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My Favorite Stanford Moment: Coming Up Roses

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It’s awfully hard to choose just one, but the 2016 Rose Bowl was definitely the most unique.

The 102nd Rose Bowl Game - Iowa v Stanford Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Hello folks, my name is Cameron Satterlee and I’m one of the new contributors here at Rule of Tree. To start out, I was asked to write about my favorite Stanford Cardinal sports moment. I was thrilled with the assignment but immediately I found a problem: I’m not actually sure which moment I can really call my favorite. I’ve witnessed so many great Stanford moments and it makes it rather difficult to pick just one.

I grew up around Stanford athletics, chiefly the football team, and I have been going to tailgates as far back as I can recall. I remember crawling around under the bleachers at old Stanford Stadium while the Cardinal were struggling through the dark years before Jim Harbaugh. At the end of the 2005 season, I remember walking onto the field after a too-close defeat to Notre Dame, tearing out some turf as the stadium I knew was about to be destroyed. At the beginning of the 2006 season, I remember the grand opening of the new Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal were being run off the field by Navy. By the fourth quarter, disgruntled fans made paper airplanes out of the season schedules that were taped to the backs of every seat and trying to glide them onto the field.

I really started to follow Stanford football right around 2007. I was the right age to understand a sport I rarely played and it coincided with the great revival at Stanford that we all have witnessed since Jim Harbaugh took charge. I remember standing with my dad in front of our television screen when the Cardinal pulled off the greatest point spread upset ever, taking down the seemingly invincible #2 USC Trojans. The 24-23 score lives on in the memory of every Stanford fan.

In 2009, I remember when Toby Gerhart bruised his way through Oregon defenders en route to a 51-42 win over the #7 Ducks, and handing them their only conference loss that season. It was an exuberant atmosphere, in only three seasons Harbaugh had taken us so far. Stanford attained bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001. We cheered hardest for Gerhart, who we believed was going to be the next Heisman Trophy winner. It wouldn’t be the first time we would exalt the best player in the game, only to see someone else walk up to the podium to collect the trophy.

In 2010, I remember queuing up with my friends in front the West gate at the North endzone to watch Nate Whitaker’s line up to kick a game winning field goal over USC. As the ball tumbled through the uprights we bolted onto the field. It was Stanford’s second win in a row over the Trojans and one of an astonishing twelve wins that season which culminated in the Cardinal winning the Orange Bowl. It was a testament to how far the team had come under the stewardship of Harbaugh in only four years. It was a bit unnerving to think what would happen to the program once he left. Men like my father, a lifelong fan, had seen this song and dance many times before. Good coaches led the team to success then bolted for the NFL, leaving the Cardinal to pick up the pieces.

It was hard to envision, but greater success was still looming. In 2011, I remember when College Gameday finally recognized Stanford’s ascendancy on the national stage and visited Palo Alto for a top ten matchup with Oregon. I stood in the crowd with my friends as the talking heads debated Andrew Luck’s Heisman hopes. It was a bitter pill to swallow seeing such a good Cardinal team lose by 23 points and end our best ever chance at playing in a BCS Championship Game. Although, I have seen worse, I did go to the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

In 2012, I remember going off to college and wishing I could be in Stanford Stadium to watch the defense party in the backfield. All of the anxiety we fans had at losing such towering figures as Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh, and Andrew Luck were eased as Stanford continued to roll. Those men did everything to bring Stanford back to prominence; everything but win the PAC-12 and make the Rose Bowl. In 2012 the Cardinal did just that. I got to take my first trip to Pasadena to see Stanford win their first Rose Bowl since 1972. I remember the 2014 Rose Bowl as well, but I don’t like to talk about that one as much.

In 2015, I had my first trip to the LA Coliseum to see a tepid 1-1 Cardinal take on a team that was (once again) hailed to be USC’s return to glory. My father and I were a bit shell-shocked at how meek Stanford looked in the season opening loss to Northwestern and how the subsequent win over a bad UCF team didn’t inspire much confidence. The 8-5 finish in 2014 was Stanford’s first single digit win total since 2009. Nerves were growing among the fan base that the Cardinal were going to be all washed up with Harbaugh’s guys graduating out. Instead, we saw an explosive 41-31 victory deep in the heart of enemy territory and the coming out party of Stanford’s latest Heisman should’ve-been in Christian McCaffrey.

Certainly one of the most exciting moments I witnessed firsthand was Conrad Ukropina’s game clinching kick over Notre Dame at the end of the regular season. It was the only home game I was able to attend all year and the wait paid off. It was a colossal slug fest with the Cardinal barely holding on against a very tough Fighting Irish squad. Notre Dame led with only 30 seconds left, but it was just enough time for Stanford to rush down the field to set up a last second field goal. The fun was maximized by knocking #4 ND out of the first ever College Football Playoff. I remember celebrating as the ball split the uprights and I turned around to bask in the glory of victory. I could and should have rushed the field, but it was my first Stanford tailgate where I could legally drink. I hope you pardon my enthusiasm to go back outside the gates.

