I’m sure it was a different feeling on campus in 2004. Stanford men’s basketball was 29-1 in the regular season, winning what was then a 10-team conference tournament and clinching a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Football, on the other hand, had just finished a 4-7 season with a resounding 50-point loss to Notre Dame. I’ve heard stories about how Maples Pavilion used to be filled on a regular basis, and I’m guessing the excitement over attending football games back then rivaled the excitement I have for my semi-annual dentist appointment.
Eleven years later, the times have changed. For fans still hoping for an elusive national title in either of these two high-profile sports, it seems that the prevailing sentiment is that football will be the first of the two sports to break the almost 75 years of ice since the last national title (men’s basketball last won a national title in 1942, and football’s last national championship was in 1940).
Despite the recent surge of confidence in the football program after a series of BCS bowl appearances and the continuous frustration with men’s basketball, I think it’s a pretty clear argument that the men’s basketball program will win a national title before football.
Firstly, the nature of the “playoff” structures of the respective sports makes a basketball championship more probable than a football one. If the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff was any indication, it seems that it will take a conference championship to advance to the four-team playoff. In fact, a conference championship may not even be enough to make the playoff in college football, as selecting only four teams guarantees that at least one of the “Power Five” football conferences will be left out of the final four.
Basketball, on the other hand, differs in that 68 teams make the NCAA tournament. Moreover, out of these 68, 36 teams receive at-large bids, and don’t necessarily have to win their respective conference championships. We’ve also seen in past years that often, teams that are seeded relatively low in the NCAA tournament can play their way into position to win a national championship (e.g. Wichita State, VCU, Butler and George Mason in recent years). In football, teams that finish 7-5 and end up in the Foster Farms Bowl unfortunately cannot play their way into a national title, despite how good they might look in their bowl game.
Put simply, basketball gives 68 teams the chance to play in a single-elimination tournament for all the marbles, whereas football only gives that opportunity to four.
When we look at Stanford’s situation in the Pac-12 in particular, the above argument becomes even more compelling. For one, the Pac-12 is a weaker conference in basketball than it is in football, but I’m not even sure that’s very relevant to this case. In basketball, you don’t have to be the best team in the conference to have a chance to win a national championship.
Just look at the Connecticut men’s basketball team a season ago. At the end of their regular season, it lost to conference rival Louisville 81-48. That’s like losing by four touchdowns in football and would definitely preclude a team from making the four-team playoff. However, not only did Connecticut make the NCAA tournament, but also, as fate would have it, it never needed to beat Louisville en route to a national championship as a seven seed.
The problem with the football playoff structure is that Stanford will consistently need to run the table against every Pac-12 team to even have a chance to make the playoff, which includes beating teams like Oregon, USC and UCLA. In turn, any conference loss would place a huge dent in a team’s hopes of winning a conference championship, and as the Big 12 conference learned this past season, you’re not getting multiple teams from the same conference in unless you’re the SEC.
To elaborate further on this point, consider the scheduling differences between men’s basketball and football. Obviously, basketball seasons have more games than football seasons, and many of these basketball games are non-conference ones. Within these non-conference games, there are usually seven to 12 games that should be certain wins.
If we think that a 20-win Pac 12 team would have a great opportunity to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large, you can see that Stanford will already be halfway (or even more) toward getting into the tournament before it has even faced a conference opponent. Football, on the other hand, schedules three non-conference games, with one of them being Notre Dame.
As such, in a sport where one loss can ruin a team’s chances of making the playoffs, and given that the last time the Stanford football team was undefeated was 75 years ago, I think I’ll take the basketball team’s chances of making a run in the single-elimination NCAA tournament over the football team’s.
Secondly, as a commenter on my previous column articulated, it seems that a school like Stanford should field a better basketball team than football team when we take into account the recruiting associated with both sports.
One of Stanford’s great sells as an institution is its academic dominance, but this point becomes less attractive to an athlete who doesn’t plan to finish a degree because of professional aspirations. Whereas over 30 players play in a football game, basketball teams usually have seven- or eight-player rotations. As such, a few highly rated recruits can turn men’s basketball into a championship contending program, whereas the football team would need many more.
Some might read this and argue that football has recruited better than basketball over the past several years. I’ll pre-empt this, and reiterate — that’s not the point. The point is that the thresholds are different, as the teams that compete for football national championships consistently bring in top-five recruiting classes — something Stanford has never done.
Remember, in basketball, 68 teams make the single elimination tournament, so Stanford essentially just needs to “hang with the pack” to stay in contention. For the record, I’d argue it has done much more than that, as just a season ago, Stanford basketball brought in a top-15 recruiting class — a mark that certainly puts it in striking position to compete for a national championship in basketball.
Thirdly, the nature of coaching in the respective sports puts Stanford in a better position to win a national title in basketball before football. When assistant coaches leave the program in football, it impacts the team in a much more significant way than it does in basketball.
There are no offensive or defensive assistant coaches in basketball, and as such, the departure of an assistant coach doesn’t have as much of an impact on the team. Unfortunately for Stanford football, the past few years have seen massive departures in assistant coaches, which have impacted the program. To name a few, Stanford has lost Derek Mason, Mike Sanford, Pep Hamilton and Vic Fangio.
Even more problematic is that the nature of college football encourages higher turnover, as there is a clear path from a college coordinator to an NFL coordinator (see Hamilton and Fangio). We do not see this in basketball — either with assistant coaches or head coaches — to nearly the same degree, as most NBA hires are from within the NBA rather than from the college level.
When was the last time you saw an assistant coach in college basketball hired as an assistant coach in the NBA? Even if you can name a recent example, I’d still argue it doesn’t really matter, as college basketball’s emphasis is much more on the role of the head coach than it is in college football.
What all of this means is that a run to the Final Four in men’s basketball would likely not result in the massive coaching changes that a Rose Bowl victory in football would lead to. As such, men’s basketball has a much better opportunity to build on any future momentum than football would, since it’s almost a certainty that coordinators will leave after successful football seasons for other opportunities.
Some people will read this column and think that I’ve argued that men’s basketball is a better program than football at Stanford. This is clearly not what I’m arguing, and as I mentioned in last week’s columns, I think that comparing between sports is flawed logic. I’m also not saying that football will never win a national title again.
Rather, when we consider the nature of what it takes to win a national title in both sports and Stanford’s unique characteristics, it seems clear to me that men’s basketball will win a national championship before football does.
Given his recent string of ardent support for the men’s basketball team, expect to see Shawn Tuteja invited to the on-court celebration and assist in cutting down the nets when Stanford men’s basketball wins its impending national championship. Until then, give him your best net-cutting techniques at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.