- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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STANFORD, Calif. -- The tightrope that Stanford must walk in order to be a nationally ranked football team demands a balance of academic and athletic prowess that has eluded one Cardinal coach after another. Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus after Stanford went 1-11 in 2006, grabbed the pole, leaped onto the rope and took off.
Four years later, Stanford went 12-1 and finished No. 4 in the nation.
“One of the things that Jim said to me -- I remember it so distinctly,” Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby said, “is, ‘Mr. Bowlsby, you can’t convince me that with 300 million people out there, there aren’t 25 good football players who are smart enough to come to Stanford and athletically good enough to compete against the best teams in the country.’”
Enthusiasm aside, the task is akin to fitting the Stanford Tree through the eye of a needle. The administration won’t have it any other way. That’s one reason why Stanford president John Hennessy took such delight in quarterback Andrew Luck's decision to turn down the NFL and return to the Farm for his redshirt junior season.
“Like many college presidents, I worry about the increasing professionalism of collegiate sports,” Hennessy said via email. “I am determined that Stanford will remain an institution where the graduation rates of our student-athletes will always be more important than our teams’ national rankings. Andrew’s decision to remain at Stanford with his classmates and teammates symbolizes what collegiate sports ought to be truly about. That’s why it resonated so much with me and with Stanford’s alumni and supporters.”
That doesn’t make the needle any easier to thread.
“If 3,000 kids sign Division I football letters every year,” Bowlsby said, “we can maybe talk to 250 of them. Maybe. And when you start slicing and dicing that into specialists and 22 on-the-field positions, some of those cells get pretty small. Even empty.”
David Shaw, an assistant who took over as head coach last January when Harbaugh became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said that his staff must identify prospects when they are freshmen or sophomores and convince them to take AP and honors classes in their last two years of high school.
Because there are so few fish in the Stanford pond, Shaw said, “We cannot waste time recruiting a kid that we don’t think is going to come …. We spread a wide net, from coast to coast, which we need to do to a certain degree (the Cardinal locker room includes players from 28 states). People talk about how hard it is to recruit for Stanford. The guys stand out. There might be two guys in the whole city of Dallas. There might be one guy in the whole Northeast. But he’s going to stand out.”
Every Stanford head coach presents a list of high school senior recruits to the admissions office. The coaches learn to self-screen their candidates.
“Just because it’s the No. 1 quarterback in the country doesn’t mean he’s getting in," associate athletic director Earl Koberlein said. “He still has to do the essays, have the teacher recommendations and the test scores and the coursework to earn his right in.”
Because the Stanford admissions office waits until a recruit’s senior year to make a decision, Cardinal coaches in every sport must convince a recruit not to commit to another school while they wait to hear whether they will get into Stanford. Opposing coaches use that to their advantage.
“Kids in their sophomore year are committing,” Koberlein said. “If kids are going that way, we can’t confront them. Trying to get them to wait, hold off, go through the admissions process, is difficult. ‘Well, I got a scholarship right here …. You want me to turn that down or tell them to wait for Stanford’s process?’ I give our coaches credit for being able to do that. They have to fight hard to get kids to do that. You understand the kids’ side. They’re getting all this pressure. Coaches will say, hey, you got until Friday to decide.’ Because they know it doesn’t help them to wait -- if you get admitted to Stanford, they’re probably going to lose you.”
“Nobody wants us to be successful,” Shaw said. “There’s no way. With our academic standards? There’s no way that other schools want to see us have continued success. Our graduation rates, where our football alumni are in football and business, there’s no comparison. If we’re going to be in the top 10 in football perennially” -- Shaw paused -- “why wouldn’t you come here? How could you say no?”
Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way, save a loss at Oregon. Shaw’s margin of error continues to be slim. But it’s clear that the Cardinal are making a lot fewer errors.