Culture-Building 101: The "Blue Collar Man"

Blue Collar Man

Coach Jim Harbaugh is at it again, pulling the Cardinal's motivational strings like a master puppeteer - fostering a working-class mentality within the Stanford Football family. No silver spoons for this team. Everything is going to be earned on the field. The Cardinal may have retro-red uniforms in 2008, but the attitude is decidedly blue-collar. Players and staff have the shirts to prove it!

Every once in a while a new tradition takes hold for an athletic team. It can be a spontaneous creation, a conscious effort to establish lore, or a reflection of the emerging character of a team. Stanford Football has had more than its share of traditions: The Stanford Axe...The Immortal 21... The Vow Boys...The Wow Boys...The How Boys...The Now Boys. Some stick and some don't: The Thunderchickens, The Northwest Road Warriors, The Trenchdogs, The Walk. With the introduction of "The Blue Collar Man" a week ago, this latest development  has to be seen as a combination of all three - spontaneous creation, lore, and a reflection of the team's character.

Some of new traditions are established to separate and define distinctively a special season. Despite the pigskin prognosticators' annual forecast of gridiron doom for the Cardinal, one senses that 2008, Year Two of the current coaching administration, could be a special season. 

Jim Harbaugh wants every season to be special and this one has his full attention. He must have been pondering way to motivate his players to be all they can be. What did Stanford Football need? A way to counter the conventional wisdom that Cardinal student-athletes are privileged and elitist. Hmmm....they are certainly fortunate from an opportunity standpoint and and while hardly "elitist" are unquestionably "elite" from an academic and athletic selectivity standpoint.

There could be a bit of psychological genius happening down on the Farm. Coach Harbaugh has taken the common perception of Stanford athletes - as privileged white-collar rich kids unwilling to get their uniforms dirty - and turned it completely upside down. We're goin' blue-collar! Our players are going to get up every morning and go to work. No handouts, just good old fashioned hard work. 

Following an all-hands meeting on the first day of Fall camp, all players and football staff were issued blue-collared shirts (see Harbaugh photo). Yes, the kind with a sewn-on white badge with each person's first name stitched in red. It's what you would expect to see worn by an auto mechanic, a plumber, or an air-conditioning repair dude.  Nothing fancy, just guys doing their jobs and supporting their families. Coach Harbaugh apparently related to the team stories of how his own grandfather was an old school, blue collar guy who proudly pumped gas. Sure, some cynics may view such rah-rah inspirational stuff as gimmicky, but the theme is a solid one and if it serves to motivate the team to stay focused and get their jobs done, then it certainly has our blessing!

Stanford Athletics has won 14 consecutive Director's/Sears Cups, the University produces Nobel Prize winners and industry-jarring technical entrepreneurs. Great, elite, world-class. But what about the football team? What has the football team done to match the top-tier performances that can be found among other sports, academic departments and alumni accomplishments? Not much recently, but things are starting to change. Harbaugh has attacked the very idea of "entitlement." Under Harbaugh's watch, it seems, players aren't going to be "entitled" to anything. The football team isn't "entitled" to consider itself excellent just because it represents the school known to many as as the "Home of Champions" in college sports. The only excellence he wants associated with his program is that which is produced on the field.

Okay, so the "Blue Collar Man" concept isn't entirely original in its creativity as it was an idea Coach Harbaugh clearly borrowed/co-developed from his brother John, the first-year head coach of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, who has promoted a similar theme in his locker room in Baltimore. Nevertheless, it appears rather astute of the second-year Stanford coach to find its relevant application here at Stanford. 

Look, let's face it. There most certainly is a perception of "elitism" surrounding Stanford University. We the alumni and affiliates call it "pride" and excuse it as noble aspiration to be the best. Outsiders often perceive it differently. The "elitism" tag is often used effectively by competing programs to sell negatively against the Cardinal. "You won't fit in, you come from a hard-scrabble working-class background, son, you aren't like those brainy rich kids!"

They do have a point - Our guys are brainy and they are rich...but they are "rich" in character and personality. Coddled, privileged, silver-spooned sons of the rich and powerful? Hogwash!  Our kids tie their cleats and snap their chinstraps like everyone else. The reality for the Stanford Football program is entirely opposite. Very few of our players come from wealthy or socially-prominent families and the great irony is that when the players arrive on campus they quickly realize that Stanford Football is decidedly working class, as in "working", "class" and going to "class". . A special season will take blood, sweat, and tears. 

If it takes all that to be just what I am, I gonna be a blue collar man!  - "Blue Collar Man" by Styx (1980).


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