Part 1: Fueling the Cardinal machine
Part 2: Fanning the flames
Part 3: The long path to glory
This is a three-part feature that ran from May 28-30 on Lance Anderson, Stanford football’s defensive coordinator and ace recruiter, who is now entering his eighth season with the Cardinal. Part I focuses on Anderson’s reshaping of Stanford’s recruiting apparatus. Part II covers Anderson’s leadership of the Cardinal pass rush and his new role as defensive coordinator. Part III highlights Anderson’s life as a college coach and the trials and rewards of his calling.
Three coaches remain from the staff that initially accompanied Jim Harbaugh to Stanford in December 2006: David Shaw, Shannon Turley and Lance Anderson.
Shaw rose from offensive coordinator to head coach and won the next two Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards. Turley slashed Stanford’s injury rates and was voted the best strength coach in the country last November by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Anderson, Stanford’s new defensive coordinator and ace recruiter, has flown under the radar for a long time, but his successes are fundamental to the program, and even for people only tangentially acquainted with Stanford football, the responsibilities that have come with his new title have made him impossible to ignore.
This is the story of Stanford’s rise — of a university that learned to sell itself like no other. It’s the story of a team and program that has surpassed the legend of the people that brought it back to prominence. It’s also the story of one of the best recruiters in America.
College football is a deceptively deterministic sport. For a game that is so celebrated for its spectacular upsets, its thrilling victories and, of course, the coaches roaming the sidelines, it’s surprising if not outright counterintuitive that so much of the game is dependent upon recruiting, an aspect of the game that few people ever get to see.
The numbers bear this out. A comprehensive study of the 2012 college football season by statistician Dave Bartoo found that 76.5 percent of college football games in the BCS Automatic Qualifier conferences could be predicted six months before the season even began, just by analyzing recent recruiting rankings and correcting for home-field advantage. Moreover, recruiting is traditionally been range-bound: teams rarely make massive leaps in that field.
“People don’t want to admit this, but most teams are as good as they’ll ever be right now,” Bartoo said. And the hard truth is that for a good part of Stanford’s history, its losses were decided before the game even began.
While Bartoo was very complimentary of Stanford’s current coaches — comparing recruiting-based expected win totals to performance on the field, the Cardinal’s entire program adds approximately two wins a year to Stanford’s record — it is clear, both from his perspective and from the numbers, that improved recruiting is the biggest reason why Stanford went from 1-11 to 12-1 in just four short years.
Recruiting rankings are not always perfect; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ben Gardner, a two-star prospect, caught Stanford’s eye not with his star rating but from a recommendation by Jim Harbaugh’s dad. But overall, the rankings are a solid predictor of future success. From 2003 to 2008, recruiting news service Scout.com ranked Stanford’s recruiting classes Nos. 26, 46, 38, 38, 43 and 44. After the program started showing sustained progress during the fall of 2008, going 5-7 but being competitive in most games, Stanford’s classes were ranked Nos. 16, 24, 23, 7, 57 and 16.
Translating recruit-speak to English, during the first period, Stanford’s recruiting was only good for somewhere around eighth in a 10-team league. During the latter period, Stanford has been the fourth-best recruiter in the Pac-12, despite its famous (or infamous) academic requirements for recruits.
“They’ve had some big classes, but it’s sustaining itself — that’s what’s amazing,” Bartoo says. The Cardinal have been top-two recruiters in the conference two out of the last three years, and have actually surpassed Oregon in recruiting prowess. It’s no surprise that in 2012, Scout named Anderson its national recruiter of the year.
“The key guy is Lance Anderson in all of this, above everybody in my opinion,” Harbaugh told The Daily in an interview for the book Rags to Roses last spring. “He is the one consistent thread for six years.”
In person, it’s clear that Anderson can get a guy to go to Stanford — and, perhaps more importantly, get the recruit’s parents on board as well. Lance Anderson has the rare talent of making people like him almost instantly. He is smart, he is charismatic and he has a compelling ability to put people at ease; in short, he resembles the archetypal American cool uncle.
Naturally, he has all the tangible successes you would expect from an ace recruiter: In just one year, Anderson led the way in recruitments of highly touted players like Andrus Peat, Aziz Shittu, Noor Davis, Blake Martinez, Zach Hoffpauir and Luke Kaumatule — players that between them had offers from nearly every major program in the country.
