Stanford football has been a power for so long, it's easy to forget they might be the least likely team in the Pac-12 to be a football powerhouse. We are closing in on a full decade of Stanford being the best or second-best program in the Pac-12 and a perennial national contender and despite what your favorite Internet commenter, forum poster or uncle says, they aren't going away anytime soon. David Shaw and the Cardinal have some major challenges facing them in the next few years, but at this point, there is little to suggest they won't at least be a major factor in the Pac-12 championship race (and potentially national race) for years to come.
Stanford's unlikely rise to dominance has been documented so rather than rehash the past, I am more interested in trying to figure out what Stanford football could become in the near future. Specifically if they can become what another small, academic school in a major athletic conference became in another sport.
The paths aren't exactly the same, but I can't help but keep thinking how Stanford football and David Shaw parallel and could further parallel in the future Duke basketball and Coach K (especially since it is March Madness season). Shaw may have had Jim Harbaugh lay the foundation for him, but I can't help but see the similarities in an academic power in a big time conference known for its sports unexpectedly rising to juggernaut power with a unique scheme and a well-respected, stern coach who turns down more glamorous opportunities for dominance.
Now, the question remains, can Stanford do what Duke did and turn their unexpected dominant run and coaching prowess into a long-term advantage that delivers national titles and turns them into a proven brand in college football the way Duke and Coach K are in college basketball?
I think it could very well happen and here is why.
There is no competition for what Stanford is doing and it is very hard to replicate
You see it all the time. A program commits to scheme, it fuels them to wins, but then a couple seasons later, everyone is doing it and the competition is fierce.That's not very likely with Stanford. I don't see any programs, especially one out West that can recruit with near-Ivy League level academics and a powerhouse football program. Wins, schemes, facilities and coaches can come and go, but being a unmatched academic power built on 100 plus years of tradition cannot be replicated.
It doesn't look like David Shaw is going anywhere
Shaw generates considerable NFL buzz every year he delivers the Cardinal to the promised land of college football greatness, but he appears to be the rare college coach who at least doesn't seem overly interested with jumping to the NFL anytime soon. Shaw seems to possibly have that Coach K sense of seeing he is in his perfect situation with no limit to what he can do at this level for the future and that could keep Stanford on top for as long as he wants to be in Palo Alto. This is great for Stanford as every other recent Pac-12 dynasty (90s Washington, 00s USC, 10s Oregon) began to level off once their elite coach left.
The emerging modern recruiting landscape is very friendly for Stanford
A few recent developments in recent recruiting I have seen have been integral for Stanford's success and should continue to play a huge role in their success. One - an increased focus on academics among college football recruits and their families. Two - the digitizing of the world, shrinking the country and aiding national recruiting. Three - prestigious non-Ivy academic schools loosening their requirements for football players more than they used to.
Stanford's scheme is timeless
Up-tempo and no-huddle may have become all the range as Stanford was becoming a power, but the scheme is becoming about as played out as hairspray, guitar solos and spandex in 1989. While the rest of the country was busy jumping on the speed bandwagon, Shaw and Stanford stuck to their old school guns and are now a team with a unique scheme with a tried and true formula of beating you up front on both sides and moving forward with the ball with power.
Now the Cardinal remain a rare scheme, teams (especially in the Pac-12) are usually not equipped to play against with their personnel and who you may have to completely change your prep for the week leading into your game against them. Their old school mentality will cost them games here and there against hyperspeed teams like Oregon, but it will continue to overwhelmingly give them a concrete advantage in the current landscape of college football.
Stanford (at least has the image) of not being dirty
Like Duke, there is a clean cut, academic aura which floats about the Stanford program. Whether it's the Nerd Nation, the passive fans, the coach referencing jazz music in press conferences, David Shaw's smirk or the perpetual reminders of Stanford's elite academics, Stanford has a reputation that towers above the rest of the Pac-12. And like Duke basketball before them, they have somehow managed to uphold this while also dominating in a major college sport.
While this has led to Stanford building up some Christian Laettner-sytle hatred from other fans in the Pac-12, it is great for branding and could lead to them building a somewhat unpopular, but still popular brand like Duke if they can find a way to win a national title or two and maintain their success for long enough. Also, the image will probably keep the NCAA off of their back and prevent the kind of sanctions and off-the-field scrutiny that has plagued other recent Pac-12 powers like Oregon, USC and Washington.
Now here is the tricky part, there is no guarantee that Stanford will stay on this trajectory and become the "Duke of college football."
Here are some of the issues which might give Stanford trouble in the near future.
They are in the Bay Area
One of the reasons Duke was able to transform from academic power to long-term college basketball power was because they were right in the heart of basketball country with bitter rivals to compete against. That could not be further from the case with the Cardinal. They are in Pinot country, right in the heart of an area that is pretty indifferent, if not actively against football.
Stanford football will probably never be able to win over the non-alumni fanbase in their region enough to fuel the regional hunger for domination that might be required to become a neverending powerhouse.
They're alumni base doesn't care as much as other schools
It has been amazing the level of success Stanford has maintained with what is arguably, the least-enthused football fanbase in the Pac-12. It seems Stanford may have found a way to get around an apathetic alumni base and maintain being a power, but I still can't help but wonder if they can keep it going forever, particularly if they have a down year or two in a row.
The Pac-12 is due to improve around them
Despite a lot of improvement in the middle and the bottom of the conference, the top of the Pac-12 where Stanford has been residing for more than five years now has been fairly stagnant recently and it simply cannot stay that way forever. Stanford has really only had to truly fight off Oregon for the Pac-12 title since they stepped up to the next level with usually powerful programs like UCLA, USC and Washington improving, but falling well short of the stature of Stanford.
So... which direction will Stanford head? College sports glory or a slow fade into the overflowing cauldron of college sports runs that lost their spark after a little more than five years?
I think we will start to find out more this year as they have to replace their second starting quarterback since Andrew Luck, graduate some of their highest-rated recruits on the offensive line and have to retool their defense for the second year in a row. We will see if Palo Alto heads in the direction of Durham or further into, well... Palo Alto.