For those of you who missed Dr. Tom Taylor’s column from yesterday, the recently enshrined engineering expert talked about the curse of high expectations. Dr. Taylor expected his dissertation defense to be successful, and he was not elated but relieved when it was.
Similarly, as Dr. Taylor pointed out, Stanford football expects to have a fantastic season. After two embarrassing oversights on the national media’s part — the 2010 team was initially unranked and finished No. 4, while 2012 went from No. 21 to No. 7 — it is to the press’ credit that they have not chosen to double down on their previous mistakes. ESPN, Vegas, Sporting News and Athlon currently have the Cardinal in their preseason rankings at No. 5, No. 6, No. 2, and No. 7, respectively.
But it is a widely acknowledged truth in sports that the better you are, the fewer upsets you can score; the target is on your back, not the other way around.
Everybody will be gunning for Stanford this season. Everybody was gunning for Stanford last season, after all. Even teams such as San Jose State, Washington, Washington State and Arizona gave the Cardinal their best shot. For many squads, their game against Stanford will be their Super Bowl.
The attitude and expectations of and for Stanford football are changing, and that is a good thing. David Shaw commented after 2012 USC that “I would like for everyone in the stadium to not be surprised.” Indeed, Stanford is aiming to be a powerhouse program, and powerhouse programs do not celebrate beating mid-tier Pac-12 teams. Powerhouse programs do not rush the field (unless you are Notre Dame after the 2012 Stanford game). Powerhouse programs expect success and are only surprised by failure. Powerhouse programs sell themselves to recruits and perpetuate themselves. Success breeds success, and in an environment of success, there will be no more 2007 USC-style upsets. There can’t be. Relief has replaced surprise.
But let’s not forget that relief should never preclude wonder.
Let’s make this clear: a certain sense of arrogance ought to be inherent in a good program, in the sense that this is Stanford and nobody came to Stanford to settle for second — not in the classroom, not on the playing field, not in music, not in anything. People come to Stanford for the resources, the atmosphere and the competitiveness.
At a school with an eleven-figure endowment (seriously, think about how much money that is), it should be more than clear that the deck is stacked in our favor. With the advantages we have, we can never settle for anything less than brilliance. We should strive to win everywhere, in everything, all the time.
But high expectations are not the same as entitlement. Consider the popular USC “Arrogant Nation” t-shirts, after all. Arrogance is part of USC’s shtick, but arrogance also led USC to fight the NCAA during the Reggie Bush scandal and suffer retaliatory sanctions — sanctions that helped a preseason No. 1 crash and burn to 7-6 last fall. Neither did the Trojans’ history save them from going 3-8 in 1991 or 5-7 in 2000. This is the sort of thing that happens when you believe your own press.
In a similar way, Stanford cannot expect fortune to smile on them every game; 2012’s Notre Dame game may have ended on a rather questionable note, but human reffing is and has always been part of the game and the goal is always to win games handily enough that bad reffing won’t matter. Sometimes the breaks fall your way, sometimes they don’t, but a national champion — and that is what Stanford ought to be — plays through ref-created adversity.
This is why, ultimately, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the USC-bashing “They Should Be Used to This Right Now” t-shirts. They are obviously meant in good fun and a little trash talk is perfectly compatible with a sane perspective. However, taken out of context, this rhetoric may engender a critical misconception. People, beating the University of Southern California is not our birthright. This season recently reminded us that beating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is not a birthright. Even beating Cal is not a birthright; during my grade school years, Stanford was most decidedly Cal’s whipping boy, a stereotype that the Cardinal has worked very hard to correct.
Every moment that Stanford may enjoy at the top of the world — and I certainly hope that there will be many — is thrilling, beautiful and infinitely precious. Being a sports fan is not about winning — if that were the case, there would be far fewer fans — but winning is certainly what we spend our lives dreaming of.
High expectations certainly go hand in hand with sustained success, but they don’t have to take all the fun out of the game.
The key, then, is to be proud but also to be grateful.
Don’t be fooled by Winston Shi’s attempt at school modesty. He came to Stanford to win, in everything, all the time. Take him down, if you dare, at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.