But Anderson’s greatest achievements have been strategic rather than tactical. Put simply, Anderson has changed the very science of how Stanford approaches recruiting.
Over the last seven years, Anderson has focused the program on targeting players in a more nuanced manner. Stanford could not focus solely on the ability or notoriety of a single coach to bring people to the Farm: one coach was not reason enough for a student to come to campus, especially in light of the endless carousel that typifies college football coaching — Tavita Pritchard '09, a quarterback at Stanford when Anderson arrived on campus, was recruited by Buddy Teevens, played his first two seasons under Walt Harris and became Stanford’s starting quarterback under Harbaugh. Even though a flashy guy like Harbaugh could play an important role in recruiting, the program’s emphasis would always be on what Stanford itself could offer, and how best to market that to students.
In addition to furiously selling Stanford to recruits across the country, Anderson worked hard to advertise the Stanford program, proactively contact potential recruits, help them negotiate the Stanford admissions office and teach them how to write the best application possible.
The first part was marketing: Early on, Stanford essentially carpet-bombed prospective recruits with non-committable offers (before the admissions office had actually approved any of them), just to get the Cardinal into the conversation.
As Stanford improved on the field, recruiting shifted toward a more selective strategy. Stanford’s advertising emphasized the team’s success in tandem with the University’s academic reputation. A well-known letter to recruits cleverly touted both the Cardinal program and the earning potential of a Stanford degree, pointing out that Stanford outpaced the rest of the football top 25 in graduates’ expected future salary.
Leveraging the University’s other built-in advantages was an additional key to Stanford’s success. Anderson was confident that Stanford could, in short, sell itself if recruits visited the campus, especially during the beautiful California summer.
“I was just going through the roster the last week,” Anderson told The Daily for Rags to Roses last year, after Stanford inked another star-studded recruiting class. “Almost everybody on our roster is a guy that visited…the summer their junior year or sometime before.”
As his colleague Mike Eubanks put it for the same project, “If they visit, they will come.”
But the big issue, as it had always been, was navigating the admissions office. Since the days of Pop Warner, Stanford coaches have worried about admissions standards. Anderson tried to understand the process by putting himself in an admissions officer’s shoes.
“After being here just a short time, we started to get kids denied or we found about a couple kids who had already been denied right before we got here, and it was really interesting looking into that — why some of those kids were denied and what the situation was,” Anderson said. “Really, going through that first recruiting class, it really became evident to me that, boy, it’s important to get on kids early and make sure they understand what all the academic requirements are, in terms of the classes we’re looking for them to take, the kind of test scores we’re looking for.
“There’s not a magic number [where] okay, they get to this, and they’re going to get in,” Anderson continued. “[The admissions office is] also gonna put a lot of weight on your application. How well did you write the essays, how detailed and thorough were you in filling everything else out, what did your teacher recommendations say about you, what did that counselor or score report, what did that say about you?”
What did that say about you? Indeed, going beyond the measurables — SAT scores, 40-yard dash, GPA, three-cone drill — was a view that both coaches and admissions officers could get behind.
Stanford football succeeded by its working with the admissions office. While academic requirements did restrict Stanford’s pool of potential recruits, Anderson actually credits the admissions process, as well as the team’s strength and conditioning regimen, with helping Stanford’s attrition rates. Every Division I FBS team gets 85 scholarships a year; in a five-year stretch from 2008 to 2012, Stanford only signed 102 players. During that time frame, Alabama signed 135. Additionally, having to sign fewer recruits also depresses recruiting rankings — concealing how talented Stanford’s roster really is.
“[The admissions officers] want to make sure that the kids who are admitted here…are able to be successful here. Not just get by, not just survive, but that they are able to succeed here,” Anderson said recently. “You [might] think by relaxing standards we can get better players and stuff in, but in the long term that’s going to hurt you, because those guys are going to have a hard time graduating.”
It helped that right across the Bay, California had laid the blueprint for what not to do as an elite academic school that wanted to play elite football. Cal’s similarly surprising rise to football prominence in the 2000s was in part fueled by recruits that were largely unable to succeed in Berkeley’s demanding classrooms. Cal football ended up graduating a miserable 47 percent of players within six years. Stanford escaped that fate.
