Stanford football has defined its success of the past half-decade with enough catchphrases to fill a book. Cardinal women's basketball, meanwhile, has enjoyed just as much success, and those good times can be summarized by two words repeated ad infinitum: Final Four, Final Four, Final Four, Final Four...
Only the oldest Stanford undergraduates remember a time when football didn't qualify for the BCS, while all of them only remember a Final Four-bound women's basketball team [Ed: after publication, this has obviously changed with the Cardinal's loss to Georgia, but recent success remains undeniable].
The men's side of the hardwood, though, offers a starkly contrasting reality. An entire generation of Stanford students has passed through the university without being exposed to the NCAA Tournament, and without feeling the energy of what once was a famously electric men's basketball student section.
I vividly remember my sleep-deprived state in those Sixth Man Club tents outside Maples Pavilion. I remember counting down the minutes until the arena's backside student section gate opened its doors. As soon as the usher in the red coat opened the portal, pre-UCLA big game electricity would buzz out of it just as students -- like a frantic cluster of bees -- swarmed into it. I remember sprinting, tripping over myself in a mad bullrush with my fellow classmates down the stairwell and to the floor, where precious first row courtside spots behind Jim Plunkett waited for us. The remaining hour before tip-off, which felt like three, was the final buffer zone between reality and a profusely sweating student section, one that shook the hardwood floor as Maples pulsated with energy. The spectacular 2007 comeback against the Bruins is the first experience that comes to my mind, while Stanford basketball fans slightly older will point to a certain famous shot in The Farm's lore.
Those wonderful moments are now iconic, and it's funny to think they didn't happen so long ago. Still, they all seem so foreign now. That energy and passion have vanished. The aura is gone. Maples Pavilion is a decent place to study now, sparsely populated on its best days and cavernous on its usual evening -- as it was when staff roped off the upper deck and removed some courtside seats for the Cardinal's NIT game against Stephen F. Austin.
The problem is mediocrity. That's a phenomenon that doesn't sit well with Stanford students and alumni alike, not when most of them are busy excelling in their own fields. One alumnus pops up a new worldwide company here, another discovers a revolutionary medical procedure there, while yet another brings home a shiny gold medal from London. The Farm may be the world's most difficult place to compete for attention because there are so many potential worthy recipients of it in one spot.
There isn't time to watch a basketball program that isn't competitive, and under Stanford's lofty standards, the bare minimum for competitiveness is qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. The results of anything worse: see Maples Pavilion during the past five years.
Football was stuck in the same uninspired doldrums just six years ago when Jim Harbaugh arrived. His unrelenting passion and commitment to Stanford's expected excellence changed things. Athletic director Bernard Muir has decided that this is still Johnny Dawkins' ship, but there's a dire need for the Cardinal's current leadership to emulate what Harbaugh and David Shaw's crew brought to the gridiron a half decade ago: Stanford men's basketball thirsts for an infusion of enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
Harbaugh brought that spark in his own, unique way that has generated some controversy of its own. Falling flat on his back in front an official was one such example. Worry not, Dawkins isn't expected to flop down on the hardwood after a poor foul call against Dwight Powell next year. But, however he does it, he must instill in his team an ability to grab basketball games by the horns next year.
The Cardinal actually led the Pac-12 in scoring and three-point shooting percentage in 2013, but their abysmal performance in close contests (only one legitimate close win against Stephen F. Austin) screamed of a team not ready to seize the moment when the lights came on. With the Powell-Josh Huestis interior core leaving after next year, Dawkins' program is running out of time to live up to its potential before it drifts away into several more years of college basketball purgatory.
Stanford football and women's basketball have already both demonstrated their readiness for the big time, and they've stockpiled a plethora of signature catchphrases to prove it. Meanwhile, men's basketball flounders with some memories -- The Shot certainly holds its own when compared to The Kick -- so far in the rear view now that an entire generation of Stanford students can connect with them only virtually.
That's the pitiful part of this recent mediocrity, the part that must be addressed immediately moving forward. Otherwise, several more generations may pass through Stanford without having a chance to reclaim the wonderful memories of Maples Pavilion's past.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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