September 30, 2011

How Stanford does it

The Stanford football team has won 11 straight games, so the LA Times has an article on how they've been strong the last three seasons:
Everything in college football starts with recruiting. 
Stanford administrators have estimated that only 400 of the 3,500 high school prospects who sign letters of intent each year meet their admissions standards.

So, that's about the 88th percentile of football prospects. You usually don't get to read numbers like that.
A year into the job, Harbaugh doubted that number. 
"We're probably looking at a pool of 100 to 150 scholar-athletes," he said at the time. "It's a small pool. Smaller than anybody else has." 
Consider that Stanford consistently ranks near the top of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rates and nearly half of the upperclassmen on the current roster are enrolled in engineering majors. 

Of their three most publicized players in recent years, quarterback Andrew Luck is an archie, two-way player Owen Something was a premed, and running back Toby Gerhart was in something like construction engineering.
Still, a handful of coaches — Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Ty Willingham — have found a way to build winners at the school. 
The Cardinal must cast a wide net, recruiting nationally, with a slightly different strategy. Rod Gilmore, who played receiver at Stanford and now follows his alma mater as an ESPN commentator, calls it the "personal approach." 
"You can't just let the assistant coaches go in there; it has to be the head coach," he said. The family must be a target "because not many parents can say 'no' to Stanford." ...

That's a theme in Moneyball: Billy Beane always regretted signing a minor league baseball contract for a lot of money, against his mother's wishes, because Stanford was offering him a scholarship to play quarterback, to be John Elway's successor. Oddly enough, a high school friend of mine's younger brother wound up being John Elway's successor quarterbacking Stanford. They were a difficult set of shoes to fill.

Another high school friend's younger brother was a baseball pitcher at Stanford. He said that being a baseball player at Stanford was infinitely better than being a minor league baseball player. You spend most of your time in the minors riding buses, the quality of conversation on those buses is not high, you don't get much coaching on developing skills (playing 120+ games per year doesn't leave much time), and medical care in podunk towns is poor. He got sent down from the majors when he lost velocity due to a nagging hip injury. The minor league manager ordered him to run up and down the bleachers. "How about if I run up and walk down?" Nope. Nobody in the minors likes a smartass. He eventually walked off the team, flew back to L.A. and had Sandy Koufax's old surgeon fix his hip. The big league team was angry at this insubordination, until they realized that their Stanford whizkid was right, and all was forgotten.

I visited Stanford in the mid-1970s, and I have to say, I've never been able to think of too many reasons to make some place else your first choice for college.

One funny thing is that Stanford was nationally notorious at the time for grade inflation. Looking back, it's hard to say that Silicon Valley failed to fulfill its potential because Stanford was coddling its students.
A limited talent pool often translates into limited depth.

Last year, they had their middle linebacker also start at fullback on offense.
With fewer players to rotate through the lineup, the best Stanford teams over the last three decades have focused on ball control to keep their defense off the field. 
Walsh employed the West Coast offense, which emphasized short passes. Harbaugh chose another path to the same goal, one that remains in place with Shaw at the helm. The Cardinal has maintained a solid ground game to help Luck rank among the nation's most efficient passers. ... 

I figure that if Toby Gephart had come back for a fifth season at Stanford, they would have gone undefeated and made the national title game (where they probably would have lost pretty badly). Last year, they took a 21-0 lead on Oregon, but with Gephart in the NFL, didn't have the ground game to run out the clock on the up-tempo Ducks.
Good times never seem to last for the Cardinal. 
Gilmore points to the small pool of recruits, the limited depth. 
"You don't have as much margin for error," he said. "If you make two or three mistakes in a recruiting class and you have a guy or two get hurt, now you have a major problem."

So, their current success is probably kind of a fluke due to everything happening to go right for them. Not many articles in the sports section ever quite mention that possibility.

57 comments:

Anonymous said...

Important factor: relative geographic isolation.


Maybe "isolation" isn't fair but compare them to Duke. Duke may not be on Stanford's level academically (especially if you're from California) but it is more prestigious than nearly all schools it recruits against and it is known to high school athletes thanks to its high profile basketball team.


