The 2008 Big Game was supposed to be a new high-water mark for Stanford football. Even as the 5-6 Cardinal traveled across the Bay to face off against 6-4 California, there was a sense that it just might be the year for Stanford to earn bowl eligibility with a sixth win, a pinnacle that had been not been reached by a single player on its roster.
Instead, Stanford’s Nov. 17, 2008 date in Berkeley turned into one of the most embarrassing losses in the rivalry’s recent history. By the time the Bears grabbed a 37-3 fourth-quarter lead, it was all too clear that a seventh straight Stanford season would end with a losing record. The ugly game made for a silent locker room.
“Boy, we were very quiet, very down,” remembers outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson. “At that point in our time here [getting to a bowl] was a huge goal, a huge accomplishment. There was a lot of disappointment.”
Fifth-year senior Alex Debniak, then a wide-eyed freshman linebacker, has played in 29 games since that Big Game loss, but he still has vivid memories of its aftermath.
“It was heartbreaking to watch the [seniors], because they came so close to getting to that bowl game,” Debniak said. “Watching that look on their faces, we as a class came together and realized we didn’t want that for us, and we didn’t want that for the kids below us either.
“It left a bitter taste in our mouth,” he added, “and it left us hungry.”
Five current Cardinal players–Debniak, linebacker Chase Thomas, safety Harold Bernard, center Sam Schwartzstein and punter Daniel Zychlinski–hit the Memorial Stadium gridiron that afternoon in 2008. Those redshirt seniors are the lone holdouts from an era of losing records and bowl seasons spent watching games on TV, a dying breed of Stanford players who have experienced a losing season.
The Cardinal may be a sublime 35-9 over the last three and a half years, but that 5-7 mark in 2008–especially the anticlimactic finish to the season–was instrumental in sparking the turnaround.
“I think right after that, that’s when those guys who came back just set their mind to it that we were going to do everything possible, really sacrifice in the offseason to do everything we could to get over that hump,” Anderson said.
Despite its sour ending, 2008 had itself been a stride forward for a Cardinal program that 1-11 just two seasons earlier, before Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach. Harbaugh’s first two teams respectively compiled four and five wins, marking the first time since 1990-92 that Stanford’s record had improved in consecutive seasons.
The outgoing seniors who had fallen just short of a bowl that year would become role models for later classes of young players who would reap the rewards of the program’s resurgence.
“We saw how we wanted to approach our next four years here,” said Zychlinski, now Stanford’s starting punter. “[We] took some good examples from them, and then built really a machine.”
Sure, that Cardinal machine has ridden a wave of Heisman Trophy candidates and some of the most skilled recruiting classes in school history all the way to consecutive BCS bowls. But the collective chip on Stanford’s shoulder has as much to do with its success as the talent that took center stage.
“We’ve had that certain discipline or that certain drive in the offseason practices,” said Thomas, an All-American who passed on the NFL Draft to return for a fifth year. “[It’s] to make sure we don’t go back to those days…We don’t anticipate losing anymore, and moral victories are over around here.”
“They realized how hard it is to win, that fine line between winning and losing, and how hard you have to sacrifice, how hard you have to work,” Anderson said. “Every little thing can make a difference.”
The little things–offseason work, conditioning, meetings and more–finally added up for Stanford in 2009 when it went 8-5 with a Sun Bowl appearance. But that newfound success also meant that the Cardinal’s youngest players hadn’t experienced the same disappointment of a losing season, an emotion that had become a focal point for older classes.
“It gets more and more difficult as time goes on, because we have a perspective that a lot of younger guys don’t have,” Debniak said. “I think it’s just a matter of instilling that toughness.”
Bernard, who has appeared in the Stanford secondary in all but four games since 2009, is confident that enough of a winning culture has been built to maintain the Cardinal’s success. But he adds that many young players were already used to winning before they arrived on the Farm–perhaps too much so.
“Most of the guys on the team come from winning high schools,” he explained. “We try to tell them, ‘Don’t get too high, don’t get too cocky,’ because we try to remind them where we came from, that we weren’t always this good and we’ve got to just harness what we have and keep it going, keep it moving.”
One of the ways the Cardinal’s elder statesmen emphasize that attitude is through a “team covenant,” Zychlinski said. Compiled each year by the seniors, it’s a list of items to achieve over the course of the season.
“One of our biggest points this year was, ‘This is a meritocracy,’” Zychlinski said. “You get what you work for and you get what you earn.”
And for the five players who witnessed firsthand what it was like to not make a bowl, time is running short to pass on that message.
If 4-1 Stanford can secure three more victories, it will be guaranteed yet another winning season, and the fifth-year seniors will leave behind a roster of players who have never experienced the type of heartbreak felt after the 2008 Big Game. Stanford hasn’t gone four years without a losing season since a 17-year streak from 1964-80.
The prospect of fielding a group of players who have never finished a season below .500 is uncharted territory, but is still exciting for Anderson and the coaching staff.
“That’s what we want to do,” he said. “We don’t want to have to take a step back. We don’t want to have to lose to teach guys lessons. We should be able to learn those lessons through winning.”
Be that as it may, Stanford has still experienced the disappointment of unachieved goals early in the 2012 season.
“This is going to be a top-25 team for years to come,” Schwartzstein said. “I don’t think they need a losing season. I think we already had that taste with the loss to Washington, the loss early in the season, which we haven’t had in a while.”
Of course, new experiences aren’t new at all for these five. After their final three months of college football, this year’s group of fifth-year seniors will be remembered as the ones who bridged all sorts of gaps: from Gerhart to Luck, from Harbaugh to Shaw, from losing to winning.
Zychlinski puts it best: “We went through the dark years,” he says, “and we made something out of nothing.”