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The Palo Alto Connection

I once heard an amusing anecdote from a former Stanford football player about the first team meeting upon the arrival of new HFC, Walt Harris.

Harris, the nerdy-looking guy who had just guided Pitt to consecutive BCS bowls by means of a passing offense that seemed a "perfect fit" for the Cardinal (whatever that means), felt the need to address the following point about locker room discipline – it was something along the lines of, "I know some guys might find this harsh, but I have a very strict policy against guns in the locker room." The Stanford players then looked around at each other like, "What the hell is this guy talking about?"

The disconnect was immediately apparent and precipitated a generally defeatist attitude by Harris in regards to recruiting enough of his kinda players to The Farm and hence, a terrible record in Palo Alto. The story highlights the differences between running a collegiate football program at a solid academic institution like Pitt and one with a more consistent set of priorities in athletics like Stanford. For the record, don’t be surprised if Trojan student-athlete standards and classroom performance soon start to liveup to their otherwise impressiveacademic credentials as USC continues on its warpath to become a truly elite institution … but that’s another conversation.

Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh, but he has whole-heartedly embraced the academic environment at Stanford and has even gone so far as to (sorta) trash his alma mater, Michigan, in the process. [Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it, you should check out his tweeting, which reflects the subversively irreverent whimsy of the Stanford Band and, increasingly, the cultured sophistication of Stanford University at the same time.] And, while Mike Singletaryhas been fairly successful doing the same up the road, he has firmly established smash-mouth, power football in Northern California! How mind-blowing has it been it to witness the role-change evident in the last couple ND-Stanford games?

If they can somehow keep Harbaugh on The Farm, Stanford will become a powerhouse of the Pac- uhh, 12. If there’s anything we can learn from the recently abbreviated career of Tyrone Willingham, it’s that contrary to previous suppositions, it does not take a mastermind like Bill Walsh to win some games at Stanford. Shockingly, plenty of talented kids (and/or their parents, vicariously) actually want to matriculate from a top-notch school.

With Obama in the White House, don’t be surprised if you see more players from urban backgrounds start to dream about things bigger than being an NFL millionaire (which, for the record, would totally exceed most of my life’s aspirations … incidentally, I still can’t freakin’ believe Chris Stewart is going to attempt law school while playing D-1 football – his moxy and ambition dwarf me even more than does his physical stature). But I digress – Harbaugh may or may not bolt for greener pastures – that’s not the point.

The point is that he’s demonstrated that good coaching and enthusiasm can attract plenty of kids to premier academic institutions to play football, even in places where people previously didn’t take a whole lot of interest in football. [As an aside for those who occasionally indulge in wild speculation, consider the recruiting implications if Californians actually pass a ballot measure to legalize marijuana in this or a subsequent election cycle – "Go on and marinate on that for a minute,"(Big Boi).]

Moving on – with their modestly proportioned, classy new stadium, don’t be surprised if Stanford Football eventually becomes a hot ticket in the Silicon Valley. Thanks largely to leftist SF tax measures, the 49’ers are finally moving down to the long-time home of their training camp in Santa Clara. The desire for big-time football is healthy in the South Bay, where the San Jose Sharks are currently obsessed over by more than 2-million people from all walks of life (seriously, it’s a trip to meet so many Mexican, Asian, and hickish California Caucasians so passionate about hockey).

Harbaugh has helped Stanfordites begin to realize that gridiron performance need not be an exception to the general dominance Stanford students, student-athletes, and alumni demonstrate in pretty much everything else they do. As Fr. Ted Hesburgh famously said, "There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football." If the Cardinal continue to step up their game, it goes without saying that the Fighting Irish should want to compete with them … well, maybe not in 2012.

If Harbaugh departs, and AD Bob Bowlsby fails to hire the proper replacement (which ND fans know can be a difficult task), Stanford remains the most prestigious academic institution in the country that competes in D-1 (FBS) athletics. British PM, David Cameron, recently raised a few eyebrows in merry-old-England when he described the UK as a "junior partner" to the U.S. Personally, I dig his straightforward language and hope that it’s not a shock to the Irish faithful that, as Stanford may be Notre Dame’s junior partner in collegiate football, ND is their junior partner in academic prestige, student-athlete admission standards, and overall athletic excellence (they’vewon the NACDA Director’s Cup an astonishing 16 consecutive times running).

Every time they match up on Saturday, an announcer is obliged to givethat cursory notation that both NotreDame and Stanford actually givea crap about academic rigor. The positive impact of this comparison upon people throughout the country, and indeed the world (who often have no idea that Cal-Tech even exists), should not be underappreciated by Domers.

Additionally, ND players and coaches get to spend another late-November weekend in California – a deserved respite from the South Bend winter that gives yearly symmetry to the schedule (w/ the alternating USC away games) and serves Irish recruiting interests as well. From a strictly football standpoint, a "winnable game" against a BCS conference team is a good part of any balanced schedule. Simply put, ND-Stanford is a perfect partnership and one worth maintaining, regardless of the state of Cardinal football.

Irish fans don’t have to call it a "rivalry" if they don’t want to ascribe such value to the annual Stanford match-up, but they shouldn’t ignore the fact that there is some decent history to the relationship that began when Knute Rockne’s squad prevailed over Pop Warner’s in the 1925 Rose Bowl. Adding to the lore is the scene in Knute Rockne: All-American where the two coaching legends argue before Congress for the inherent value of collegiate athletics (younger Domers – if you haven’t seen this classic, pass on your 67th viewing of Rudy this fall and check it out). Since becoming a fixture on the schedule over the last two decades, the series has not been entirely uneventful. Additionally, most people aren’t aware of the existence of the California Redwood and Irish Crystal "Legends Trophy" exchanged between the two programs, but it’s actually pretty freakin’ sweet.

When the Irish invade the forest surrounding Stanford Stadium on Thanksgiving weekends, the atmosphere is excellent. Though some of the older folks don’t quite know what to make of the frivolity inherent to Midwestern tailgating, they certainly appreciate the elevated sense of excitement in the air that they seldom experience outside of their annual match-up against the despised Bears of Cal. One can’t know just yet how Pac-12 realignment will affect scheduling, but the value of playing the Irish on national TV should be obvious to both Harbaugh and Bowlsby.

Having already implied that he may steer us away from the ill-advised 7-4-1 scheduling model, expect Stanford Law alum Jack Swarbrick to work with Bowlsby to figure out a way to extend this series. If they do so, supporters of both programs should be extremely pleased by their efforts. Just as some significant common values suggest Notre Dame hold onto series with programs like Navy and BC, so too should they hold onto the Stanford series.

This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also play programs like Miami, Oklahoma and Texas – an all-consuming commitment to football prominence is a common value in itself. They don’t have to play every single year if the logistics don’t work out, but NotreDame-Stanford should be preserved and valued. These relationships are worth holding close in this topsy-turvy world of college football.