“Lance realized we’re not gonna change admissions here. He knew we need to change what we do, and that the key is to work with admissions,” David Shaw told CBS. “Lance was the first one to realize and put that road map together.”
In recent years, when you think of Stanford football, you think of Jim Harbaugh, who raged on the sidelines and ordered the team to watch The Ghost and the Darkness; you think of David Shaw, whose presence permeates everything from the halls of TEDx to the Stanford Stadium video board; you think of a series of wisecracking, hard-hitting, trash-talking playmakers at almost every position on the field.
Yet in recruiting as successfully as it has, the achievement of the modern Stanford football program is not really its headlines or its superstars or even its trophies. It is a kind of culture change — but not just the idea that Stanford players needed to be tougher or leaner or meaner. Stanford has recruited to the point that, while individuals will always be important to the program, they do not necessarily define it.
The history of Cardinal football has been that of a never-ending series of personalities. You have your Ernie Neverses, your Jim Plunketts and your John Elways. You have your Toby Gerharts and your Andrew Lucks. Force of personality goes a long way toward establishing a legend: At Stanford’s lowest points, it must have seemed that only some Hegelian man-god could have rallied the Cardinal to a bowl game. Top-end talent has always been here, not that it necessarily propelled the Cardinal to greatness; as sportswriter Ivan Maisel ’81 pointedly commented on Twitter, the 1980 Stanford team had three College Football Hall of Famers and went 6-5.
The extraordinary part of Stanford’s rise is that finally, Stanford’s silverware seems to be outpacing the faces that generated it. You know the story by now: four straight BCS bowls, two conference championships and a Rose Bowl victory to cap off the 2012 season.
Arriving on campus in 2006, before Rose Bowls and conference championships were even a proverbial glimmer on the horizon, Anderson realized that even after a 1-11 season “we had some good, talented kids on the roster.” But the college football season is long and brutal, and back then, despite the presence of some eventually famous faces, there was not enough talent to go around. In 2013, Stanford survived a series of devastating injuries along the defensive line that would have destroyed its Rose Bowl hopes in years past.
Now, there is not only star power on the Farm but also depth. Sitting in his office, Anderson can talk all day about the weapons he has at his disposal. Depth allows teams to absorb injuries. It also drives players to work harder and constantly fight for the right to take the field. It means that a team doesn’t rebuild — it reloads.
If Lance Anderson never coaches another day in his life, he can rest assured in the fact that he was an integral part of that ascent.
But Lance Anderson does intend to keep on coaching. One question remains, then, and it is a more personal one.
Can a coach succeed if he is viewed first as a recruiter?
People do not focus on how, in his role as outside linebackers coach, Anderson has mentored some of the most devastating pass rushers in America — chief among them All-Americans Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas. And people also too often pass over the fact that Anderson has had experience coordinating a defense in the past — at St. Mary’s, just an hour away from Stanford. Coaches are known for what they supposedly do best, and to this point, Lance Anderson’s recruiting prowess has overshadowed every other aspect of his coaching career.
Balancing recruiting and coaching absorbs every college football coach’s professional life. Recruiting talent without training that talent leads to disaster; coaching up players that nevertheless do not belong on the field athletically with the USCs of the world would have a similar effect. There are only 24 hours in a day, and every second in the office recruiting is a second not spent coaching, cutting up film or getting to know a player. Now that Anderson is the gatekeeper for Stanford’s defense as well as its admissions office, he’s more cognizant of this struggle than ever before.
Will Anderson ever be able to reach his full potential as a coach if most of his time is spent recruiting? He is eager to talk about football, and while he is enthusiastic and courteous about recruiting, he clearly does not think about it all the time. It is as if he has already heard all the recruiting questions before — and he probably has.
He looks at a prospect’s transcript on his desk.
“One of the things I’ve been really involved with since I’ve been here have been the transcripts. I’m trying to do less and less of that. ”
He smiles, a little sheepishly. “But there’s always a little bit of time involved.”
Lance Anderson is a cornerstone of the reinvented Stanford football program, a team enjoying sustained success for the first time since Pop Warner roamed the sidelines. But while Stanford football carries with it a strong sense of newness, the nature of a cornerstone is that it does not change.