Duke cannot field a competitive football team to save its life and I suspect it's because they are in a region with plenty of strong football programs with more to offer in terms of exposure, football tradition, money, lower academic standards, etc. And they are trying--the current coach was a very strong hire for a football joke like Duke.


On a related note, in the modern era only Steve Spurrier has managed to win at Duke. A truly elite football coach goes a very long way.

Anonymous said...

It's Gerhart, not Gephart.

Jokah Macpherson said...

Toby Gerhart, not Gephart.

Anonymous said...

"I've never been able to think of too many reasons to make (someplace other than Stanford) your first choice for college."

I dunno, man. Maybe it's just pride and prejudice, and the fact that I'm getting old, but...

Back in the 80s I was offered full free-ride scholarships at most of the top US colleges and universities (to be fair, I didn't in fact apply to Stanford). Harvard just offered me regular admission and a fair-but-not-lavish financial aid package. Every place else would be a cushy ride, but I'd have to go into debt plus clean toilets and wash dishes if I wanted to do Harvard.

You know how this story ends.

No regrets, neither!

Anonymous said...

"I visited Stanford in the mid-1970s, and I have to say, I've never been able to think of too many reasons to make some place else your first choice for college."

Agreed, however, why go to The Harvard of the West when you can go to Harvard? But if you do choose Stanford over Harvard you will probably graduate 20 pounds lighter.

DCThrowback said...

Couple of nits, Steve:
1.) Would've loved a link to the original piece.
2.) It's Owen Marecic. He's playing the NFL right now.
3.) Toby Gerhart. He's backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.

What Stanford does is quite amazing. That's a superb look at a program that succeeds doing it the right way.

One thing the story doesn't mention and the genesis for the piece in the LA Times: Stanford plays UCLA this weekend. The Cardinal, with their small pool of talent available and their high standards for graduates is a 21 (!) point favorite over Slick Rick Neuheisel and his Bruins.

slumber_j said...

Because I haven't payed attention to college sports since maybe 1981, I hadn't until now realized that it's the Stanford "Cardinal." Singular, that is--changed from "Cardinals" in 1981, which in turn was changed from "Indians" in 1972 for the usual reasons. Or so Wikipedia tells me.

Weird. Did they want it to sound more like "Crimson," or what?

Anonymous said...

Ah Stanford. It's like Rice, but with better weather, better sports, better girls (Dollies vs. the Dancing Owl Girls aka D.O.G.s), easy As and a better reputation.

Polynices said...

Last I heard they still had grade inflation. I had to go to medical school with a bunch of Stanford grads. My state school wouldn't let you drop a class past the 3rd week or so, and after the 2nd week you got a mark on your transcript. Stanford students could drop a class the day before the final and it no record of it ever appeared. Was nice that their high tuition was helping pay for padded GPAs.

Cal Observer said...

The real question is why the better positioned HPY haven't done with their sports teams what Standford has done: leverage their powerful position as gatekeepers to elite networks and careers to monopolize the tiny pool of non-idiotic and non-thuggish elite jocks that would make them Div I contenders.

Stanford, like AVIS, has tried harder to ascend the power rankings by exploiting the hidebound traditions and arrogance of HYP. HYP traditionally looked down upon "practical arts" like engineering with disdain while Stanford's focus upon it coincided with the long post-WWII tech boom and resulted in massive endowment growth.

Only in the past several decades, have Harvard and Yale seemed to put major focuses on applied technologies in fields like medicine, genetics, other biosciences and even computer science. However, it seems most undergrads in these majors are merit-based social auslanders like immigrant Asians. It is far better life as a CS major at Stanford than at HYP for non academic reasons.

Similarly, HYP have traditionally viewed their sports as an intimate affair among gentlemen, not something to be outsourced to unmerited outsider mercenaries. Again, HYP missed the boat on the meteoric rise of collegiate sports along with mass media. So too, do they miss out on the power, prestige and alumni loyalty big time college athletics bring. This may have been a rational tradeoff to keep a more sedate, exclusive and intellectual atmosphere at HYP.

And Stanford isn't the only uni leveraging their position to networks and power to punch above their weight in big college sports. Duke, USC and Notre Dame also do this.

