Welcome to A Brief History of Stanford-Arizona State. I’ll be looking back at all of the ups and downs of this PAC-12 series from its beginning right up to the present day.
The Arizona State football program began in 1897 before Arizona was even a state. The Tempe Normal School played one game, a 38-20 loss to the Phoenix Indians. It was an inauspicious start, but eventually the program would flourish. In 1902, the Tempe Normal played their first game against the University of Arizona, igniting their biggest rivalry and starting a partnership in athletics that continues to this day. Tempe Normal went through a series of names and mascots, including the Tempe Normal Owls and Tempe State Bulldogs before the school was named Arizona State in 1929 and the nicknamed the Sun Devils in 1946. By this time, Arizona State was playing football in the Border Conference, home of Arizona, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Texas Tech, UTEP, West Texas A&M, and Hardin-Simmons University. The winner of the conference usually hosted the Sun Bowl.
Arizona State hired Dan Devine to lead the team for the 1955 season. Devine turned the Sun Devils into the best team in the region by his third year. ASU went 10-0 in 1957 and finished 12th in the final AP Poll. Devine parlayed this success into a coaching job at Missouri, and eventually Notre Dame. He was replaced by Frank Kush, who would bring the Sun Devils to even greater heights. Arizona State was one of the most successful programs in the Border Conference, winning seven league titles (second most to Texas Tech) including the conference championship in their final year of play.
The Arizona universities were getting too big for their home, and they met with members of the Skyline Conference and PCC with the hopes of creating a new league. In 1962, Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico, BYU, Utah, and Wyoming formed the Western Athletic Conference. It took ASU a while to get acclimated to the tougher competition, but when they did the Sun Devils became a powerhouse. In 1969, Frank Kush’s Devils won their first WAC championship. It would also be the first of five straight league titles. In 1970, ASU went 11-0, with a win over North Carolina in the Peach Bowl. The next season, the WAC (which now included Colorado State and UTEP) created the Fiesta Bowl to serve as a showcase of their annual champion, which the league felt wasn’t getting enough opportunities in the larger end-of-season bowl games. It was serendipitous timing for Arizona State.
ASU played in and won the first three Fiesta Bowls. During those seasons, the Sun Devils climbed as high as 6th in the final AP Polls. It was a huge leap for what had been considered a small-time program. 1975 was the peak of ASU football under Kush. The Sun Devils went undefeated again and finally hosted a true blue blood in the Fiesta Bowl. 11-0 ASU faced off against 10-1 Nebraska. The Sun Devils edged by the seventh ranked Cornhuskers 17-14 and would end up 2nd in the final AP Poll behind 10-1 Oklahoma. It was clear that this was as high as anybody was willing to rank Arizona State. As long as they were in the WAC they would remain just another mid-major program, no matter how successful.
Both Arizona universities again were outgrowing their conference. The state of Arizona itself was rapidly outpacing their neighbors and that influx of people and money began to be reflected on the football field. Arizona and Arizona State (though mostly ASU) won the WAC in eight of their last ten years in the conference. In 1978, both schools once again left the league they founded for greener pastures. The pair joined the PAC-8, which would then be known as the PAC-10, finally bringing Arizona State to the top flight of college athletics.
This finally brings us to Stanford’s involvement with Arizona State. Prior to ASU joining the league, the Cardinal had never played the Sun Devils in football. Generally, Stanford wasn’t much interested in playing schools from the WAC and preferred to tackle bigger name opponents in their non-conference slate. By the time Arizona State became a big brand in the mid-major world, Stanford was slowing down as a major program and was hesitant to play an upstart like ASU. The Cardinal struggled throughout most of the 70’s while Arizona State was garnering its biggest successes.
The teams finally met on the football field on November 11th, 1978. Both squads were playing well going into the matchup, Frank Kush’s team was 6-2 and hosting Bill Walsh’s 5-3 Cardinal. Stanford ended up with a 21-14 road victory. The Cardinal won the next season as well, and took a 2-0 lead in the series. By the end of the 1979 season, both Walsh and Kush were gone. Walsh had bailed for the NFL the previous season, and Kush would be fired in disgrace for tampering in an investigation that the university was conducting concerning allegations that he abused one or more of his players. Arizona State was left without the man who brought them from the Border Conference to the PAC-10 less than two years into their new home. Kush was, however, replaced by a man more capable than Walsh and Rod Dowhower were.
After skipping the 1980 season, the pair played again from 1981 to 1985. The Sun Devils ended up winning all five games. That has been the difference in the all-time series lead ever since. Stanford and Arizona State played infrequently until 1993. In the meantime, John Cooper brought the Sun Devils to their first Rose Bowl appearance and only Rose Bowl win before leaving for Ohio State.
The series has been rather even ever since ASU won those five consecutive games over Stanford in the 1980’s. They more or less traded wins until Bruce Snyder’s Sun Devils won three in a row over Ty Willingham from 1996 to 1998, then Ty Willingham won three straight from 1999 to 2001. Dirk Koetter then beat Buddy Teevens’ Cardinal 65-24, the most lopsided score in the series. ASU won three in a row from 2006 to 2008 but Jim Harbaugh turned the tables in 2009 and 2010.
Following the 2010 season, the PAC-10 finally expended for the first time since adding Arizona State. Stanford and ASU were placed in separate divisions and stopped playing annually. The first time they met after expansion was in 2013, when the Cardinal prevailed 42-28 in the regular season and 38-14 in the PAC-12 Championship Game. The championship game was Stanford’s most lopsided win in the history of the series. It was also the only time that both teams faced each other with the conference championship directly on the line. Arizona State won 26-10 in 2014, the last time these teams played each other until they meet in Stanford Stadium this coming Saturday. The Arizona State Sun Devils lead the Stanford Cardinal 17-13 in the all-time series.