If we review mainstream media coverage of the Cardinal over the past five months, the 2010 Stanford football season can be summarized by three questions, two of which have already been answered: Will Andrew Luck head to the NFL? Will Jim Harbaugh leave for another job? Why don't Cardinal fans fill Stanford Stadium?
That last question became so prevalent by the second half of the season that reporters began asking Harbaugh about it in relation to the Cardinal's eventual bowl destination and including it in stories speculating about his expected departure. At one point Harbaugh let his frustrations slip and suggested that there should be one person in the athletic department whose sole responsibility would be to increase attendance. I don't know if such a position has been created or if anyone's been hired, but here's my application for the job.
The attendance question was often answered quickly as observers simply decided that Stanford students didn't care about football, but it's much more complicated than that. Sure, the team has been great for two years, but there was a long stretch of irrelevance before that during which time the fanbase did not grow. Continued on-field success coupled with an aggressive marketing plan can change all that. So here's my proposal. I can fill that stadium in eight easy steps.
1. Meet the Coach
New head coach David Shaw has done everything right so far, starting when he knocked it out of the park during his opening press conference. He's been busy lately criss-crossing the country visiting recruits, but as soon as he gets back on campus he should start making himself visible by embarking on an evening tour of the campus dormitories. There are ten residence halls, but some of those halls include several houses. If Shaw were to take a total of sixteen weekly visits to these dorms, he'd be able to keep people talking about Stanford football during the winter and spring. He could also bring a different player to each talk, which might even encourage bigger fans to come to all the chats.
2. Indoctrinate the Youth
I imagine that when a baby is born in Alabama, the first words he or she hears is "Roll Tide!" When that child eventually enrolls at the University of Alabama, he or she will have been soaking in Crimson Tide lore for eighteen years. For the vast majority of incoming Stanford freshmen, that is not the case. They must be taught, and here's how you do it.
- When I walked into my dorm in the fall of 1987, there was a Froshbook and a calendar waiting for me on my desk. From now on, there should also be a Stanford Football schedule poster there, as well as a summary of the two or three games the team will have already played.
- In freshmen dorms, one of the RAs should be appointed the Football Ambassador. His or her job would be to coordinate the selling of season tickets, take the dorm to the first home game, and explain the error in most record books concerning the final score of the 1982 Big Game.
- Coach Shaw should have a place somewhere on the agenda during New Student Orientation. He'd be able to speak to 1,500 new fans, but he should also introduce them to the freshmen among them who are on the football team. Ideally the players would be sitting with their dorms, then called to the stage, which would be pretty cool. There were two football players in my freshman dorm, and they were my first connections to the team. I still think of them whenever I see #15 or #81 on a Stanford jersey.
- Teach them about the Axe. The alma mater is printed on page two of the New Student Orientation handbook; page three should recount the history of the Stanford Axe.
3. Embrace the Tradition
When I was a student the Axe was stored safely (for all four years, by the way) behind glass in the Tresidder Student Union. Recently, I believe, it's had a home at the Arrillaga Center, again safely behind glass. I suppose it has to have a home somewhere, and I suppose the paranoid among us will say that it should be safe from prying Golden Bear paws, but it shouldn't be locked away permanently.
Here's my plan. Bring the Axe, the Orange Bowl trophy, and Jim Plunkett's Heisman Trophy to every home football and men's and women's basketball game. As fans file past, they will stop and snap photos with the Orange Bowl trophy, they'll strike the Heisman pose, and they'll touch the Axe. I touched the Axe once, but I had to fight through a mass of humanity on the field after the 1990 Big Game. I still remember the image of my brown fingers laid against the silver edge of the oversized blade, and it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. More people should know that feeling.