In recruiting and redefining the program, Anderson has been an agent of change. But now that Stanford has become more and more successful, Anderson has found himself charged with maintaining continuity on one of college football’s finest defenses, as well as mentoring players across the roster. While Anderson will naturally have to adapt as the circumstances surrounding Stanford inevitably change, the task is now to maintain the well-oiled machine that is the Stanford defense — and, hopefully, to help push the team as a whole to even greater glory.
Anderson may be focusing more on his coaching role than on recruiting these days, but what does that mean? Coaching isn’t just calling plays from the press box during games or running drills during practice; a coach has to keep an eye on every facet of his players’ well-being. And while recruiting is a huge part of a team’s success, coaching is a critical part of what makes success possible.
When Anderson arrived on Stanford’s campus, it was clear that there were a lot of things that had to be fixed in order to repair the program — most importantly, making sure that players were able to play and in the right mind to play in the first place.
Injuries were the first thing.
“We just realized that you can have many good football players, but if they’re not able to practice — if they’re not healthy — it’s hard to have a good football team,” Anderson explains. “You can’t get better as a football player unless you’re on the field practicing, unless you’re on the field playing, and Shannon [Turley, Stanford’s director of sports performance] has done a great job with his program here of not only developing guys physically, helping them to get bigger, faster, stronger, to become better football players...they’ve also stayed healthy .”
Better yet, that injury protection extended not only to Stanford’s oft-injured stars but the entire Cardinal roster, allowing Stanford’s newer players to keep on developing. From 2006 to 2012, Turley helped cut the number of games missed to injury among Stanford’s entire two-deep by a staggering 87 percent.
Yet — and Turley would agree — cutting injuries was not a cure-all to Stanford’s problems. The issues were far more endemic and systemic than that.
Managing the team’s psychology both on and off the field was a key component of Stanford’s success. The importance of player relocations is well known in professional soccer, where high-priced acquisitions often fail because of culture shock, but it’s perhaps less important for most college football teams, which play in a sport that is still rather regional.
That doesn’t hold for Stanford: The Cardinal are the most national team in the country, and it isn’t close. Since Anderson arrived on campus, Stanford has drawn recruits from 33 different states. Its players travel further to get to campus than players at any other program in the country; aside from crunching the numbers on recruiting, statistician Dave Bartoo also found that the average player on the 2014 roster traveled over 1,400 miles in order to get to campus. When Stanford players return home for Christmas, the sum total of their round-trip journeys is almost 300,000 miles. That’s farther than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
With statistics like these, one couldn’t be faulted for wondering how Stanford’s program exists at all. College football is a regional sport for a reason; home cooking has a statistically significant effect, and going to a school across the country typically cuts a recruit’s chances of making the NFL by 25 percent. Yet Stanford is one of the nation’s premier player development programs. Needless to say, everyone is asking why.
There are a lot of factors that go into a player’s development in college. Obviously traditional training, from strength to playing technique and education, is important. But the mental aspect of playing football is also important, and it’s too often ignored: Players need to feel at home on campus, and they need to feel at home in the Stanford community.
Both of these things are easier said than done. But they are nevertheless necessary. The effect of homesickness and feeling out of place is real. While California will always be the cornerstone of its roster, if Stanford is going to be a good football team, it needs to make the entire country its recruiting backyard.
“We have to go national just to find the kids who are the level of student and the level of football player that we want to recruit,” Anderson says. “Now, it is true that the further you’re away, the harder it is sometimes, because you’re passing up a lot of other good schools, good programs.
“I think that’s just part of growing up and part of going to college. I think our kids do a pretty good job of adjusting. And I think the reason for that is, number one, here on campus, they’re surrounded by so many great people who are from all over the world. And I think that makes the transition a little bit easier too, because they know that they’re not the only ones in that boat. We signed someone from the East Coast — coming from Washington, D.C., or wherever he might be, he’s not the only one here that is coming a great distance to go to school. There are a lot of others in the same boat that he’s in, so I think there’s a lot of others who can relate to him on the football team and at the University.”
Keeping that atmosphere happy is a key point for Anderson. Even when talking to The Daily last year for Rags to Roses, Anderson was clear about the need to keep players happy.
