jettisoned after a desultory 1-10 mark in 1983. John’s papa Jack Elway then moved up the peninsula from San Jose State to take over in 1984 and had some modest success (and a Gator Bowl berth in 1986), but was sent packing, uncermoniously so, after a 3-6-2 mark in 1988. And, as mentioned, in the past decade neither Teevens nor Harris lasted long with their failing regimes. Over the last 34 years, that’s five coaches fired (Christiansen, Wiggin, Jack Elway, Teevens, and Harris), one resigning (Dowhower), and one retiring (Walsh, after his second stint in '94).

But what should concern Stanford folk are the other coaches who have abandoned The Farm on their own accord, parlaying success into jobs elsewhere. Of course, Clark Shaughnessy left after just two years on the job in 1942. Ralston, having scaled the heights of the Pac-10, moved to the NFL Denver Broncos less than a week after that pulsating ‘72 Rose Bowl win. Walsh left Stanford after just two seasons, taking the 49ers job in 1979. Dennis Green left after his first winning season in three years on The Farm, taking the Minnesota Vikings position in 1992. Ty Willingham parlayed a Rose Bowl trip in 1999 and a 9-3 mark in 2001 to Notre Dame. And informed sources tell us that Harbaugh, though under contract on The Farm through 2014, will likely look seriously at a move to the NFL after the 2010 season, with a chance that a couple of jobs could be opening just up the road from Stanford. The school, which has never paid "funny money" for a coach in any sport despite being able to do so, might want to rethink its policy if it wants to keep Harbaugh, reportedly the Pac-10's lowest-paid coach, in the fold.

It wouldn’t be the first time a coach has left Stanford after scaling the heights. Stay tuned.


Following are our latest “BCS Buster” rankings, with straight-up and pointspread records listed, as well as the next opponent.

1-BOISE STATE (3-0, 3-0)...The Broncos did enough in last week’s 37-24 win over Oregon State to not to hurt themselves in the polls, keeping their BCS title game hopes on course. Now, the Broncos are going to have to do some scoreboard watching and cheer for Virginia Tech to continue its climb back up the ACC mountain (Frank Beamer won’t have a bigger fan than Boise for this week’s test vs. unbeaten NC State) and also cheer for revitalized Nevada to stay unbeaten until the Thanksgiving week showdown in Reno. In the meantime, to limit poll damage caused by the steady diet of WAC opposition the Broncos will be facing in the next eight weeks, don’t be surprised if Boise (20-9 its last 29 as chalk) scores some “style points” and roll up some scores in the coming weeks, beginning this week with poor New Mexico State. At New Mexico State this Saturday.

2-TCU (4-0, 2-2)...The Frogs endured a bit of a scare last Friday vs. Metroplex rival SMU, trailing for a moment in th 3rd quarter before getting serious and putting the Mustangs away. The Oregon State comparison vs. Boise, however, probably won’t help the Horned Frogs, so they’ll be hoping that some WAC entries such as Hawaii and San Jose and, eventually, Nevada cause enough trouble for the Broncos to give TCU a chance to leapfrog (no pun intended) Boise in the polls. It’s ironic that a loss in last year’s Fiesta Bowl to Boise might be one of the most important games in this year’s eventual BCS equation, as it effectively put TCU behind the Broncos from the outset. Talk about your flaws in the BCS system! At Colorado State this Saturday.

3-UTAH (4-0, 3-1)...The Utes have notched some impressive style points in recent weeks, crashing the 50-point barrier and covering vs. outmanned New Mexico and San Jose State. They’ll get their shot at TCU later this season (in Salt Lake City to boot), but finding a way past Boise might require some help from outside sources. Further good news is that QB Jordan Wynn returned to action last Saturday vs. the Spartans, and Utah continues to handle hefty numbers for HC Kyle Whittingham (the Utes are now 9-1 their last 10 laying 20 points or more after the San Jose destruction). At Iowa State October 9 .

4-NEVADA (4-0, 3-1)...Two “hump” wins in a row for the Wolf Pack, easy 27-13 winners last week at BYU, suddenly have them talking BCS in Washoe County, too. Nevada has also surfaced in the polls (ranked 25th in both) for the first time since 1948, when the Wolf Pack eventually performed in the Harbor Bowl, a predecessor to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Heady times in Reno, to be sure, especially with a chance to beat up rival UNLV and win the Fremont Cannon for the sixth straight year on Saturday night. Do you think QB Colin Kaepernick might be due a Heisman endorsement from Sharron Angle and the Tea Party? At UNLV this Saturday.

5-AIR FORCE (3-1, 2-2)...The Falcs could be excused for being a bit flat at Wyoming, a tough sandwich game between a heroic near-miss at Oklahoma and the revenge war this week vs. Navy. And don’t underestimate the importance of this week’s game vs. the Mids; never mind the Mountain West, this year’s Air Force team will define itself by reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. But to do so, the Falcs will have to beat Navy this week for the first rime since 2002. Hosts Navy this Saturday.

6-NAVY (2-1, 1-2)...Much like Air Force, the Mids’ season will be defined by the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which in Navy’s case means keeping it for the eighth year in a row. Oddsmakers do not seem to think the Mids are up to the task this week at Colorado Springs, where the Falcs have been installed as 10-point favorites. All we can say to them is underestimate Navy at your own risk. At Air Force this Saturday.

7-HOUSTON (3-1, 1-2)...Maybe the Cougars’ season isn’t scotched after all. True frosh QB Terrance Broadway, the new UH spread pilot after injuries KO’d starter and peripheral Heisman candidate Case Keenum and backup Cotton Turner the previous week at UCLA, looked more than serviceable in his first start last Saturday vs. Tulane, completing 19 of 28 passes and showing the sort of moves that made him the nation’s 5th-rated dual-purpose QB threat coming out of high school last year. If he stays healthy, he’ll get better as the season progresses and should emerge as a playmaker deluxe for the Cougs. Getting a TD from the defense in last week’s 42-23 win over the Green Wave was a positive sign as well. At Mississippi State October 9.

8-SMU (2-2, 2-2)...We’re not going to downgrade the Mustangs too much for the TCU loss. If anything, taking a lead in the 3rd quarter showed how far June Jones has progressed the program in two years. Home dates later in October vs. Tulsa and Houston will likely go a long way in determining the C-USA West winner, but no matter what it looks like Jones has the Ponies poised for a return to a bowl game somewhere in December. At Rice this Saturday.

9-FRESNO STATE (2-1, 2-1)...After an encouraging start for the Fresno defense, things unraveled in a big way for the Bulldogs at Ole Miss, where the Rebels discovered they could unleash RB Brandon Bolden and do significant damage to the Fresno rush defense, which was one of the worst in the country when allowing over 6 ypc a year ago. At least HC Pat Hill has time to shore up those rush defense deficiencies (if he can), with WAC showdowns vs. Nevada and Boise State not coming until back-to-back weeks in mid-November. Hosts Cal Poly SLO this Saturday.

10-SOUTHERN MISS (3-1, 1-3)...It’s a good thing the Golden Eagles aren’t worried about “style points” the way they are at Boise, TCU, and Utah, because Dick Button and Peggy Fleming would have given them very low marks for their unsightly 13-12 win at La Tech last week. USM will have to work on its offensive efficiency after having little to show for 425 yards worth of offense at Ruston, although star WR DeAndre Brown is expected to return for this week’s C-USA opener vs. Marshall. Hosts Marshall this Saturday.

Knocking on the door: San Diego State, UCF, Temple, Army

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