“This year. This leadership. It was phenomenal… Young guys, what you saw this year, this is the example. You can’t let it go.”
“It started with react. How are we going to react when the bad things happen? How are we going to react when the good things happen? The bottom line is that we don’t change. We set our standards high and we work our tail off to reach those standards.”
I’ve never been a football coach — save for my craziest dreams and the Saban-esque empire I constructed on The Farm in NCAA ’11 — but the final postgame speech of the season strikes me as a particularly significant moment. It’s one of the final times — maybe even the very last — when every soldier from a long, drawn-out war will find himself in the same room, a time to provide a sense of closure and harken back to the defining theme of the season.
In his final words to the 2015-16 edition of Stanford football, what does David Shaw look back on? Leadership. Not this team’s prodigious talent, which materialized on the field into one of the best seasons in school history; not the litany of goals achieved and records broken; not of the promising future that appears to lie ahead. Instead, Shaw focused on something much more intangible: the internal drive within this group to weather the crests and troughs of an up-and-down season and sit in that locker room with the long-coveted designation of “Rose Bowl Champions.”
There’s no use in comparing this year’s edition of the Cardinal to the previous elite groups of this decade. Inevitably, one really, really good football team is going to be slighted. Shaw found this out earlier this season when he responded to a similar question — only to receive an angry phone call from former receiver Doug Baldwin soon after.
However, one can make the argument that this 2015 team won games in situations that gave previous Stanford rosters trouble: finding a way to emerge victorious when nothing was working at Wazzu and engineering a last-ditch effort to dispose of Notre Dame. We saw this team blow out USC and Iowa in its final and most important games of the season. And, according to Shaw, it all starts with leadership.
In his press conference ahead of the Rose Bowl, Shaw, who has led his team to four 10-win seasons and three bowl victories in his five-year tenure, mentioned that the biggest lesson he has learned this season is that he “cannot carry the team on his own.”
Instead, he put the onus on his seniors to lead the team from within and the results speak for themselves. During halftime of the Granddaddy of Them All, holding a 35-0 lead after a nearly-immaculate first half, the Cardinal locker room was just as focused, just as urgent and, somehow, just as angry as it was prior to kickoff. Senior offensive guard and captain Josh Garnett later said that he grabbed the attention of the room to remind them that the Hawkeyes’ pre-game trash talk still lingered, that the chip was still very much on the shoulder.
The Cardinal didn’t play nearly as spectacular of a second half — a massive credit to a gritty Iowa squad that refused to wilt — but the focus and the trademark physicality were still on display. That didn’t come from the coaching staff, but from the players themselves.
Perhaps the greatest trick Jim Harbaugh ever pulled was convincing a team of Stanford students, who ostensibly had it all, that they were the underdogs, the target of disrespect and, above all, the meanest kids on the block.
That ethos is still very much alive within this program, despite the fact that the victim is now the bully. Today, it emanates directly from the players. You could feel that anger slowly heating up to a boil during Media Day in downtown LA, and it finally spilled over with an absolutely crushing performance against an elite team on the other sideline. It’s hard to overplay what a win like that means for this team and this program in terms of showing the world that Stanford, at its best, can play with anybody in the country.
When looking back on this truly special season, what will we remember? There’s no doubt we’ll look back on Christian McCaffrey breaking the unbreakable record in college football; reminisce over Kevin Hogan putting together the most efficient passing season in school history and going out with a picture-perfect touchdown pass; still shake our heads in disbelief at those first 30 minutes of the Rose Bowl.
But what we are in danger of forgetting is the tremendous team-initiated leadership it took to hit every one of those milestones and still remain angry and hungry for more in the coming years. There was something special in the air surrounding this team and these seniors, and that should be their legacy. For a team that has always emphasized grit over glitz, shouldn’t it be remembered more for leadership than shiny trophies?
Since returning to The Farm after an incredible weekend in Pasadena, Vihan Lakshman has yet to stop talking about smelling the roses. Remind him that football season is over and that he is still a student and has class tomorrow at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.