Here’s a scenario: Stanford’s star quarterback leads the Cardinal to its first conference title in more than a decade, takes home the Heisman Trophy, wins the Rose Bowl in an upset, is named MVP of the game and is selected first overall in the NFL Draft after being called the “best pro quarterback prospect I’ve ever seen” by competing college coaches. And the next year, a much-lesser-known quarterback takes Stanford to another conference-topping season, another Rose Bowl and another stunning win in Pasadena.
You’re not hearing the naive over-optimism of a lifelong Stanford fan. Heck, I’m not even referring to Andrew Luck or what the future might hold for the Cardinal when he’s not around in 2012. Believe it or not, the above scenario is a historical fact.
Going into the 1970 season, Stanford was 19 years removed from its last conference title, but it had Jim Plunkett — not Luck — on its side. Plunkett’s last hurrah was a 27-17 Rose Bowl win over undefeated Ohio State just a month after he had been awarded the Heisman. At the time it seemed only logical that, with the departure of its star quarterback, Stanford would be a one-hit wonder, fade back into oblivion and fail to do anything noteworthy on the football field for quite some time.
Enter Don Bunce, a senior at the time, who had watched from the sidelines for three years as Plunkett made a name for himself. Later the team doctor from 1982-92, Bunce was a skilled athlete but was clearly a step below Plunkett’s elite talent and lacked much of a future in professional football.
Bunce didn’t put up god-like numbers in 1971, completing just 54.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. (Plunkett hadn’t actually done much better in 1970, completing 53.4 percent for 18 scores and 18 picks.) But even without his predecessor’s big-name appeal, Bunce led Stanford to a second straight 8-3 season and a Rose Bowl matchup against an undefeated Big-10 champion: 11-0 Michigan. And thanks to a perfect 5-5 drive late in the fourth quarter, Bunce got the Indians — yes, Indians — a thriller of a win yet again, edging the Wolverines 13-12.
That was 40 years ago. Stanford hasn’t won a Rose Bowl since.
Any Stanford fan in their right mind should be worried about what will happen when Luck leaves. He’s an all-world talent, already took the Cardinal to a BCS bowl victory and has a great shot at repeating again this year. And as he puts up solid performance after solid performance, he’s looking more and more like a lock for the Heisman and the No. 1 draft pick.
Yet when number 12 plays his last game in cardinal — hopefully in a victory either at the Rose Bowl or National Championship — you’d be out of your mind to think that all hope is lost for an extended stay at the top of the Pac-12.
Sure, there will be heavy losses in the form of offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro (should each of them opt to bypass their respective fifth years of eligibility), and stellar defensive end Matt Masifilo, who is definitely playing in his last season. The top of the Cardinal’s deep tight end and linebacker groups will be skimmed off, with Coby Fleener and Max Bergen also in year five and Shayne Skov considering a pro career after this season.
But every team has to deal with a rehashed depth chart; not every team has to deal with losing the best quarterback prospect in a decade and a half.
Don’t forget, though, that it’s been done before…by Stanford.
Could sophomore Brett Nottingham be the next Don Bunce? Only time will tell, but so far, Nottingham has impressed onlookers after stealing the backup job in fall camp. Going 4-7 in five games this year might not seem like much, but when you average nearly 20 yards per completion on the season and throw a touchdown in your first college appearance, it doesn’t sound half bad.
So is life after Luck going to be a little bit scary? Maybe. But is it uncharted territory?
Joseph Beyda has been in the stands at Stanford Stadium for every home game since 1959. Well, 1998. It’s a streak that deserves some major props, but if you want to let him know how much time he has wasted (336 hours at last count), drop him a line at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.