By now you’ve all caught on to what I’ve been doing—using this prompt to list off all of the amazing games that I have been privileged enough to witness as a Stanford football fan. Seeing the Cardinal raise themselves to national prominence in this last decade has been spectacular. It might be the most thrilling spectacle I will ever be a part of as a sports fan. To have my adolescent years coincide with this return to glory is something that I will always cherish. It has given me an appreciation of the college football that has fueled my imagination and has shaped a part of my life. It has only been after weighing all of these grand memories that I am finally ready to declare my favorite Stanford moment.

The men who brought back Stanford football.
Stanford Athletics

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The 2016 Rose Bowl is on a different plane. The expectations and reality were so far askew that I have trouble reconciling with them as a dedicated follower of college football. The 2015 Cardinal were already an unusual team, they were different than the hard-nosed bruisers to whom we had grown accustomed. The offensive talent led by Kevin Hogan’s steady hand and the utterly explosive Christian McCaffrey rivaled the best days of Andrew Luck’s legendary tenure. The defense wasn’t the show stopping, backfield partying group it had been in the previous two Rose Bowls seasons, but they were still one of the best lines in the West. No matter how confident I was in the Cardinal, it was unnerving playing a team that hadn’t lost a regular season game.

The Iowa Hawkeyes had been on my radar all year, or at least since they went to Evanston and kicked Northwestern’s teeth in 40-10. That definitely raised the eyebrows after seeing such an inept performance in the same place against the same opponent earlier in the season by Stanford. Sure, the Hawkeyes didn’t look that good according to certain sabermetrics, but you tend to overlook that when a team never loses. I was frustrated that Iowa didn’t play Ohio State or Michigan that year. Iowa seemed to have the goods but they never played a true top ten opponent. I had little idea how to gauge them and try to imagine how they would perform against Stanford. The Hawkeye’s close—and frankly painful to watch—loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game did little to shatter the mystique. They played with an apparent toughness that the new and flashy Cardinal didn’t appear to possess. Those meaty Midwesterners were going to give us a game that we weren’t used to anymore now that the Cardinal had become accustomed to playing against high octane offenses in the PAC-12. We indeed got a game we weren’t expecting.

I remember driving with my dad from our hotel in Valencia to Pasadena, slowly crawling with the traffic to the Stadium. We tailgated a bit further away than we did in 2013 or 2014. Iowa fans showed up in force, excited in their first Granddaddy of Them All since 1991, exulting in the supreme California weather, and supremely confident in their Hawkeyes’ ability to win. Since I was so unsure just what kind of team Iowa was—I felt I had Wisconsin and Michigan State pegged for better or worse in previous years—I just hoped for a good game and a solid win for the Cardinal. I tried to pack away my caution and nerves as we made our way to the Stadium.

Walking out from the tunnel into the vast interior of a true Rose Bowl game cannot be replicated. I’ve seen UCLA play there as a home team and it just isn’t the same. The sweeping expanse of the field and the low rising slope of the Bowl is a sight to behold, especially on a warm and cloudless day in the middle of winter. Stanford fans appeared to be outnumbered at least two to one (and likely more than three to one). The Stanford crowd was quiet in comparison to the jubilant Iowa fans—so proud of their team and thrilled to be back after having been away so long. The nervous excitement buzzed a bit differently from 2013 and 2014, though maybe my memory is just a bit off, the events of what was about to transpire provided an afterglow surrounding the whole event.

The actual game of the 2016 Rose Bowl will forever be marked in any Stanford fan’s mind. Iowa’s kickoff was received by the Cardinal as a touchback. That explosive Stanford offense would finally face off against the Hawkeyes’ bruising D. Who would come out on top? It didn’t take long to find out. On the first play from scrimmage Hogan took a couple of steps back and fired a short pass to McCaffrey. McCaffrey appeared to be surrounded by Iowa defenders ready to take his head off for all of two seconds. It took about that long for them to disappear in the rearview mirror as the best player in college football left them in the dust. It was only eleven seconds into the game. I was obviously pleased, but at an early age—likely fueled by so many losses in the dark days of Stanford football—I took to heart the sports truism that it ain’t over till it’s over. I took the first score as a good omen, but as my dad always says there was a lot of game left.

Iowa had yet to touch the ball and could respond just as easily. Then Hawkeyes went three and out. Then Stanford covered 74 yards in three and a half minutes. Hogan and McCaffrey seemed to be the only players to even hold the football. Hogan scrambled into the endzone untouched and the ugly truth was out. The Hawkeyes could not stop the dynamic Cardinal offense, or even come close. On the next possession, Iowa ground out a long drive that was reminiscent of Stanford’s creeping offenses from 2012 and 2013, the ones that would slowly advance across the field like flowing lava and push their way into the endzone. Except the Hawkeye iteration was much less successful. Iowa ran nine plays in five minutes and reached just outside field goal range only for Quenton Meeks to snatch C.J. Beathard’s short pass and run it all the way back for a touchdown.

