Jaffe: Capital One Cup short-changes Stanford

June 30, 2011, 1:46 a.m.

The 2010-11 school year was another banner campaign for the Stanford Athletics program. The football team set numerous school records en route to its best season ever and its first BCS bowl victory, a 40-12 thrashing of Virginia Tech, and a No. 4 ranking.

In typical Stanford fashion, though, the football team was not the only Cardinal squad to have a stellar year. Stanford prides itself on the depth of its athletics program, and this depth was once again on display. For the 35th straight year, the Cardinal won at least one national title. This one was even more special, as the streak-extending championship was also the school’s 100th NCAA team title. And again, in typical Stanford fashion, it came in a so-called “small sport,” men’s gymnastics. Title No. 101 came exactly a month later, when the women’s water polo team dispatched archrival Cal in the final.

Along with these triumphs, numerous other sports enjoyed remarkable seasons. This has led to more awards for the school, including yet another Director’s Cup. Winning the award for the best overall athletics program in the country should be quite an honor for any school, but for Stanford, the Director’s Cup has become merely an alarm clock, a reminder that another year has passed. Why? Because Stanford has now won the cup 17 straight times. To put this in perspective, star quarterback Andrew Luck had not yet begun kindergarten when the Cardinal started this streak.

Ho hum, another Director’s Cup. Another performance so dominant that you could take away both NCAA titles and Stanford would still have clinched the cup before baseball season is even over. Big deal, this happens every year. Didn’t they create a new award so Stanford wouldn’t always win? Didn’t some idiot blabber on about that for a whole column last summer?

Ok, I’d be surprised if you remembered that. But you might have heard a little bit about the Capital One Cup in the past year. It’s a new award that is supposed to measure the same thing as the Director’s Cup, but is structured, not coincidentally, in a way that hurts Stanford’s chances by a) splitting men’s and women’s programs into separate awards, b) arbitrarily making some “more popular” sports count for two or three times as much as others and c) even more arbitrarily omitting some sports entirely. The Capital One Cup comes with much more money, much more coverage and much more ESPN than the Director’s Cup, so it has become the new award of choice.

So how did the Cardinal do in this Cardinal-unfriendly competition? Again, in typical Stanford fashion, the depth of the women’s program overcame the aforementioned restrictions to give Stanford the inaugural Capital One Cup on the women’s side. Despite heartbreaking finishes in NCAAs in soccer, basketball and tennis, Stanford still racked up 121 points across nine sports to hold off Texas A&M and Cal for the title. The win earns the program another trophy, 200 grand and a presentation at next month’s ESPY Awards. Meanwhile, the men will not win but are slated to finish in the top five pending the results of the final baseball poll.

For any reasonable fan, this was a great year. But if there’s anyone who can be unreasonably negative, who can find the con amid hundreds of pros, it’s yours truly. Maybe it’s just because I’m a pessimist, or maybe I’m channeling my inner Gordon Gekko, but I’m feeling a little greedy. I think Stanford deserves both Capital One Cups, which I’ll call COCs (pronounce as you wish).

To start, just take a quick peek at the Capital One Cup website. If you want to know the scoring, there’s a little box by the standings, and it starts with the headline “EVERY CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTS” (yep, it’s in all caps) before listing the scoring system.

Really? Take the men’s side for example. Removing co-ed sports (since the COC decided that women and men are separate but equal), there are 16 NCAA sports, and you can make it 17 if you want to split football into FBS and FCS. The COC only has 14. Apparently gymnastics, water polo and volleyball don’t count as championships. I wasn’t aware that all those players were playing for nothing. Oh by the way, how did Stanford do in those sports? First, third and seventh in the country. Hmm, coincidence.

But wait, the COC is all about popularity, right? That’s what it claims anyway. So those sports, which have fewer than 25 Division-I teams each, aren’t popular enough to qualify. That’s why women’s gymnastics is not in either; it only has 63 D-I teams. Now, if women’s gymnastics were like men’s lacrosse, which is a way more popular sport (and has no Stanford varsity team, by the way) with its 61 D-I teams, it would not only be factored in, but it would count for twice as much as a minor sport like tennis (262 D-I teams, Stanford a perennial contender).

Glad that’s cleared up. So, to summarize the brilliance of the COC, take a look at Eastern Washington. Yep, that Eastern Washington, known previously for its red field and Rodney Stuckey and that’s about it. Well, this year, EWU football lost by 23 to Montana State, one of the two teams to actually lose to Washington State. Stuckey’s alma mater then went on a tear, squeaking by to win its remaining games and enter the FCS tournament (yep, there is a college football playoff in some parts of the country). Despite having an average margin of victory of less than a touchdown, Eastern Washington edged out Delaware for the FCS title. Shockingly, the Eagles did not place in the top 10 in any other sport.

But if you look at the men’s COC standings, you’ll see Eastern Washington way up there with 60 points, which will likely net the Eagles a top-five or six finish. So winning the second-division football title gives it 60 points. On the other hand, if you add up Stanford’s points for finishing fourth in the real football subdivision, winning the national title in men’s gymnastics, winning the national title in women’s water polo, placing second in women’s tennis, placing second in women’s rowing, placing third in men’s water polo and placing fourth in men’s cross country, you get 56 points. Not even in Star Trek could there be a universe where that makes any logical sense.

So what’s the takeaway, get rid of all these awards? Well, no. It’s still good to see schools honored for having athletic success in a variety of sports (even if the current men’s leader, Auburn, has scored points in only two). And how bad can an award be for Stanford if Stanford wins half of it and takes home 200k in the process?

Sadly, the answer is “still pretty darn bad.”

But awards shouldn’t overshadow what a great year it was for Stanford sports. Congrats to every athlete, coach and staff member that contributed to Cardinal athletics this past year. You made Stanford once again the best athletic school in the country.

Maybe one day you’ll reach the same heights as Eastern Washington football.

Jacob Jaffe is distraught that his columns didn’t earn Stanford any Capital One Cup points. Send him consolation at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.

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