In his scholarship letters to new recruits, Jim Harbaugh was always fond of writing, “As both the top academic institution in the world and the home of the top collegiate athletic program in the world, Stanford represents the greatest combination of academic and athletic excellence in existence.”
While it’s easy to dismiss anything Harbaugh says as motivational hyperbole, a number of people around this university are of the same opinion. The first part of the claim–that Stanford is the world’s top academic institution–may be bold, arrogant, pointless and non-confirmable, but you can at least make a reasonable case that it’s true. And the second part of the claim–that Stanford boasts the top collegiate athletic program–is, of course, indisputable.
Or is it? Since 1990, Stanford has won 59 NCAA team titles (easily more than any other school). More notably, perhaps, the Cardinal has taken home sixteen consecutive NACDA Directors’ Cups, the award given annually to the collegiate athletics program with the most overall success in the assorted NCAA championships (and in football, which determines its champion outside the purview of the NCAA). The Directors’ Cup used to be sponsored by Sears, but people eventually lost interest due to the predictable nature of the competition, and Sears dropped its sponsorship. Minor changes to the formula have failed to have any effect on Stanford’s remarkable streak.
Earlier this year, the folks at ESPN got the brilliant idea to hand out another award to the nation’s most successful athletic program. But being ESPN, they want people to follow the results of their Capital One Cup, so they had to figure out a way to make Stanford’s victory seem not so inevitable. To do so, they made three major changes to the basic formula used by the Directors’ Cup.
First, the competition has been divided into a men’s division and a women’s division. This makes sense in an individual sport, where physical differences between men and women might make it impossible for women to participate, but when it comes to dividing the activities of an entire athletics department, this distinction is absolutely mystifying. No college has separate departments for managing their men’s and women’s programs. By segregating Stanford’s dominant women’s teams into their own category (which they currently lead, even with the other modifications intended to weaken Stanford), the Capital One Cup is simply shining even more of a spotlight on the high-revenue men’s sports that already receive the most media attention. If you add together the point totals for the men’s and women’s divisions, Stanford easily sits at No. 1, with 165 points to Cal’s 140.
The second change with the Capital One Cup is breaking the sports into three tiers. The top-tier sports (football, basketball and baseball on the men’s side) are worth three times as many points as the bottom-tier sports (such as cross-country, golf, and tennis). Stanford has traditionally dominated those lesser-known sports (which don’t receive as much consistent attention from athletics departments as, say, basketball does), so this move makes sense from that perspective. But Auburn, which currently leads the men’s standings with 70 points, collected 60 of those points from its football championship over Oregon in the fall. The smaller programs have become nothing but a tiebreaker to sort out the most successful programs from the three big championships.
The final change is that the Capital One Cup ignores certain sports entirely. Instead of allowing a school’s best handful of programs to count toward the formula (which still gave an advantage to schools like Stanford, with more programs), the new competition simply fails to acknowledge sports like men’s gymnastics. I’m sure the Stanford men, fresh off their second championship in three years, are happy to know all of their hours of work and practice are considered worthless.
So how do things look? The Cardinal currently leads the women’s standings and sits in fourth in the men’s at 15 points back. At first, I was mildly incensed that ESPN would deign to designate someone other than Stanford as the most successful collegiate athletics program. But I understand their need for excitement, and I’ve now come to appreciate the opportunity they’ve given us to win at something else. So in these coming weeks and months, let us (or more precisely, our athletes) do just that: women, keep doing what you’re doing. Men’s baseball, football and track? Go all the way. Maybe next year they’ll just give up and start giving a prize for second place.
–Alex Romanczuk ‘11