As I mentioned in an early article about the recent history of sanctions in the Pac-12, it has been nearly impossible for Pac-12 teams to have grand and consistent success on a national level without running afoul of the NCAA. With Washington, USC and now Oregon's titular success all immediately being followed by sanctions, it begs the question of whether or not a Pac-12 team can even compete for a national championship on a regular basis without breaking the rules and/or getting punished. Though it may seem bleak and depressing when thinking about these examples, I guess the answer would actually be yes, if you are Stanford.
There is always the possibility that Yahoo! Sports, who has quickly become the college football harbinger or death, is about to blow up the Cardinal the way they have done so many others, but at the moment, the Cardinal seem to outlying example of how a Pac-12 program can have wild success without wild accusations and consequences. The Cardinal have been to three-straight BCS bowls and won the Pac-12 last season and all without a sniff of controversy or trouble. Of course, Stanford's path to this success wasn't easy and probably isn't replicable by any other program in the conference due to the university's unique situation, but at the moment it is preferable to the success of other Pac-12 powers.
I will admit that it seems in recent years, specifically starting around the time Jim Harbaugh showed up in Palo Alto, that Stanford has been less stringent in their admission standards for football players, but still, no school in the Pac-12 is harder for football players to get into than Stanford. But what Harbaugh, and the Cardinal did was take those still high admissions standards that had long been seen as a weakness and actually almost turn them into a strength.
It didn't really grow until they started winning a bit and the signing of Andrew Luck really helped, but Stanford has quickly become a destination for elite college football prospects that also just happen to also be elite students. It makes perfect sense, if a player who can go to one of the best academic schools in the nation and also excel at football and live in the Bay Area why wouldn't he? And the best players from all around the country who could also hack it academically suddenly started looking very seriously at Palo Alto.
I know that this simply isn't possible for any other school in the Pac-12. Washington State and Arizona State and even schools like Oregon, Washington and USC simply can't compete with Stanford academically. Unfortunately for them, the recipe that they have to use is perpetually walking the line of taking players who can barely make it into college and hope that they can get them eligible as opposed to being selective with some of the best student athletes in the country. Also, the Cardinal clearly struck gold in hiring a prodigy in Harbaugh, but the same could be said about Oregon hiring Chip Kelly, USC Pete Carroll and Washington Don James, but each of those three had their college careers likely cut short and their reputations tarnished by penalties because of having to walk that Tony Soprano-like line of good, evil and looking the other way.
Whether or not he did it on purpose, Harbaugh's decision to move Stanford towards a smashmouth offense that centered on the strength of their offensive line was a brilliant one. The Wonderlic Test isn't a perfect standard, but when you look at the average scores by position, offensive linemen, quarterbacks and tight ends score the best by far. So the Cardinal are much more likely to be able to find prospects at these positions, which are most crucial to their game plan that can actually qualify for their sky high standards. They can find a bunch of decently athletic guys to fill the backfield and run the ball, but it's those big guys up front that truly matter and Stanford can get more skilled players at those positions than skill positions.
But this isn't just about what Stanford does right, it is about what the other Pac-12 schools have done wrong and while fingers can be pointed at the hypocrisy and inefficiency of the NCAA, East Coast bias and good ol boy networks that supposedly only want SEC schools to win championships, it is simply the world that Pac-12 schools live in. In the cases of Washington, USC and Oregon, they haven't lived in that world well for too long. There seems to be a smaller margin for error for West Coast schools when it comes to skating around these rules and until Pac-12 schools can start to do this and look more at the Stanford method for success it's hard to envision a future where the slash and burn farming version of success doesn't continue.
The thing with each of this program's dynasties and their falls is that, like most things in the world that end in penalties, each succumbed to a form of one or two of the seven deadly sins.
I will admit that I know the least about Washington's sanctions from the early-90s simply because I was in grade school when they came down, but there is enough out there about them to size them up. Strangely enough and it likely has to do with a different era of college sports, but the Huskies' sanctions may have been the result of sloth more than anything else.
Maybe the most eye-catching thing when you look at Washington's sanctions that were handed down in 1993 was that they were handed down just eight months after the investigation started. When looking at the years that it took for the USC, Oregon and Miami investigations to unfold, that is an unbelievably short amount of time. From reading about what went down, it seems like the Huskies simply didn't put enough effort into defending themselves. When looking at the violations the Huskies were convicted of, they aren't particularly damning considering the penalties they faced and it seems that they at least could have had them reduced had they drug out the process and fought as hardly as USC and Oregon have.
On the flip side, the Huskies weren't completely innocent, and judging by the book Scoreboard, Baby about the program eight or nine years down the road, the program had a sloth approach when it came to punishing players and keeping track of what was going on. Much of the Huskies undoing in this case came from rogue former players who made allegations against the program and while that isn't necessarily something you can control that much after the fact, it is likely that the Huskies were recruiting players of questionable character and then lazily not controlling them. And as Augustus McCrae said in the mini-series Lonesome Dove, "You run with horse thieves, you die with horse thieves."
USC's troubles were more of a crime of greed and pride, specifically individual greed.
There were a few things that were questionable about the way USC was doing things and controlling things, but unlike many other NCAA controversies, this one was almost exclusively on one guy - Reggie Bush. Bush essentially sold out his entire team for money and the worst thing about it was that he could have just waited another year or two for his pro and endorsement contracts he would have been fine. Sure, it's possible that the loan money he got was from USC and that USC should have known what he was doing, but Bush's greed is the biggest culprit. He is not alone though, as there is a good chance that USC's prideful narcissism led to them not worrying about Bush's misconduct due to the fact that they thought they were too big to fall which seemed apparent in how hard they fought the investigation.
Lastly, Oregon is currently embroiled in their current fiasco mainly because of like USC, greed and a little bit of envy. The Ducks had just rolled to a Pac-10 championship in their first year under Chip Kelly and with a ton of young talent coming back and Kelly's offense looking more and more unstoppable. The Ducks were quickly becoming the new powerhouse of the conference. With USC reeling with the fresh loss of Pete Carroll and how devastating their offense was becoming, Kelly had to know that he had the pieces in Eugene to steamroll the Pac-10/12 in the coming years. But he probably didn't have the pieces to beat the truly elite teams in the country and he knew that, but Texas offered talent that if the Ducks could grab it, might get them over that final hurdle to a national championship. However, to do that, they were going to have to beat those elite teams in the recruiting game, which can be even more daunting than beating them on the field.
Kelly and the Ducks had to know that getting into a heated recruiting battle for Texas running back Lache Seastrunk was going to be dangerous. Five-star running backs don't leave the state of Texas or the plains and Southeast easily, but the Ducks have become so envious of the idea of winning a national championship that they got greedy and jumped into the Seastrunk battle full force and likely drew the ire of those big time heartland and Southeast schools that pointed fingers at them when Seastrunk headed to the Northwest. Could the Ducks have used Seastrunk? Of course. But did they truly need him and to get into those Texas recruiting circles and Will Lyles? No.
So overall, I guess that like most things in life, we are all trying to be like people who get into Stanford.