Stanford comfortable in national spotlight

Is Stanford elite? Sustained success, expectations say so, but pressure no concern for Shaw and Co.

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Two seasons ago, analysts wondered how the Stanford football program would handle the loss of coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Last season, those same analysts wondered if the Cardinal could recover from the graduation of quarterback Andrew Luck, the top pick in the draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

Following a gut-wrenching Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, those questions no longer dog Stanford. About the only big-picture theme that interested reporters at Pac-12 media day Friday at the Sony Picture Studios was whether it’s time to consider Stanford a perennial power; one of the nation’s consistently elite programs.

“That’s obviously the goal, but we don’t worry about those things, because the focus has to be on the here and now,” linebacker Shayne Skov said. “I know that sounds clichéd, but we really don’t think in those terms. That kind of analysis comes from you guys after we’ve proven we’re worthy of it.”

The Pac-12 media weren’t ready to hand a second straight conference title to the Cardinal, tabbing Oregon as the favorite to win the North Division in the preseason poll. But being picked behind the Ducks is no slight, and certainly no indication that media do not view Stanford as a power. The Cardinal still garnered the second-most votes in the conference and finished just six votes behind Oregon (145-139).

“There’s a certain amount of respect that’s given,” coach David Shaw said. “At the same time, as far as conference games go, outside of Colorado, every single game (last season) came down to the fourth quarter or overtime. Every single team that played us knows that if three or four plays change, those games change. It’s not like we’re running away with this. There’s no way you can say this is not a hotly contested conference.”

Nonetheless, big things are expected of Stanford again, and now that the program has showed that it can succeed without big names like Luck, there is a deeper appreciation for the renaissance that has occurred in Palo Alto.

"I’ll never forget Andrew saying, 'Are you watching the offensive line? You see how much time I have?'" Shaw said of questions Luck continually fielded about his importance to the team’s success. “For me, it helped alleviate some of the coachspeak that you see (when he graduated). We’re not a one-player team. This really is a team sport.”

Stanford’s success didn’t happen overnight. In Walt Harris’ final season as coach (2006), Stanford went 1-11. Harbaugh went 4-8, 5-7 and 8-5 in his first three seasons, and Shaw has set new goals for his team and his assistants each of his three seasons. 

“For us, it’s been a constant pushing of the envelope -- it’s been a continual effort as far as getting better and taking the next step in the program,” Shaw said.

At Stanford, that can be a greater challenge than most programs face, given the school’s rigorous academic standards that automatically rule out a sizable portion of the high school football recruiting pool.

“I don’t want to diminish anything that other programs accomplish, because there are all kinds of challenges every program faces when trying to be successful,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “But what Stanford has done under those restrictions -- it’s a huge credit to David and everyone in that program.”

Now that the Cardinal have arrived among the nation’s elite, Skov understands that there is additional pressure on the program to measure up. But he insists Stanford is not the slightest bit daunted by the lofty expectations -- and for good reason.

“Everything we do is about being elite,” Skov said. “I don’t mean that to sound arrogant in any way, but it’s Stanford. Let’s be honest. There are expectations that go along with that name.”