As the final hours tick away in the countdown to the biggest, baddest football game ever played inside the famous Stanford bubble, it’s a great time to reflect on what Stanford Football and the Stanford tailgating experience mean to us.
Most of the Toby crew were freshmen in the Rose Bowl season of ’99-’00, so we were indoctrinated early into the cult of Stanford Football. That season culminated in the biggest Big Game in recent memory – Stanford had to beat Kal to get win the Pac-10 championship and the Rose Bowl berth that came with it. In many ways the build-up to the Oregon game feels similar to the excitement I remember around the ’99 Big Game, only multiplied by ten, in both intensity and reach. That ’99 Stanford team, despite a 6-1 conference record going into Big Game, had already lost two non-conference games – one to San Jose State – and wasn’t a factor nationally. Nevertheless, excitement was high around the Farm heading into the showdown with Kal – and their fans were also pumped at having a chance to boot Stanford from the conference championship.
Twelve years later, Stanford gears up for an even bigger extravaganza – a winner-take-all showdown for the Pac-12 North, almost certainly the Pac-12 Championship (let’s face it, the South sucks this year) and much more. With ESPN Gameday making its first visit to Stanford, a top-five national ranking, and a highly rated recruiting class on the way, Stanford Football has clearly arrived on the national stage. And yet, despite the incredible hype and anticipation surrounding this game and Stanford’s ascension into the college football elite, one of the most amazing things about Stanford Football remains, well, just how ordinary it is around the Farm.
The dichotomy is something that I suspect most people other than Stanford students and alums will never understand, but to me it’s the heart of the relationship between Stanford Football and the fans. Simply put, the best thing about Stanford Football players is that they are Stanford students like the rest of us were (or are). This is the one and only place in college football today where the players are at the very top of the game on the field, and every bit as elite off of it. It’s also the sole top-level football team that’s never had a major NCAA violation or ethical cloud hanging over it.
The Penn State scandal reverberating around the nation could never happen at Stanford, because everyone, including those that run the football program, knows that athletics will always be a distant second to academics on the Farm – and both must be pursued with the utmost integrity. I can’t see anyone here covering up a horrible crime to preserve the reputation of the football program, even now in the midst of its greatest success, or the University as a whole. Even during the dark years of Walt Harris and a 1-11 season, we lost with integrity. Stanford fans don’t let their lives revolve around football the way many other college students do, but they connect immediately with the team because they know the players are going through the same rigorous, intense educational experience and living largely the same Stanford student lifestyle that the alums themselves did.
Every Stanford grad knows someone that founded a successful startup, made a significant research breakthrough, or played on the football team, and knows that is just what Stanford students do. They excel. And so the students and alums connect to the players and the program. The blue-collar attitude on the football team that gets so much media attention? Students at Stanford have blue-collar studying habits. You don’t get through the tough classes without putting in the time and effort it takes to succeed in classrooms full of the best and brightest. Why should the football team approach their sport any differently?
This same contrast exists when it comes to Stanford tailgating. It’s simultaneously all about the football and not about the football at all. As we’ve made a name for ourselves, or more accurately for Toby, in the small world of Stanford tailgating, we’ve met a lot of alums who’ve been tailgating in the exact same spots outside Stanford Stadium for 10, 15 or even 20 years straight. They keep coming, through the good times and the Buddy Teevens times, because Stanford is a special place with or without football. What better way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in the beautiful Bay Area than outside with exceptional people, some good food and maybe a few brews or bottles of wine? Fans of “traditional” football powerhouses will sneer at this attitude, but Stanford alums are always ready to connect with their team and the players through their shared experiences at one of the most amazing educational institutions in the world. Stanford grads are always focused on doing something special – sometimes that means taking the next step in curing cancer or serving in the White House, and sometimes it means playing some really dang good football.
The new Stanford Stadium won’t hold 80,746 screaming fans like those that packed the stands for the ’99 Big Game, but it occupies a unique intersection of excellence in academics, athletics, and integrity. The atmosphere will be electric, the game itself guaranteed to be better than the LSU-Bama Flop of the Century, and the teams fired up to 11. We’ll tailgate our butts off all day. When it’s all over, Stanford fans all over the world will return to their own personal pursuit of excellence. At least until Big Game next weekend.