The final dark days of Stanford football began and ended with former coach Walt Harris.
In his first home game with the Cardinal in 2005, Harris allowed his team to blow a 17-point lead to UC Davis and give up a go-ahead score with eight seconds left. Stanford lost 20-17, and the Aggies became the first non-Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team ever to beat Stanford.
The Cardinal would win just five more games with Harris in control before he was subsequently, and rightfully, fired in December of 2006.
Fast-forward eight years, and it's a completely different story. Stanford opened its 2014 home schedule with UC Davis but handled the game with absolute ease, winning 45-0. The fact that there was no news was good news. That's what one should expect from a program that has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships.
The quest for a third straight conference title is approaching in earnest. A Saturday game against No. 14 USC at Stanford Stadium has early-season playoff implications...as does an October road trip to Notre Dame...and an Oct. 18 visit to Arizona State...and a Nov. 1 road game at Oregon...and a season-ending game at UCLA.
This is what Stanford is now: a program whose weekly goal is to win in order to satisfy a realistic goal to be one of the four teams playing for a national championship.
Here's how it happened.
A bad hire can set a program back just as much as a good hire can launch it forward. Stanford made a bad hire with Harris, who went 6-17 in two years.
Then Jim Harbaugh happened, and he put Stanford on the national map.
Harbaugh came to Stanford from the University of San Diego two weeks after the Cardinal fired Harris. Many applauded the hire, with Michelle Smith of the San Francisco Chronicle writing that Harbaugh was "young, energetic and charismatic. He has impressive college and NFL resumes as a player, name recognition and success at running a college football program."
It wasn't just lip service either. It took just five games before Harbaugh recorded his first signature win: a 24-23 stunner over No. 2 USC, to which Stanford was a 41-point underdog, in the Coliseum.
The 2007 season was one unlike any other in recent college football history. It was a time when the sport apparently turned 21 in human years and partied too hard. While nothing may top Appalachian State-Michigan on the surreal upset meter, Stanford-USC was up there among the wildest endings that season.
If nothing else, it brought about the end of a 35-game home win streak for the Trojans while simultaneously ushering in a new era at Stanford. As it turned out, beating USC by one point was only the beginning. Stanford toppled the Trojans again in 2009, 55-21, one week after beating Oregon, 51-42, for the first time since 2001.
For those keeping track, that means Harbaugh recorded wins over Pete Carroll, who is coming off a Super Bowl win with the Seattle Seahawks, and Chip Kelly, an innovator in every aspect of the game. By the time Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, the Cardinal had won the Orange Bowl with a 12-1 record.
Harbaugh took a program that hadn't had a winning season since 2001 and started beating the nonsense out of opponents. That requires a massive attitude adjustment, but just as importantly, it necessitates a recruiting boost. In a time when offenses want to spread the field, Stanford opted to run over defenses.
Defensively, the Cardinal built itself to handle spread offenses like Oregon's.
Tight end Coby Fleener, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic, all of whom are playing, or have played, in the NFL, were the highlights of Stanford's 2007 class.
The 2008 class is the group that really got things rolling. Quarterback Andrew Luck was the prize recruit, but offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were also part of that class, as was receiver Chris Owusu. Linebacker Shayne Skov and defensive ends Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner arrived in 2009.
Stanford recruited players who wanted to fight in a phone booth.
It began up front. Stanford has had four offensive linemen and three defensive linemen drafted since Harbaugh took over the program, according to NFL.com. Tackle Andrus Peat could be one of the first offensive linemen taken in next year's draft if he declared early.
According to head coach David Shaw, Peat is a rare talent, via Bryan Fischer of NFL.com:
I don't know if there's been anybody else in our conference, in the last eight years, that is as good as Andrus Peat has been and can be. In my entire career, nine years in the NFL, the only offensive lineman that was a step above of where Andrus can be is Jonathan Ogden -- one of the best tackles to ever play.
Everything the Cardinal have wanted to do offensively and defensively, including leading the Pac-12 in points allowed in 2013, has started up front.
All the toughness that Harbaugh embodied at Stanford has been kept alive by David Shaw, who has a 35-7 record as the current head coach. According to The Wall Street Journal, Shaw has a 14-4 record against Top 25 teams in his three years at Stanford.
As Ted Miller of ESPN.com tweets, it's not just that Shaw has a 14-4 record—it's that he's won 14 games against Top 25 teams in a short amount of time.
Ted Miller @TedMillerRK
It’s not just that David Shaw is 14-4 vs. top-25 teams. It’s that he’s played that many in just 3 seasons.2014-8-20 14:29:11
Shaw's biggest win to date easily came on a cold November night in 2012 when Stanford upended Oregon 17-14 in overtime. The Ducks averaged nearly 50 points per game that season, but they could barely get in the end zone against Shaw's defense.
At the very least, it marked a changing of the guard in the Pac-12 North.
While other Pac-12 programs were trying to find an answer to Oregon's uptempo spread offense, Stanford already had it figured out. With the best defensive front seven in recent memory, the Cardinal were able to disrupt Oregon's offense up front while providing the speed on the back end that they needed.
Stanford had Oregon's number again in 2013 with a 26-20 win, cementing itself as the class of the Pac-12. But with the departures of Skov, Murphy and Gardner, not to mention defensive coordinator Derek Mason, the longevity of Stanford's defensive prowess remains to be seen.
Built for the Future
Think that Stanford is on the decline? Don't be so sure.
The Cardinal pulled in the No. 13 recruiting class nationally in February, according to 247Sports, highlighted by 5-star defensive end Solomon Thomas and 4-star quarterback Keller Chryst.
As Thomas showed in his live commitment on signing day on ESPN, there's a certain "cool" factor in committing to Stanford:
What started as an impressive turnaround has morphed into a program with staying power. No matter the result between Stanford and USC on Saturday, the Cardinal have a national brand that appeals to elite high school prospects.
It's a far different program than the one that lost to UC Davis.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.