“They’re here for a reason, they’re here to get an education, and I think that’s so powerful for those kids. Chase Beeler [an All-American offensive lineman] — I think that was a big part of why he transferred and came to Stanford, because he knew that he just didn’t fit in at Oklahoma,” Anderson said. “He was different than those kids. The only thing he really had in common was football, where here he had a lot of stuff in common on the field, off the field, and you want to surround yourself with those kinds of kids. So I think that’s a bit of an important thing, that we give them time to spend with our players, away from the coaches, where they can go and hang out with them and spend some time. That’s important.”
Similarly, it was also vital not only to maintain chemistry within the team but also within the University. The football team has worked to make football a greater part of the Stanford community.
When Stanford professors are honored during commercial breaks in football games, fans sometimes think that the purpose of doing so is to underline the University’s academic and athletic prowess, reinforcing the exceptionalist narrative that Stanford likes to encourage about itself. That is absolutely true — but an overlooked aspect of this confluence of academia and football is the effect that it has on the players. Condoleezza Rice’s involvement with the football team has been well documented, but other members of the faculty are similarly inclined. In the same interview last year, Anderson was candid about his view of the academic-athletic complex.
“I think the professors here are so important, because when you get a chance to talk to them, you realize how special a place this is,” Anderson said. “How these guys, who are a number of Nobel Prize winners, the top of their fields, the best of what they do in the country — they’re right here for you, and they’re interested in you not only as a student-athlete, but truly as a student. They’re there to help you to get the best education possible, but they’re also interested in what you’re doing on the football field...They make a big impression on kids.”
It’s clearly better for a team to have good chemistry, and Anderson is adamant that that is the case. Yet nothing helps chemistry more than winning. The 3-4 flex defense installed by Vic Fangio and maintained under Derek Mason achieved national prominence for shutting down explosive attacks across the country. It’s easy to understand why Anderson wants to keep that going.
Throughout Anderson’s time at Stanford, the Cardinal have relied on him to train their pass rush. In his first three years at Stanford, when Stanford ran a 4-3 defense, Anderson coached on the defensive line, from which a 4-3 defense gets the bulk of its pass rush. In later years, after Stanford switched to the 3-4, Anderson trained the new focus of the Cardinal’s pressure system: the outside linebackers.
The effects were immediate. In 2006, the year before Anderson arrived at Stanford, Stanford recorded 14 quarterback sacks, good for 109th in the country and last in the Pac-10. The next season, the Cardinal racked up 37 sacks, putting it in the top 20. Three years later, the Stanford pass rush led the conference. For the last two years, Stanford has had the most dominant pass rush in the country; in 2012, armed with both Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy, it recorded an awe-inspiring 57 takedowns.
Sacks aren’t everything, of course — a team that gets a lot of sacks but lacks solid play overall can be a sieve on defense, and a pass rush can cause havoc in the backfield without recording a sack at all. But after adjusting for strength of schedule and pace of play, the success of Stanford’s defense as a unit is readily apparent. It has been a top-10 defense three out of the last four years, and achieved national notoriety for slowing down the explosive Oregon Ducks in the teams’ last two matchups, both Stanford wins. Last year, Stanford sacked Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota three times, forced him to fumble twice and kept Oregon off the scoreboard for a solid 50 minutes, an almost hallucinogenic achievement.
But as Stanford closed its 2009 campaign — its final one under the 4-3 — that sort of defensive domination was too far into the future to predict. While Anderson had consistently helped rack up great sack totals, even after three years, Stanford’s defense as a unit hadn’t performed to a similar standard. The Cardinal decided to make a change.
The winning came when Stanford decided to get more flexible on defense. The Pac-12 is arguably the most offensively diverse conference in college football, and in order to escape conference play unscathed, the Cardinal would have to tackle spread-option run games (Oregon, Utah and Arizona), pro-style teams (USC, Washington, Oregon State and Colorado), Air Raid passing teams (Cal and Washington State) and hybrid spread teams (UCLA and Arizona State).
Fielding big, versatile linebackers and agile defensive linemen, Stanford wanted to be able to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 depending on the situation and the opponent, with as few substitutions as possible.
“I thought that [the 3-4] was a very flexible system, one that could give us maximum pressure, maximum pass defense and a logical way to play the run game that you see in college football,” Fangio says. “We just thought it was a good, flexible, all-encompassing, all-purpose package.”
