- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It’s here, finally.
No, not the Fiesta Bowl. The end. The completion of the most nationally scrutinized season in Stanford football history. It started the day quarterback Andrew Luck announced he was putting off the NFL for one more season and returning to Stanford. And it hasn’t let up.
Stanford University isn’t a stranger to the media. With an alumni list that reads like a who’s who of American politics, industry, science and technology, those with Stanford ties make headlines daily.
But the football team? The group that was 1-11 a few years ago? Really?
And Luck’s return was just the start. Then came Jim Harbaugh’s departure for the NFL … then a coaching search … then David Shaw is hired … then the Heisman talk … then a preseason top-10 ranking … then the nation’s longest winning streak … then Heisman talk … then draft talk about Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro and Coby Fleener … then the BCS chatter … then Heisman talk … then the Oregon game … then the fallout from the Oregon game … then the Heisman talk … then non-BCS chatter … then BCS chatter again … then Heisman talk … then the post-Heisman talk … and now another BCS game.
You get the idea. Stanford’s media-hyped season revolved around Luck, and his presence brought scrutiny to everything and everything that had a block ‘S’ on it. You take a team that has never had this much national exposure and put a spotlight as hot as an Arizona summer day on them, surely they’ll wilt.
Or not. The Cardinal lived up to the hype, as proof by their appearance in today’s Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. And though Luck didn’t win the Heisman, it’s safe to say he lived up to his almost unachievable expectations (both external and internal). And now Stanford is in a second consecutive BCS bowl game with a No. 4 national ranking attached to it.
“They’ve handled it great. All of it.” said Shaw. “I started the year talking about Toby (Gerhart) and the way he was in the spotlight. All he talked about was his offensive line and his fullbacks. And watching Andrew handle his notoriety last year and this year, it was the same thing. When your best players are humble and they point the spotlight toward the other guys, No. 1, the other guys appreciate it and No. 2, the other guys don’t want to let them down.”
For as much talent as the Cardinal lost to graduation last season, they still boasted an abundance of maturity this year. And that core group of veteran leaders never let the players’ heads get too big for their helmets.
“I think as a group we handled it well,” said Fleener. “We’d like to have the Oregon game back. We’d like to replay that one a few times. But it’s something that guys like Andrew and David [DeCastro] and Moose [Jonathan Martin] have handled really well. We all know it’s out there. But they are intelligent and they deflect the attention. Andrew does an amazing job of that and he gives teammates credit they may or may not deserve.”
It even got to the point where players would playfully joke with Luck about his increased media attention. On more than one occasion they would laugh in the postgame news conferences at the slew of Luck-centric questions. After a few minutes, Luck would eventually give the obligatory “why don’t you ask one of these guys” responses.
“It’s not like anyone is scared of Andrew or Moose or David or anything like that. They are just normal guys and normal teammates,” said fullback Ryan Hewitt. “They just happen to be very successful technicians of their trade and they are the best at what they do. It’s exciting because as a teammate, you want to play alongside the best.”
Whenever Luck was asked about the NFL or the Heisman, he had his stock answer in the barrel.
“I’m just focused on Stanford. Thinking about anything else would be a disservice to this university.”
The players knew they had something good in the works when they went to the Sun Bowl two years ago, followed by the Orange Bowl and a blowout victory over Virginia Tech last year as an encore. As the hype grew, so did the expectations.
“I think in years past it was OK for Stanford to be very good at academics and mediocre at athletics, at least from a football realm,” Fleener said. “Coach Harbaugh, and now coach Shaw, have pushed us to the point where we are expecting to win every game, or know that we will prepare to win every game as opposed to prepare to give the other team a good game. That’s a huge change from four or five years ago when we would be the underdogs. Now it’s to the point where we have a bull's eye on our back.”
People east of Las Vegas call that big-time college football. Whether Stanford can sustain this momentum remains to be seen. Certainly, the hype fades when Luck goes. But that doesn’t mean the expectations do.
“There is a groundwork and a formula to do it,” said the NFL-bound DeCastro “... They have to challenge themselves each year to get better because everyone else is going to get better. That hardest part of success is being able to repeat it.”