For anyone looking for some interesting reading material on the five-hour drive up for the Weekender, the Stanford Daily has published quite the football story. Though Trojan die-hards would have to swallow their pride a little bit to get through it, it nonetheless provides some great context on the rivalry before going into this weekend’s big game, and is a very detailed roadmap for the Trojans going forward.
Titled “Rags to Roses,” and written by a trio of sportswriters for the Stanford Daily in 2013, the book chronicles the meteoric rise of Stanford’s football program from almost a complete afterthought in 2006 to a Rose Bowl championship and perennial spot on top of the conference standings.
Prior to 2006, Stanford really did not have that rich of a history in football. Since World War II, the Cardinal had won only three Rose Bowls — in 1940 and consecutively in 1970 and 1971, with losing appearances in 1951 and 1999. With the exception of quarterback John Elway, Stanford never really produced any noteworthy NFL players. Even while Elway was there, the team’s most memorable accomplishment was being on the losing end of the most bizarre play — The Play — in college football history against Cal during a 5-6 campaign in 1982.
The school had a rich athletic history outside of football. It’s one of the few schools that has near the same number of Olympic athletes or medals as USC. It has more than 100 NCAA national championships across all sports — up there with USC and UCLA for the most all time — but Stanford spent the first half of the past decade as not just bad at football, but really bad.
From 2002 to 2006, the Trojans won their five games against Stanford by a combined 130 points, bookended by a 49-17 blowout in 2002 and a 42-0 shutout in 2006. The Cardinal finished that 2006 season 1-11, an almost unfathomably awful number for a team that is ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll ten seasons later.
The transformation occurred when Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh for the start of the 2007 season. In his first year, the Cardinal pulled off its monumental, program-changing upset at the Coliseum, which we would all like to forget that launched Stanford back into national prominence. Since then, the Cardinal were crowned Pac-12 champions three times and won three Rose Bowls.
The importance of a coach like Harbaugh for the program cannot be overstated, nor can how unprecedented his own personal rise is. He had a reasonably long professional playing career, cracking an NFL roster for 14 seasons, but he had no prominent coaching experience before he took over Stanford — he was an assistant at Western Kentucky, briefly with the Oakland Raiders and his only head coaching gig was at the University of San Diego.
As much as they might not get along after an extended rivalry, Harbaugh is very similar to Pete Carroll in the sense that no one really would have expected either to have risen so high or so quickly in the college game. Yet both personalities were so instrumental, arguably indispensable, in their respective program surges. Harbaugh’s success is arguably even more impressive, because he had much less history and tradition to build off of, and was almost starting from scratch with a 1-11 team.
With that being said, the rise of Stanford is still missing a truly happy ending. Though the Pac-12 has grown as one of the more competitive conferences in all of football, USC is still the only team to have won an actual national championship in the BCS era. Neither Oregon nor Stanford, despite their ability to win conference championships and Rose Bowls, have been able to claim to ultimate prize in college football just yet.
The struggles of USC football have not quite reached the depths of a one-win season since the team’s last Rose Bowl win in the 2008 season. But this is now the eighth season since that Rose Bowl win, and the seventh since Carroll’s departure. What would qualify as a rough patch or a dry spell for USC football hasn’t even included a season below .500, and did include the milestone of the program making it to its first Pac-12 championship game last year. But the Trojans certainly have not reclaimed their spot on top of the conference since then, a spot that felt like a rite of passage at one point for seven straight seasons.
So the rise of USC football back to the level of winning a Rose Bowl would not be quite as interesting of a story, but it will be equally as challenging. As the Cardinal proved last year, USC will likely have to go through a very strong, very consistent Stanford program to do so.
The good news is that USC is not that far behind. Again, the same program that metaphorically hit rock bottom with the midseason dismissal and ensuing lawsuit of its head coach last year still represented its division in the conference championship game. Last year’s 41-22 defeat in the Pac-12 title game certainly was not pretty, but the Trojans proved over the course of the season that they belonged to be there.
The other good news is that if USC wants to overtake Stanford, its current program leader very much resembles the Stanford ethos. Clay Helton does not have the same big name, big game personality of a Carroll or a Harbaugh, but he very much resembles Stanford’s current head coach David Shaw, embodying a humble, disciplined work ethic.
This weekend represents another very big, very challenging test for a young team and a rookie coach. But the Trojans have proven in recent years that they can go up to Stanford as underdogs and come away with a win, doing just that the last time they were in Palo Alto in 2014. More importantly, though, the Trojans just need to have a game that gives them confidence going into the rest of the conference slate — read: not lose 52-6. The Trojans need to set the tone that they would be ready for a rematch in December.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.