“That first spring was just about laying the foundation and making sure that everybody understood what their role was and what we needed to do, series-by-series,” Mason said in an interview for Rags to Roses. “It was never going to be a game-by-game situation. It was always going to be series by series. We wanted to win series, and then win the next series, and then win the next series, and, you know, before you looked up, it was the end of a ballgame.”
Since Fangio — a close friend of Anderson — introduced the 3-4 in 2010, Stanford’s defense has been a machine, incorporating the already fearsome pass rush into a sound overall scheme. Even though Anderson was coaching a new position, Stanford’s pass rush exploded into prominence as well, leading the conference in sacks for the first time.
“We’ve had a very similar defensive system in place [since then],” Anderson says. “I think [the introduction of the 3-4] was when we really started to break through defensively a little bit and have some success.”
“The success that we started to have defensively that year led to a lot of confidence,” he goes on. “[The players] truly believed that we could be a good defense — that we could be a great defense, that we could eventually become a dominating defense. It all started at that point.
“Each year we’ve added a few things, we’ve maybe deleted a few things, tweaked a few things to fit what we think our needs are,” Anderson explains. “But overall, it’s stayed very similar...There are not a lot of changes. If anything, we’re trying to maybe simplify things a little bit so we don’t have as many levels of checks and adjustments, so that once we make a defensive call we can go out there and play fast, get lined up and execute the call...We want to be as fundamentally sound as we possibly can.”
“He pretty much knows what he wants to do...We speak the same language,” Fangio says approvingly when asked about Anderson. “He’s got a good knowledge of front play and pressuring the quarterback, understanding how you have to play the coverage behind it...He’d like to have a good mix of pressure and strength defenses, and be able to interchange in and out of the emphasis week to week by the opponent they’re playing.
“I think he brought to the practice field an intensity and work ethic that was contagious to the players, that they respected and that he was consistent with.”
Anderson, for his part, was philosophical about the future of the defense when interviewed by The Daily last year.
“Yes, we’ve had changes, head coaching changes, other changes on staff, but really those three going on four years now, it’s just the coaching staff and the chemistry and the bond, and everybody being on the same page. It’s just been remarkable. And I think that’s one reason too [for] all the success we’ve had. It’s been good coaches who know what they’re doing and guys that get along well together. It’s been fun.”
There are three months to go until the start of the 2014 football season, and Lance Anderson is enjoying a rare period of free time in what is otherwise a hectic life. Football fanatics like to talk about Saban’s “Process” and Bill Belichick’s notorious work ethic, but every staff does a ton of planning.
We romanticize football as the stuff of “Remember the Titans” and of two-a-days in the hot Virginia summer, with sunshine and sweat and coaches screaming encouragement and cleats slowly grinding the practice field into mush. Anderson does that too, but the life of a football coach is mostly consumed by film, recruiting and a never ending deluge of meetings.
Football is more of a desk job than most people would like to admit. It is less strictly regimented during the offseason than during the season, when the work gets to a point where David Shaw cuts off the food supply to the office to force the coaches to have dinner with their families. However, there is still work to be done year-round.
Anderson’s cheerful demeanor belies the sort of inner obsession that being a football coach requires.
“My whole world kind of revolves around football,” he says. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to really believe that ‘hey, I’m getting paid to do this.’”
Little other than that kind of fixation on football could justify the sacrifices endemic to coaching otherwise. It was surprising to hear Shannon Turley declare last year that “if there’s something else that you could do and be happy, then you should go do that.” But as it turns out, that is part and parcel of being a football coach.
Even in the offseason, when the coaching staff can only spend eight hours a week with the team, the Stanford coaches put in the work. They go over film, prepare presentations and sit in meetings. They recruit constantly, emailing and messaging prospects, breaking down high school film and calling coaches across the country.
Becoming defensive coordinator has not ended Anderson’s recruiting days. Indeed, when he was still at Stanford, Derek Mason worked with Anderson in Arizona, while overseeing recruiting in Georgia and large areas of Florida. Even now, Anderson often does double duty on the recruiting front, handling relations with the admissions office while at the same time, personally recruiting key areas of the country; he has been the point man in fertile recruiting grounds like Arizona, San Diego and Alabama in the past.
