“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Those were the words of Batman in the final scene of “The Dark Knight,” but they just might apply as well to Stanford football, a program that emerged as a ferocious chihuahua yipping at Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly before becoming the great dane of the Pac-12 — a bastion of top-flight recruits and lofty talent that it once sought to destroy on the field, one call to power after another.
If I’m coming across as too nostalgic, please forgive me. After witnessing Stanford’s nightmare at Northwestern in person, I hopped on a plane back to California and pulled out my copy of “Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football.” I had planned to read the book on the return journey from Evanston, anyway, but now (thanks in large part to Joey, George and Sam’s excellent writing) I just couldn’t get enough of it; it was oddly therapeutic.
After just witnessing one of the most demoralizing Stanford defeats in recent memory, I somehow found solace in the stories of Toby trampling the Pac-10, Jordan Williamson’s redemption and Jim Harbaugh’s terrifying games of squash.
But the most striking — and fun — aspect of each and every page was the intensely physical underdog culture that Harbaugh cultivated, one built on a seething anger that translated into a brutal machine on the field. As former offensive lineman Alex Fletcher described it on the last page of the book, “[Harbaugh] went to Stanford and convinced Stanford kids they were the toughest kids in the Pac-12…and those Stanford kids kicked the shit out of the Pac-12. On toughness.”
Since 2007, we’ve seen Stanford at its best when counted out and given the opportunity to fight as the angry, disrespected challenger. From USC in 2007 to UCLA amidst a disappointing 2014 season, the Cardinal rose to the occasion and delivered on their physical brand of football when its opponents had everything to play for, while Stanford was left written off into obscurity.
Now, with a season-opening loss and another serious test in UCF before the real gauntlet of conference play begins, Stanford needs to channel that tough, underdog mentality and play with the fury and sense of purpose that rebuilt the program from the ashes.
Head coach David Shaw has mentioned throughout the week that he has been impressed with the maturity of his team in bouncing back from a crushing defeat, but Stanford must carry this mindset onto the field and look to put opposing teams on their backs, both literally and figuratively.
Amidst all of the longstanding criticism over Shaw’s conservative play-calling and the overloaded nature of Stanford’s playbook (each of which undoubtedly has some merit), we know for certain that Stanford’s style of play can wreak havoc on college football when applied judiciously, with an air of disrespect.
After watching Stanford fall to Northwestern in week one, I still have my doubts about this as the team heads into matchups with UCF and USC, as well as the season beyond, but that loss to the Wildcats just might have tickled a sleeping bear.
Vince Lombardi once said: “When you get into the endzone, act like you’ve been there before.” But, for Stanford, perhaps the exact opposite is true. If Stanford plays free from the burden of expectations and with that patented physicality that only comes from a singular drive and that feeling of disrespect, they just might be able to “kick the shit out of the Pac-12.”
It’s still very early in 2015, so let’s reserve some of our critiques of Stanford until after we see the Cardinal take on the Knights. Let’s judge this team, as we have with many of the great Stanford squads of recent years, not by how they get knocked down, but how they respond.
Contrary to popular belief, Vihan Lakshman didn’t write this column as product placement for “Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football.” However, if the shoe fits, Vihan will gladly wear it, and Joey Beyda, Sam Fisher and George Chen will gladly profit from it. Remind Vihan that he should avoid the dangers of corporate influence in his columns by sending him an email at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.