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Cardinal Sins: Hail Harbaugh

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In the last four years, Jim Harbaugh has brought the Cardinal from 10th in the Pac-10 to fourth in the nation. He has taken a 1-11 team to 11-1 and in the process, developed two Heisman Trophy runner-ups. This year, he took the Stanford faithful to its first BCS bowl since its defeat in the 2000 Rose Bowl. The team that will take the field today in Miami may well be Stanford’s best ever, as the San Jose Mercury News claimed in an article last Thursday. It is, after all, the first Stanford team to win 11 games, and that one loss came against a strong Oregon team that will play for the BCS national championship on Jan. 10.

Jim Harbaugh has worked a miracle. Bringing us from the bottom of the Pac-10 to national television and BCS bowls, it’s hard for us freshmen to begin to imagine how much of a football backwater Palo Alto was, not five years ago. But now, having broken the Trojans two years running, Stanford outranks its opponent, Virginia Tech, heading into one of the most prominent and most-watched college football games of the year. Harbaugh, a former University of Michigan and NFL quarterback, only got his first head-coaching job in 2004 at the University of San Diego. He turned USD around much like he did Stanford. Harbaugh has not just benefited from coincidence. He’s made his own luck. Puns are fun!

The Harbaugh effect reaches beyond the field. He has given us a new way to make fun of southern California. He’s given Stanford a team to rally around and be proud of. For each year of Harbaugh’s tenure, Stanford has led the nation’s universities as the top collegiate fundraiser in the world. Though at least in part a coincidence, it would be foolish to think that success on the field doesn’t have broader meaning. When Stanford’s name is painted across the sports section and its players play and are interviewed on national television, it does wonders for the school’s reputation, makes alumni feel connected and lines the University’s pockets in these times of economic trouble.

Successful football also spreads a sense of community and commonality across a diverse and large campus. Techies and fuzzies are both made fans.

As much as we love the Luck and Harbaugh combination, it looks like we’ll be saying goodbye to them just after we said it to 2010. It’s widely rumored that Harbaugh, like his brother, will move to the NFL and Andrew Luck, currently projected as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, is also set to play professionally. Conjectures about a Harbaugh-and-Luck partnership with the Carolina Panthers have abounded. There’s much uncertainty ahead. For the first time since Harbaugh arrived, Stanford football could be without a marquee player. Toby Gerhart is gone and Luck will be soon enough, leaving the Cardinal in need of a new superstar. The team’s young talent has shined throughout the season, and the offensive and defensive lines, which should remain relatively intact after year’s end, were dominant throughout the season. Sophomore Stepfan Taylor averaged nearly five yards per carry and had 15 touchdowns over the season. He will be a great asset in the future.

Tonight, the Stanford Cardinal will go up against a Virginia Tech team with one more loss than Stanford, but the same 11 wins. They will have to contain the fleet-of-foot Tyrod Taylor, whose quickness is eerily reminiscent of former Hokie Michael Vick. The team hasn’t lost a game since Sept. 11, when it dropped a game to a weak James Madison side. Since then, they’ve had 11 straight victories, though none against a team ranked higher than No. 22. Andrew Luck could be playing his last game in Cardinal colors and Harbaugh his last on a college sideline.

This is an important game for plenty of reasons. It’s our first BCS game for a long time, and, maybe, the ending of an era for Stanford football. Freshmen like myself, however, need not lose hope. Stanford’s football team is nothing if not resilient, and our recruiting has been incredibly strong. Whether or not Harbaugh and Luck leave, the future looks bright for the Cardinal. We have great talent and all the resources a team could ask for. Change is may be coming, but it looks like we will weather the storm.

Talk football with David Spencer Nelson at [email protected]