No doubt, the average Stanford, Duke, USC and Notre Dame ex-college footballer is far better off in life than the average Florida, LSU or Alabama one even adjusting for things like IQ and SES (which would probably be very hard to adjust for).

Jack said...

It's Gerhart not Gephart. Also I have a feeling the high school recruiting rankings underrate intelligent white, usually later-maturing players by a big margin. The best player at 16 might not necessarily be the best player at 21.

Anonymous said...

Toby Gerhart.

Anonymous said...

OT. Interesting sounding novel.

Anonymous said...

Steve, as I reside in the Bay Area, I know quite a few Stanford grads who claim it's really tough to get in the school, but once there, it's pretty much a breeze, that the courses aren't difficult.

I've a friend who received a football scholarship back in the 60s, was part of the Rose Bowl team with Plunkett, although he primarily rode the bench as a third string offensive lineman. He's the first to tell me, however, that the reason he got that football scholarship is because he came from a very small town that was the hometown of a famous 49er alum who talked him up to the Stanford coaches. He's a bright guy, wound up with a successful career, but would not have been admitted to such a school if not for football and freely admits his football skills were not great as his third string status illustrated.


The other older Stanford grads I know are extremely bright, several having been National Merit scholars back in the late 50s, early 60s.

As for the younger group, the handful of kids whom I taught who were admitted to Stanford were quite bright, (only one National Merit finalist, however,), and at least a third had Hispanic last names.


When I saw these kids later, they pretty much confirmed what the older group said--once in, it's pretty much a breeze. However, none of them were science/math majors.

Anonymous said...

I think it is Toby Gerhart.

Westwood slumdweller said...

So, as opposed to the NYT Magazine writing about the women's field hockey teams of Swarthmore or Williams or whatever, the Zell Times is covering the "Stanford Supermen Are Our Superiors" beat. Meritocracy: is there anything it can't do?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sailer,
It's Toby Gerhart, not Gephart; feel free to delete this.

not a hacker said...

I once worked for a judge who'd gone to stanford, undergrad and law. After receiving a memo I wrote he said, "I didn't know anyone who went to Cal could write like that."

alonzo portfolio said...

Boy, this might be the all-time non-story. Don't you think John Wooden, Dale Brown and Barry Switzer visited personally, too?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I think you mean Toby Gerhart.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

... and running back Toby Gephart was in something like construction engineering...

I think you mean Toby Gerhart.

outofsleep said...

It's Owen Marecic. And I can't tell if you are being sarcastic with "Gephart" but his name is Toby Gerhart, with an "r". You were such a big follower of him when he was still in school!

jody said...

you spelled toby gerhart's name as "toby gephart" twice.

i'm sure i've talked about my brother a few times, a professional sports coach. he is always highly impressed by stanford and it's facilities when he goes there. he describes it the way steve does. in terms of the campus and it's resources, stanford is probably the best university available. he had considered taking jobs coaching there before, and came close to accepting one this year.

he declined, as people often do, due to the difference between what stanford was offering to pay him, and what it costs to live in california. not that he would be poor if he took the job, but he's going to be paid $100,000 a year in other states where it costs half as much to live, and stanford only wanted to give him $75,000 to start.

he's 33 and has been grinding away on this for 10 years. his reputation is built and he doesn't need "stanford" on his resume, so he's going for the money.

Anonymous said...

In other words, since whites are not good as blacks one-on-one, they need better team work.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from Stanford in 1972. This was the height of the "60s" (I was there from 1968-1972), and at that time, you really didn't get much education once you were in, because it was incredibly easy. Everybody got A's, before that became a widespread phenomenon elsewhere. (I was an econ major.) The engineers always worked hard. The students were very bright. My high school was a lot harder, and I learned a lot more there. A LOT more.

Anonymous said...

Steve, all your commenters are wrong. It's Toby Gephart.

Dan in DC

CrankyProfessor said...

Talk about a denominator -- calling them "archies" is totally a Rice thing :)

CrankyProfessor said...

and OMIGOSH - Rice had, before 1960 or so, a special major in Commerce (as in "we don't soil our hands in commerce") which was restricted to varsity athletes. I think it still makes sense.

