Stanford's decade-long transformation from Pac-12 doormat to dominance

Pac-12 programs still measure success by New Year's Day trips to Pasadena, which means Stanford's run of three Rose Bowl appearances in four years makes the Cardinal the league's standard-bearer.

The Cardinal's mini-run of dominance is all the more impressive considering that decades-long gaps between trips were once the norm: There were no Rose Bowl appearances by the Cardinal between 1952 and 1971, and there was another long dry spell between 1972 and 2000.

Throw 2011 Orange Bowl and 2012 Fiesta Bowl berths into the mix, and the Cardinal have now been to five top-level bowl games in six seasons. They've also produced 24 NFL Draft picks over the past five years -- the most in the Pac-12 over that time period.

The numbers say that these are, far and away, the best of times for Stanford football.

Right, David Shaw?

"I don't know, my brain doesn't work like that," Shaw said.

As far as Shaw is concerned, acknowledging golden times is the fastest way to usher in their demise.

"My mind always looks forward," Shaw said. "Because I think if you look back, you stop building. I tell our guys: 'Greatness never arrives.' The moment you think you arrive, you become average. We're always striving to improve, striving to get better."

Still, it's impossible to ignore the fact that less than 10 years ago, the Cardinal were possibly the worst team in the FBS. They finished 1-11 in 2006, infamously punting on third down on multiple occasions over the course of the season.

"Every once in a while, we look at what we've done, because we could have never imagined this 10 years ago," defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said.

Anderson came to Stanford with Shaw as part of Jim Harbaugh's coaching staff following the 2006 nadir. Working in the still-smoldering ashes, the new leadership began planting seeds on the recruiting trail that would blossom into one of country's most remarkable turnarounds.

"Ten years ago, it was hard to get anybody to talk to us who was a decent player," Anderson said. "Now, with almost anybody in the country who has the ability and the grades, there's interest. We can take our pick now."

And that's the larger picture here: The Stanford phenomenon has grown into more than just an unprecedented stretch of on-field success. The Cardinal have ridden simultaneous academic and football prowess to transform themselves from college football's laughingstock to a fashionable destination for the nation's top high school prospects.

It's a metamorphosis that may explain why Stanford's success has lasted longer than just the flash in the pan many predicted when Harbaugh made the initial splash. Last season's 12-2 Rose Bowl run fully validated Shaw's work at the helm -- there were no more holdovers from the Harbaugh era on the roster.

From Toby Gerhart to Andrew Luck to Christian McCaffrey to present-day recruiting classes ranked near the top of the conference, the Cardinal have demonstrated that they can sustainably replenish and develop top-tier talent even as Stanford has become the nation's most selective university with a 4.69 percent admissions rate.

That consistent restocking ability has usually been reserved for college football's traditional powers -- Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. But many prospects now hold Stanford in the same esteem as those programs, and that's something that would have been unthinkable just a few years back.

"I believe Stanford is even more impressive than those other schools," tight end recruit Colby Parkinson said. "Athletically speaking, it is very impressive to get an offer from Alabama, but that offer doesn't hold as much value as an offer from Stanford does... In my opinion, Stanford is the 'cool school' to get offered from. It shows that you excel both athletically and academically."

Parkinson, the nation's No. 2-ranked tight end in the 2017 class, holds several high-profile scholarship offers. But he committed to the Cardinal a day after they extended their invitation last December, keeping the Stanford pipeline of good times flowing strong.

Shaw is confident that even more prosperity awaits on the horizon. He's in an enviable spot now, as his Cardinal are surfing a tidal wave of momentum. Their program's reputation has surpassed the wildest dreams of a decade ago. The biggest challenge now is the opposite of what it used to be: It lies in blocking out all the pats on the back.

"At the end of last year, we celebrated," Shaw says. "But then it was time to put the rings and trophies away. Then we said: 'OK, who are we now? What can we do? Because there's no carryover from last year to next year... So far, our guys are working like they want to be good next year."

ESPN Recruiting Nation's Erik McKinney contributed reporting.