by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Forgive us for this little stroll down memory lane with Stanford football. But we’ve seen this scenario before in Palo Alto.

In other words, to those of the ESPN era who might not know any better, Stanford has previously scaled some heights in its football history similar to last year’s 12-1 season that was culminated by an Orange Bowl romp over Virginia Tech. Although we could excuse a generation of fans who a few years ago could be excused about wondering if they even played football anymore on The Farm. That’s because anyone who saw the Stanford team Jim Harbaugh inherited in 2007 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, last season, we advised the Stanford faithful to enjoy Harbaugh while they could. Because if football history on The Farm repeated itself, Harbaugh probably wasn’t going to stick around Palo Alto much longer. And, indeed, to no one’s surprise, the stars aligned perfectly for Harbaugh to make a convenient switch after last season to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, whose football facility is only about 20 minutes south on the Bayshore Freeway from the Stanford campus, in nearby Santa Clara.

Before we get into the Cardinal’s prospects with new HC David Shaw, a little bit of background is in order regarding the aforementioned colorful football history on The Farm 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). Also, forgive us if crossing the politically-correct boundary by referring to the long-ago Stanford teams as the “Indians,” which was their nickname until 1972.

The gridiron tradition in Palo Alto is in fact 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 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, 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, 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. Along the way, the aforementioned Jim Plunkett became the school’s only Heisman winner, in 1970.

Ralston, however, left at the apex of his tenure, right after the second of his back-to-back Rose Bowl wins. Within a week of the ‘72 Rose Bowl thriller over Michigan by a 13-12 count, Ralston had been hired by the Denver Broncos. That scenario of leaving on top was repeated by subsequent Stanford coaches Dennis Green (who left for the NFL Minnesota Vikings after 1991) and Ty Willingham (who left for Notre Dame after 2001). Harbaugh is only the latest Cardinal football head honcho who has bolted for greener pastures when the opportunity has arisen.

But new coach Shaw might be working on a shorter leash than he imagines. 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. Harbaugh’s predecessor Walt Harris, just two years on the job, 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 in the past decade, neither Harris nor Willingham’s immediate successor, Buddy Teevens, lasted long with their failing regimes. Over the last 39 years, that’s five coaches fired (Christiansen, Wiggin, Jack Elway, Teevens, and Harris), one resigning (Dowhower), and one retiring (Bill Walsh, after his second stint in '94). Plus Ralston, Green, Willingham, and Harbaugh moving “up” to other jobs elsewhere.

Despite his presence on the Harbaugh staff, Shaw’s head coaching credentials came under some scrutiny from some Stanford backers and the Bay Area media that was thinking decorated former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, a reported finalist for the position, might be a more appropriate fit, especially with his head coaching background, of which Shaw has none. Over the past 50+ years, only one new head coach on The Farm, Dowhower in 1979, had taken the job without any HC experience. And longtime Cardinal fans will remember that his tenure lasted only that one season. Moreover, Harbaugh took several key members of his staff, including associate HC Greg Roman and d.c. Vic Fangio, with him to the 49ers. Shaw promoted from within to fill his coordinator posts, with Pep Hamilton elevated from WR coach to o.c., and Derek Mason promoted from secondary coach to co-defensive coordinator, a position he will share with recent 49ers LB coach Jason Tarver.

Shaw did, however, have the backing of the returning players, who might have had some influence over AD Bob Bowlsby’s decision. Time will tell if they, and Bowlsby, were right.

Certainly, the story in the run-up to the season is fourth-year jr. QB Andrew Luck, who surprised some (make that most) observers when he bypassed last April’s NFL Draft, for which he was eligible and likely the number one overall selection, for a return to Palo Alto. Sources suggest Luck, whose dad Oliver was a fine college QB in the early ‘80s at West Virginia and spent a few years of his own in the NFL before becoming AD at his alma mater, would like to exit college with the Heisman Trophy, and join the aforementioned Jim Plunkett as Stanford’s only such winners. Early odds for the Heisman, posted by bodog.eu, list Luck as an early 9/2 favorite to win the award.

Forgive us, however, for not conceding the Heisman to Luck in the summer. Matching last year’s accomplishments, which for Luck included 3338 YP and 33 TDP, might not be easy. Nor is it a fait accompli that the Tree will approach last year’s 12-1 record.

The loss of Harbaugh, and the extra motivational boost he provided, not to mention his ruthlessness, might be hard to replace. Will Stanford play on edge with Shaw as it did under Harbaugh? Moreover, the offense only returns two starters, RG David DeCastro and LT Jonathan Martin, from a punishing offensive line that helped set the table for a uniquely-balanced attack that gained 214 ypg on the ground and 259 ypg thru the air and scored 40 ppg.

And what if Luck should get injured? There is no significant experience among the primary backups who have thrown a combined 2 passes (courtesy likely backup Josh Nunes) in their college careers.

Aside from Luck, the strength of the offense lies in a deep and versatile stable of RBs led by the slashing Stepfan Taylor (1137 YR LY), although wild man FB Owen Marceic, a throwback from one-platoon days when doubling as a jarring LB, has graduated. There is also quality depth at the TE spot, where sr. Coby Fleener is the key returnee after catching three TD passes in the Orange Bowl. Concerns, however, exist at the WR spots where top 2010 wideouts Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen have graduated. Injury-prone big-play sr. Chris Owusu (who doubles as a KR threat) was limping around again in spring; with Owusu’s durability issues, it is a bit worrisome to note that Stanford’s other returning WRs have only a combined 24 career receptions catches between them. Corey Gatewood, who has spent the past couple of years in the defensive backfield, was moved to a WR spot in spring in hopes of adding depth to the wideout ranks.

The defense might have even more questions, where a pair of starters must be replaced up front in the Cardinal’s 3-4 alignment that will be retained from the Fangio stop unit by new d.c.’s Mason & Tarver. Replacing underrated NT Sione Fua, who regularly tied up multiple blockers in the pits, will be key, and reviews have been mixed on replacement Terrence Stephens, a 295-lb. junior. The strength of the platoon figures to be at LB, where jr. ILB Shayne Skov is generating some preseason All-American chatter, while big-play OLB Chase Thomas recorded 7 ½ sacks and 11 ½ tackles for loss a year ago. Mason and Tarver are also hoping that former RB Usua Amanam, who could not break through the crowded queue in the offensive backfield, might flourish in a move to CB, where the Cardinal needs to break in a pair of new starters. Senior safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas, however, rate as perhaps the best such pair in the Pac-12.

Summary...Stanford is getting more respect in preseason rankings than it did a year ago when it eventually finished fourth in the polls. But despite the presence of Heisman favorite Luck, we are not convinced the Cardinal can author a repeat of last season after the departure of program architect Jim Harbaugh, key members of his staff, plus graduation depletion along both lines that were strengths a year ago. Not to mention competing in what looks to be the tougher of the new Pac-12's two divisions, the North, with the Oregon schools, resurgent Washington, and angry Bay Area rival Cal included. New coach David Shaw is also going to be hard-pressed to sustain Stanford’s pointspread prowess, especially at Palo Alto, where Harbaugh’s teams covered 13 of their last 16 games, and a 22-11 overall spread mark their last 33 games on the board.

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