Of course I thought Rice should just buy an NFL team during the Oilers/Texans interregnum and give the players employee tuition benefits.

We could still let the Marching Owl Band perform at halftime.

Anonymous said...

I think Steve nailed it when he said that Stanford's recent string of success is essentially the result of a really great couple of recruiting classes and is not sustainable.

Historically Stanford had a decent football team. They represented the "West" in the first "Tournament East-West football game," (later renamed the Rose Bowl) against the University of Michigan. They had stretches of success with players like Y. A. Tittle, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, James Lofton, etc.

In the last 15 years or so recruiting has become too difficult for Stanford to compete successfully for any longer than three or so years. True, Stanford has owned USC recently, but this situation will reverse itself soon enough.

As for grade inflation, as a recent Stanford grad, I don't believe it is any more prevalent than it is at Stanford's peer schools.

Anybody majoring in science or engineering will certainly deny the notion that students sail through their curriculum.

The premed classes (physics, organic chem, and biology) are still notorious weed-out courses. The engineering courses are still difficult. The computer science kids still spend hours coding, and the engineers struggle through physics problem sets. The intro courses tend to be graded on curves. Having said that, the curve in science courses is usually set at about a "B," and you really have to stink it up to fail.

Of course, for Poly Sci or English majors, it is smooth and highly inflated sailing.

The article mentions that many of Stanford's football upperclassmen are engineering majors. I would venture to say that many are probably Management Science and Engineering majors, which is essentially industrial engineering. I respect the major, but to compare in difficulty to Computer Science or Physics or Chemistry or Biology would be a mistake.

astorian said...

What's even more interesting is that Stanford has been able to play smashmouth football successfully! Given a team of cerebral players and a head coach who was an NFL quarterback, one might expect the Cardinal to rely on finesse, execution and a complicated playbook. That they've been able to field a very tough, physical team is astonishing.

Steve Sailer said...

If you are a smart college football player, it makes a lot of sense to study something related to real estate development. That's a lucrative business but it depends a huge amount on who you know, and a lot of the people to know are boosters. So, if the boosters like you because you played OT for State U. and you actually have skills that would make you useful around a construction site or a planning office, then you can have a pretty good future.

Steve Sailer said...

I know a businessman from Madison, WI who in the 1960s was invited to invest in the Sandburg Village megadevelopment in Chicago. He made a lot of money on the deal, but it took him years to figure out the convoluted web of reasons why he had been invited into the deal by Chicago insiders and how disastrous it would for a naive out of stater to try to get a huge deal off the ground in Chicago.

guest007 said...

A better way to look at it is that Duke is the one school that can recruit the best white basketball players while Stanford is the one school that can recruit the smart white football players.

For the alumni of Duke, Rice, Northwestern, or Vanderbilt, there is only enough smart white players to field one team. That team is Stanford. Besides, California has more smart white football players than Tennessee, the Carolinas, or Illinois.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I mistakenly wrote earlier that Y. A. Tittle played at Stanford. He actually played at LSU.

The Bear said...

Oregon is 15-2 over the last two seasons, and both losses came against SEC schools (Auburn and LSU). The glaring difference was in the defensive front seven: the SEC schools were too big, too fast, and, yes, too black for Oregon to block.

While we're on the subject, can anyone name a white defensive tackle in the NFL? I can't think of one. There just aren't any quality white defensive tackles anymore, which is a problem for not only Stanford but Notre Dame as well. Big, nasty, D-linemen with the intelligence to gain admission into Standford are rare (every time I listen to an interview with Ndamukong Suh I'm struck by the strangeness of hearing an articulate defensive lineman).

Taking that limitation into consideration, you're right to suggest that the Stanford football program has realized its max potential. Harbaugh deserves much of the credit for that success.

Anonymous said...

So sailer does more sports obsessed blogging. So what does it matter?

We can see that politics and science and culture matter very very much down through history.

Sports on the other hand do not matter much at all but apparently sailer is the type who would've spent even the WWII era (sports were cancelled across the country for three years) obsessing about the mechanics of somebody's swing or other sports motion.