Yet despite recruiting, it is planning that absorbs the better part of Anderson’s time. With coaching hours on the practice field at such a premium, the coaches need to be ready for everything that might happen on the field. Every hour of practice is carefully scripted beforehand. Every play made or not made in practice is painstakingly watched, broken down, analyzed.
Every coach handles a specific phase of the game — last year, Anderson broke down opposing offenses’ tendencies in short-yardage and goal-line situations. This means that if one coach fails, the entire team’s success may be in jeopardy. As such, coaches always put in the time.
It is not surprising, then, that the idea of free time is, in large part, alien to a football coach. Even in the spring, the coaches often come in before 7 a.m. and do not make it back home until 11 at night. When the coaches do get to go home early, there are still emails to check, calls to make and film to watch.
Anderson — a father of three — is unfazed. “We can always usually get home,” he says. In perspective, getting home is actually a bit of an achievement, a victory of the Shaw-Harbaugh era that is often overlooked.
“There were some things early on that Coach Harbaugh asked about and some things that he identified that would help the program, and the athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, did a great job to try to address those needs in those areas, like the housing,” Anderson explains. “When I first got here, there wasn’t all the housing on campus. We were given a housing stipend, which was really nice, but now the housing they provide on campus has been great.
“It’s expensive to live in this area. There’s no question...In the past it probably [made it harder to hire a good coaching staff],” he continues. “One of the great things that Stanford has done as part of our conversation is that we are provided housing. Most of the coaches are on campus in the housing there. The home my family and I live in, Stanford owns in Menlo Park.”
“Before we got here, a lot of the coaches were living out in the East Bay or down in Morgan Hill or something and had to spend a lot of time commuting,” he concludes. “When you’re in situations like that, sometimes you’re forced to sleep in the office because you don’t have the time to make that commute...that’s tough on a family, when you’re going to have to say, ‘We’re going to live 45 minutes away, we’ve got to live an hour away and make that commute every day.’”
A 45-minute commute, 20 hours of practice in the season, eight hours in the offseason, practices scripted in five-minute increments...football coaches are constantly surrounded by these reminders of the importance of time, not only with the players on the practice field but also with the families at home.
Even for unmarried coaches, a respite from the coaching grind is always appreciated. Coaches, who spend most of their time talking to their fellow coaches, team members and recruits — many of whom they will only speak to a few times in their lives — find solace in family; they also find solace in camaraderie.
“As a very young coach in this profession, it’s kind of what I’m trying to wade through right now, when I’ll find that time,” quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard said to The Daily last year. “Our head coach is very rare when it comes to how head coaches deal with this crazy profession. And so he makes it very clear from the get-go how important it is to make time for family and free time, because as you can see, a lot of our coaches are young, relatively, and they have young families and they do a good job of getting and spending time with their families.”
Anderson concurs. “My family comes over for practice a lot. And sometimes, just those few minutes you’re able to see them at practice...they feel more of a part of it.”
“On Tuesday nights, we have family dinner. So after that Tuesday practice, we come in, we usually have dinner down in Jimmy V’s as a staff and our families come. Even that hour we’re able to spend down there at dinner is great, and it’s easy to do that because everybody’s so close. It’s not like anybody’s making that 45-minute or hour drive. I think that’s been very helpful since we’ve been here, just in terms of hiring a staff and getting good quality coaches here, and then getting them to stay here.”
Perhaps surprisingly, between all the pressures and demands, most coaches do not get much of an opportunity to meet the players on the team in a more personal context. Anderson is a bit unique, though, in his role as both coach and admissions guru.
“The good thing over the years that I’ve been here, especially doing all the admissions stuff, is I’ve had a chance to interact and communicate with almost everyone we’ve recruited, just because of all the admission stuff going on,” Anderson says. “At the same time, I’ve been able to recruit a lot of great guys from my recruiting area which has been fun, but it’s been good knowing all the kids in the class. During the recruiting process you get to spend a lot of time with kids...You start to develop that relationship with them, and you see how they develop and how they change over time.”
