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 Gephart 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."