Reg Cæsar said...

Billy Beane always regretted signing a minor league baseball contract... because Stanford was offering him a scholarship to play quarterback, to be John Elway's successor. Oddly enough...

Oddly enough, minor-league baseball didn't hold back John Elway himself. After his junior year, he played a season of Class A ball in the Yankees' organization, and as close to Cooperstown as pro ball gets.

Reg Cæsar said...

We can see that politics and science and culture matter very very much down through history.

Sports on the other hand do not matter much at all ...


Yes, that's why those sports-obsessed Greeks, Romans and Britons were such losers, compared to the politics-science-and-culture-loving Persians, Phoenicians, French and Germans.

As if anybody of note had ever dirtied himself on those "playing fields of Eton."

Anonymous said...

Re: The Bear

Oregon is a mostly black team.

Antioco Dascalon said...

I'm class of '98, BA in International Relations. As to why go here when you could go to Harvard, the weather is a good reason and the more casual atmosphere. As for sports, I wonder if there isn't something to the fact that we have more champions and championship teams than any other school? The training facilities are world class and Stanford fosters an atmosphere of athletic excellence. I think that Stanford has benefited greatly in both basketball and football from the leaving early for the pros phenomenon of the past decade or two. If a player might be drafted in the first or second round, they are out of school, except for Stanford, Duke or a few other schools. This allows for more complex schemes (as does the fact that team IQ is higher) and better coached players.
I do agree that there is luck involved, since Stanford lacks depth. Also, there is not a ton of fan support, compared to other top football schools. I think the guys smart enough to be recruited by Stanford are smart enough to know that they might not make it into the NFL and, even if they do, they might not last long and make millions.

ben tillman said...

Still, a handful of coaches — Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Ty Willingham — have found a way to build winners at the school.

Idiot. In nine seasons in the '60s and '70s, John Ralston won two Rose Bowls, which is two more than those other four coaches won in 15 years.

And Ralston won one of those Rose Bowls without Jim Plunkett. Don Bunce was the QB in Ralston's second -- and Stanford's last -- Rose Bowl win.

And that Pop Warner guy? He and his 71–17–8 record really sucked.

Steve Sailer said...

When it comes to Olympic gold medals, I believe Stanford, UCLA, and USC are way out in front, with maybe Texas in forth. The Olympics have always been a bigger deal in California than the country as a whole.

ben tillman said...

While we're on the subject, can anyone name a white defensive tackle in the NFL?

Hovan from BC.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve, as an aging Vandy Alumnus, I'm always interested in the intersection of the College sport 'bigs', education and socio/race politics. My current favorite is Boise State...have you looked at that program?

Anonymous said...

John Feinstein's book about the Army-Navy game describes a similar phenomenon: the service academies really can't think about recruiting anyone with an SAT below 950, which, as low as that sounds, is significantly higher than what's typical for D-1football recruits. They then send them to a post-grad prep school where they spend the entire year practicing the SAT and trying to get the 1100 or so minimum for admission to the academies. I'd imagine that Stanford is doing something similar here--these guys probably aren't geniuses, but they're not horribly miscast as college students. If you can consistently get the best of the 950+ crowd, which is easier to do now that Notre Dame has sucked for two decades, you can compete.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I think it would be fair to say there has been a lot of (Andrew) Luck involved in Stanford's success.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Stanford, but this is how junior schools do it.

The Bear said...

Oregon is a mostly black team.

I realize that Oregon is mostly black at the skilled positions. I'm talking about in the trenches. In this video of the Auburn-Oregon championship game last year you'll see that 4 out of the 5 Oregon offensive linemen are white while all of Auburn's defensive linemen are black (for that matter, the entire defense is black).

Anonymous said...

Oregon has black skill players but is mostly white and polynesian on the O and D line. SEC teams have a kind of large, explosive athlete on the D line that Oregon can't seem to find enough of, and that has been the decisive factor against LSU, Auburn, etc. Oregon coaches have stated this explicitly.

Stanford's current success is mostly a fluctuation. They are at a significant disadvantage in football.