The smaller Stanford section had grown louder as the scores rolled in, this last one whipped us into a frenzy. We were only eleven minutes in and the game was already over. Iowa was unmasked as a good team that skated by on a weak schedule. The Hawkeyes just could not compete when they finally faced a real powerhouse program like Stanford. The Cardinal dominated on every side of the ball. Meanwhile, Iowa managed to punt twice in eight downs. Iowa’s second third-and-out was in the middle of being completed as the first quarter ended. The Cardinal picked up right where they left off when Beathard was sacked on third down and McCaffrey returned the ensuing punt 63 yards to raise the lead to 28-0. It was 35-0 by the end of the half and the contest was thoroughly in hand.

The game could’ve been even worse if Shaw hadn’t pulled out the starters in the second half and allowed the Hawkeyes to score. The 102nd Rose Bowl had been long over when Beathard fumbled a handoff with 16 seconds remaining, giving Stanford the opportunity to kneel down and put the game to bed. I was over the moon. I don’t think my dad and I left the stadium for at least 45 minutes after the game was over. We saw the confetti cannons, the trophy presentations, the players celebrating as the band while the crew broke down the platforms and broadcasting equipment. The band played song after song among the slowly decreasing number of fans in Cardinal and White that stuck around to celebrate at the Southeast corner of the field. It was fully dark out by the time the players left for the locker room but the band played on.

Towards the end of the revelry my dad and I took the opportunity to walk from the bottom to the top of the Rose Bowl. We took in the entire sight of the most magnificent stadium in football, relishing in what we had just witnessed. We walked back down to the edge of the stands, where the band was finishing up their revue, closing, of course, with a triumphant rendition of “All Right Now” that echoed off every corner of the legendary edifice.

The 102nd Rose Bowl Game - Iowa v Stanford
The 2016 Rose Bowl in one photo.
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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The win was as sweet as any I’ve ever witnessed. Stanford has had many great wins in the Harbaugh-Shaw era, but none like the 2016 Rose Bowl, especially on the biggest stage. I had seen a gut-wrenching defeat against a team we should have beat in Oklahoma State. I had seen a moderate win against a team we should have beat by a couple more touchdowns in Wisconsin. I had seen an anxiety-riddled loss to a very good Michigan State team who adjusted when we wouldn’t. In the case of the Cowboys and the Spartans, Stanford was playing some of the best teams college football had to offer that year. In the Badgers’ case, was a team that played a similar style as the Cardinal that could match them in pound for pound physicality. Iowa was supposed to be the same kind of challenge but it ended in a complete romp. It was stupendous, a laugher, a complete destruction that I can’t recall having seen in person against USC or Oregon. A national audience saw the Cardinal smoke what had been the last undefeated team in the Power 5. It was completely overwhelming.

I do feel bad for Iowa. They were the victim of circumstance and really shouldn’t have been there. The Hawkeyes played above their ability and as a result they were embarrassed for finally playing a team that possessed vastly more talent than they did. The Iowa fans were so happy to be there and the game went so far against their expectations all they could do was grumble about the LSJUMB’s skit. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer fan base.

It’s hard to tell when the realization hit me that I’d witnessed something new in Stanford football’s great revival. For years after Jim Harbaugh’s departure, there was a certain shadow hanging around David Shaw. That he was winning purely because he inherited Harbaugh’s well-oiled machine. Shaw’s first two Rose Bowls were won with Harbaugh recruits. Obviously Shaw was a dedicated steward of the program he helped Harbaugh build as offensive coordinator, but with each successful season, even when they ended in Rose Bowls, there was something to be desired—most frequently involving wins left on the table. Stanford’s 8-5 season in 2014 was cause for concern, and the alarm bells really started blaring in the inept season opener against Northwestern, a loss that would eventually cause the Cardinal to be left out of the running in the Playoff. Fans like my dad and I were starting to lose our resolve.

At some point—the (FIRST) win over USC in my mind—the switch was flipped, just like in 2012 when Kevin Hogan first took over and revamped a sagging offense. Stanford’s Rose Bowl win in 2015 proved to everyone that the Cardinal are here to stay. Shaw buried the doubts any fans had about his ability to recruit and win with his players. As long as he’s around he can maintain Stanford as a premier destination for college football’s best and brightest players. Stanford has been many things in its long and storied history, but the Cardinal football team have never been consistent winners. Even the Pop Warner era was painfully short-lived when compared to the glory days of Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and the many eras of USC dominance. Now, with the 2015 Rose Bowl serving as proof of concept, I see a future in which Stanford has its own era of dominance. One in which the phrase Intellectual Brutality becomes known nationwide.

Some wins are sweet because they come against rivals. Some wins are sweet because they come in the national spotlight. As a fan of Stanford football who started out in the early 2000’s, to know Stanford was to know losing. When Harbaugh and Shaw arrived, wins became more and more frequent, though the climb to the top was still arduous. The big wins, the ones that came against USC and Oregon and Notre Dame, were usually affairs fraught with tension and usually won by a hair or a prayer. The sweetest victories are indeed pried from the jaws of defeat and nothing can replace the rush of beating an opponent at the last second, but please, from one Stanford fan to another, can you excuse me for choosing the one time I saw a good, old-fashioned blowout?

The 102nd Rose Bowl Game - Iowa v Stanford
A new era in Stanford football.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images