Once the recruits become Stanford students, things are different. “We’re limited by how much time we can spend with those guys in terms of meetings, practice and things like that. A kid can stop in and say hello, but outside the 20 hours or eight hours a week that you’re allowed, you’re not able to do too much football stuff with them,” Anderson admits.
“As the coordinator now, one of the things I’m trying to do is develop a good relationship with all the players on defense. It’s important for me to try to get to understand each of those guys, understand what makes them tick and what’s important to them and learn a little bit about their personality. I think that’s important to know as you coach those guys. You want to get the most out of them. You want what’s best for them, and I think it’s important to get to know them in order to do that...looking for those little opportunities too, [where] you can help, you can interact.”
“[Anderson] does a good job of relating to the players,” said Vic Fangio. “To be a coach, you have to be a teacher...He’s always working. If he’s not working on football, he’s working on recruiting. He spends more time at the office than anybody.”
“He shows up before anybody,” Trent Murphy agreed when interviewed by Stanford Athletics last fall. “I think it speaks volumes about how we play on Saturdays.”
Anderson has enjoyed extraordinary success throughout his coaching career, without a doubt. Like all successful coaches, he has worked hard and paid a price for that success, but that price is worth paying. Yet there exists, in Anderson’s mind at least, an alternate universe in which he is not a college football coach, but a pharmacist working in his hometown of Rupert, Idaho.
“I grew up playing football,” Anderson says. “Going to school, I thought I was going to go to medical school or go to pharmacy school and be a pharmacist...I thought that I would love to coach, but I didn’t know if that would be the best job, the most stable job. I finally reached the point where I was in the pharmacy program at Idaho State [where Anderson played for two years] and pretty much settled on doing that.”
At the time, Anderson was still mulling football. “I’m never going to know if I would be successful doing that unless I try it,” he told himself. “I talked to my wife about it and we talked about it, and I decided that this was something I wanted to try, this was something I wanted to do. She was very supportive of it.”
“You know, at the time, I thought I’d probably be coaching in high school football or something like that, and I was prepared to say, okay, I’m in the pharmacy program, let’s just finish up my degree. I can get a degree in biology or chemistry real quick and get my teaching credential. I can do that. And that was what I kind of planned on doing.”
When a coaching position opened up at Idaho State, Anderson had found his big break. Starting out working with Derek Mason on the Bengals’ offensive staff, the two began the long, slow and endlessly itinerant climb up the coaching ladder, one that typically takes at least two decades.
Football coaches will not be surprised to hear how Anderson bounced around the coaching ranks for years, including two stops with teams that were themselves short-lived — the Mobile Admirals RFL team and the D-II team at St. Mary’s, neither of which now exist. (So much for Anderson's initial worries about job stability in football.) Mason campaigned for Anderson to join him at Bucknell, where he met future Stanford inside linebackers coach David Kotulski and started coaching defense for the first time; later, the two were co-defensive coordinators at St. Mary’s before reuniting at Stanford.
“Those early days coaching, you’re getting a lot of the entry-level jobs — restricted earnings, GA, intern-type jobs — and it’s not easy to make it, not easy to find those jobs,” Anderson reminisces. “My first three jobs, Derek helped me get...I’ve been lucky I’ve been around a lot of good people.”
Anderson has rapidly made his name in college football since joining Jim Harbaugh at San Diego in 2005, and after his achievements with Stanford’s pass rush were noted, his future ascension to defensive coordinator was readily apparent.
“[David Shaw]’s talked to me about it over the last few years, that there would be an opportunity here eventually,” he said. “I was very excited for the opportunity when it came up this year.”
Looking at his track record, it is clear that Anderson deserves his shot. He has become the defensive coordinator for one of the best teams in America, so he has achieved a lot. The price he has paid in the past has led to the well-deserved success of the present. Stanford’s defense is in good hands.
But what about the future? Is Anderson thinking about the future — the same future that motivates coaches everywhere? Does Lance Anderson see himself as a head coach down the road?
“I think I would, someday...I think most coaches would, at some point,” Anderson said — but he says it in the same way that a promising rookie says I would like to become an NFL MVP or a college pharmacy student says I would like to be a college football coach. There’s still plenty of time to go, and far too many days left, and a seeming world of time before Anderson’s defense even plays its first snap.
“I never try to look too far ahead,” Anderson decides. “Hopefully, this lasts for a while.”
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.