Steve Sailer said...

"I think it would be fair to say there has been a lot of (Andrew) Luck involved in Stanford's success."

Right, although it's a tribute to Stanford winning the recruiting race for the finest student-athlete available and then keeping him around for an extra year when he could in the NFL.

Anonymous said...

The Bear, MOST teams, college and pro, have a majority of white guys on the O line.

The Patriots O line, one of the most respected in the NFL and tasked with protecting Golden Boy Tom Brady, has its first black O lineman in 10 years this year due to injuries.

kaganovitch said...

"While we're on the subject, can anyone name a white defensive tackle in the NFL?

Hovan from BC"

Hovan is out of the league already but Mitch Unrein of the Broncos is white as is Justin Bannan of the Rams

ELVISNIXON.com said...

As we Trojans say about Bruins:

"Not smart enough for Stanford,NOT Cute enough for USC"

Recruits may actually want to play in sunny,fun SoCal and enjoy beautiful Coeds instead of harpies and "hairy armed women liberationists" (to quote Gil-Scot Heron) at Leland G Stanford Jr College

HEL said...

"Idiot. In nine seasons in the '60s and '70s, John Ralston won two Rose Bowls, which is two more than those other four coaches won in 15 years.

And Ralston won one of those Rose Bowls without Jim Plunkett. Don Bunce was the QB in Ralston's second -- and Stanford's last -- Rose Bowl win.

And that Pop Warner guy? He and his 71–17–8 record really sucked."

Ralston left 40 years ago. With Warner it's 80. Might I suggest that college football has changed a mite in the interim, and therefore that their success isn't terribly relevant to the issues that face Stanford now?

Anonymous said...

swimming seems to be the inverse of football - the better the school, the better the swim program. Stanford and cal berkley are tops.

Top Colleges Top Sports said...

Anonymous said...

swimming seems to be the inverse of football - the better the school, the better the swim program. Stanford and cal berkley are tops.


In what mens sports are the highest ranked colleges are also among the highest ranked academically?

Water Polo:(1.USC, 2.UCLA, 3.Cal, 4.Stanford, 14.Princeton, 20T.Hopkins/Brown)

Sailing (Coed):(
7.Yale, 8.Harvard, 9.Brown, 11.Stanford, 14.MIT, 20.Dartmouth)

Rowing: (1.Princeton, 2.Cal 3.Virginia, 4.Stanford, 5.USC, 6.Brown, 7.Yale, 12.Dartmouth, 14.Michigan, 17.Harvard, 18.Cornell, 19.UCLA)

Fencing: (3. Harvard, 6.Princeton, 7.Duke, 8.Penn?, 9.Stanford, 10.Yale)

Waterpolo (1.USC, 2.UCLA, 3.Cal, 4.Stanford, 14.Princeton, 20T.Hopkins, Brown)

Squash:(2.Yale, 3.Princeton, 5.Cornell, 6.Harvard, 7.Dartmouth, 10.Penn, 13.Brown, 19.Amherst, 20.Stanford, 27.Columbia, 32.MIT

Lacrosse:(2.Virginia, 3.Cornell, 4.Hopkins 7.Duke, 15.Penn, 18.Harvard, 21. Princeton, 25. Yale)

Swimming & Diving:(1.Cal, 2.Stanford, 7T.USC/Michigan, 10.Virginia)

Tennis:(1.USC, 2.Virgina, 7.Stanford, 11.UCLA, 12.Duke, 14.Cal)

And for fun, the latest NCTTA rankings from 2011 (Nat'l Collegiate Table Tennis Assoc):

3.Brown
4.Columbia
7.Harvard
11. Princeton
15. USC
20. UCLA

Stuff Black People Don't Like said...

I was at the Oregon-Auburn game (hell, I follow football closer than many people paid to do it do) and Auburn started one white defensive player - Zack Clayton at DL.

He was drafted by the Titans. If you watch film from the game, Oregon's quarterback made several horrible reads out of the spread attack. Instead of handing to the running back (during the spread-option attack) he tried to keep it himself.

Oregon threw all over Auburn though, primarily to Jeff Maehal, a white walkon receiver.