4. Honor the Greats
People need to understand that there is a long line of Stanford football heroes, and they need to be reminded of that each Saturday. The best way to do this is to honor the greatest to have worn the Cardinal red by installing bronze statues of them near the entrance of Stanford Stadium. There's no need to do it all at once, but it might be cool to unveil a different statue each year or every other year. I know there will be different opinions about this (Tommy Vardell, Frankie Albert, John Brodie), but here's the schedule I'd use:
- 2011: John Elway
- 2012: Ernie Nevers
- 2013: Jim Plunkett
- 2014: Pop Warner
- 2015: Toby Gerhart
- 2016: Bill Walsh
- 2017: Andrew Luck
5. Hit the Airwaves
- The Stanford Cardinal Farm Report was a weekly thirty-minute show that aired on Fox Sports Bay Area, and it was a great way to spread the gospel of Stanford athletics across the nation -- or at least to those folks outside the Bay Area (like me) who were willing to pay an extra premium to add the channel to their satellite packages. The program discussed all sports, but the focus in the fall was football. Each week we'd get a generous highlight package, an interview with the head coach discussing the previous week's game, and a preview of the next game. Watching Walt Harris was kind of like watching paint dry, but Coach Shaw would do a lot better. Bring this program back.
- Last year ESPN wanted to do a special on Andrew Luck during which a camera crew would follow him throughout the day from class to class, to team meetings, and to practice. Luck turned this down, citing his desire to keep a low profile and not stand out above his teammates. What better publicity could there be for his Heisman campaign, the football program, and the University in general than for people to take an up-close look at a young man who turned down millions of dollars in order to work towards a Stanford degree? At this point Luck doesn't owe Stanford a thing, but someone should gently suggest that this would be a tremendous idea for everyone involved.
6. Package the Highlights
Put together a three-minute highlight package for each game, premiere it at Sunday night Flicks, and make it available on-line beginning Monday morning.
7. Infiltrate the Community
- Whatever the local advertising budget is, double it at the very least. Don't just highlight the twenty wins over the past two seasons, but also be sure to remind everyone of just how they won those games -- with a dynamic offense and a dominant defense. Focus on Andrew Luck, of course, but introduce the budding stars like Shayne Skov. (In fact, why not have a Shayne Skov Night where kids with mohawks -- or better yet, sit down at the gate to get a mohawk -- get a Skov jersey.) Finally, don't forget about Jim Harbaugh. You can connect with area 49er fans by selling his move to San Francisco as more of a graduation than a defection. My guess is that he left on good terms, so why not reach out to him for an endorsement? It would be nice to see him in local commercials endorsing the Cardinal as "the best college football team in California, right in your own backyard." (Of course, now that I think of it, that could be a violation of NCAA rules; someone will have to look into that for me.)
- Reach out to every high school football team and youth football program within fifty miles of campus. Host free football camps on Saturday mornings, then sell tickets for the afternoon game to participants and their families.
- Continue hosting the Spring Game at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, if only to expose the team to a new audience.
- Convince the local cable affiliate to start airing "Cardinal Classics." I'd love to be able to re-watch the 1990 Big Game, the 2007 Biggest Upset Ever, or even the 2009 "What's Your Deal?" game. More Mighty Card football is always a good thing.
- Make sure that Stanford t-shirts and football jerseys are available in every sporting goods store within fifty miles of campus.
- Instruct pediatric nurses in all area hospitals to whisper "Go Mighty Card" into the ears of sleeping newborns on a set schedule.
Isn't this the main thing? None of this will matter if the team doesn't win. We're years away from the time when the Stanford community will sell out the football stadium just because it's there, but if someone in the athletic department can take care of numbers 1 through 7 on this list, we'll get closer to that level of commitment. And if the team wins -- and I believe they will win at least ten games in 2011 -- the momentum from last season will continue to build and we will definitely see larger crowds in Stanford Stadium. Trust me.
UPDATE: There has been some discussion about this in the comments section and various other places, most notably the CardBoard (link to the right), so I thought I would amend some of the more interesting suggestions to the main post. Almost everyone noted that children should always get in free with the hopes that they'll grow into the fans of tomorrow, whether they attend the University or not. CardBoard member "norcalcard" suggested that the University should run free game day busses from San Francisco and San Jose to shuttle in fans. Finally, there was some discussion about honoring Stanford greats inside the Stadium, and "CowboyIndian" suggested a Ring of Honor similar to those in several football stadiums around the country. All excellent ideas.