Athletic director Bob Bowlsby saw a competitive spirit in Stanford last Saturday that he didn't recognize. Stanford pushed No. 21 California to the edge of an upset in the Big Game before falling, 26-17. If anything, that spirit may have sealed in Bowlsby's mind the decision to fire Walt Harris after only two seasons.
"Had we had that competitiveness throughout the year," Bowlsby said Monday night, "maybe it would have turned out differently. There were only two [losses] that we were in, San Jose State and California."
That's two out of 11. Stanford finished 1-11, and the losses to the Cardinal's Bay Area neighbors are the only two in which Stanford scored more than 10 points. Bowlsby, who has been on the Farm only a matter of months, didn't like that the team played competitively against its nearby rivals and not against the rest of the schedule, give or take the 20-3 defeat of Washington.
Bowlsby explained his decision in such a way to indicate that even a victory over the Golden Bears may not have changed his mind.
"I don't know that I can characterize when it happened," Bowlsby said of his decision to fire Harris, who compiled a record of 6-17. "I've spent most of the last four weeks looking for ways to convince myself to allow me to go forward and be fully supportive. It was the absence of that [evidence] that got me to where we are."
In other words, the first-year athletic director fired the second-year coach because he didn't believe the third year would change enough.
"If we win two or three or four games next year, is that going to put us in a position where we would look at it and say, 'Gee, we're really getting over the hump?'" Bowlsby asked. "I couldn't get to that point."
Harris got the Stanford job because his fellow graduate from the University of the Pacific, former Cardinal athletic director Ted Leland, believed in him. Leland hired Harris, a disciplinarian, to shape up a program gone soft under Harris' predecessor, Buddy Teevens.
Harris may have delivered too strong a dose, though. Harris is a clinician, a smart offensive coach with all the warmth of the chief clerk at the department of motor vehicles. That's fine if you win, or even if you show progress. Harris took the Cardinal to a 5-6 record in 2005 on the strength of a senior class recruited by Teevens' predecessor, Ty Willingham.
Left with a roster made up largely of Teevens' recruits this season, Harris failed to turn them into a passable, much less passing, team. He didn't get a chance to recruit players to fit into his system. But even after two years, Harris ran out of time.
That sounds odd coming out of Stanford, a place where the athletic tail rarely wags the academic dog. It is not the Stanford way to fire coaches quickly. However, Stanford has a brand-new stadium, a 58,000-seat gem set in the shell of its historic stadium. And after one season, many of the seats in the new $100 million stadium may as well still be wrapped in cellophane.
The Stanford students and fans spoke with their absence. Bowlsby heard them.
"I like Walt a lot," Bowlsby said. "I know how hard it is for him. The human side and the business side don't always coincide."
Bowlsby proved at Iowa that he knows how to hire a head football coach. With that hire he showed that he would not be swayed by public opinion.
In Dec. 1998, the Hawkeye masses clamored for former Iowa defensive back Bob Stoops, then a defensive coordinator at Florida, to replace the retiring Hayden Fry. Stoops had an offer from Oklahoma. Bowlsby wanted to interview former Iowa assistant Kirk Ferentz. Stoops didn't wait. Bowlsby took a beating, right up until Ferentz delivered the Hawkeyes to the Orange Bowl in the 2002 season. They will play in their fifth consecutive bowl later this month.
After two head coaches with no ties to Stanford, two head coaches who came from the east, Bowlsby may end up looking closer to home. For the third time in five years, Stanford is about to start over.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.