STANFORD — They play what is categorized as major college football here at Stanford University. But in many ways, it is unlike any other major college program in the country. Like Frank Sinatra, they do it their way.
Stanford lost a game to UCLA here Saturday, 34-9. At most places, that result would trigger predictable reaction from students, fans and alumni, especially since that result put Stanford's record at 1-4 this season.
But at Stanford, that result, as always, seemed to trigger something ranging from understanding to introspection.
In most places, a 34-9 whipping prompts postgame statements from Coach Woody Wallrock along the lines of: "You can bet your sweet bonnet we ain't gonna have nobody pounding on us again like that this season. We gonna kick some tail in practice this week."
Not here. Jack Elway, Stanford's coach, said things afterward such as: "I've always tried to look at losing as temporary. What we do after a game like this is identify for our players where the good areas were and where the bad ones were. Losing is no fun, but I don't like long grieving periods."
When trying to define what goes on here in the fall, Stanford football kind of slips between the cracks. It's not like Harvard or Yale, where "major college program" refers to law and business and chemistry, not football. Nor is it like Northwestern or Rice, where year in and year out, there appears to be little or no hope.
No, this center of intellectuality and liberalism has a fairly impressive football tradition, even as recently as 1978, when Bill Walsh took the Cardinal to an 8-4 record and a victory over Georgia in the Bluebonnet Bowl. This is, after all, the school that produced John Brodie and Jim Plunkett and John Elway and had, prior to Saturday's ego-deflater at the hands of UCLA, the country's total offense leader in quarterback John Paye.
But even the impact of days of past glories here is hard to pin down. As Art Spander, San Francisco Examiner sports columnist, said Saturday, "When they won two Rose Bowls in a row (after the 1970 and '71 seasons), there were a lot of professors pretty embarrassed here."
Yet, the Stanford football phenomenon cannot be written off merely as academic snobbery. A crowd estimated at 63,000 was on hand Saturday, roughly 20,000 shy of capacity but still well in excess of crowds drawn at schools that live and die with their football imagery. Stanford does neither. It kind of takes what is there and, for the most part, has fun with it.
Where else, after all, could the school's flaky, whacko marching band compete for attention with the football team? Where else, for that matter, could a band, in a pregame show this season, use as a theme a "Tribute to Presidential Diseases," marching into a formation of Ronald Reagan's nose and removing a cyst?
And where else could a coach like Elway, a grandfatherly type with the postgame demeanor of a man fishing for catfish with a cane pole, make as many mistakes, be on such a negative roll and have it appear to be no problem?
Sept. 28, before the home crowd and against perennial football power Texas, Paye had the Cardinal marching down the field toward the winning touchdown in the closing minutes with his fine passing. Then, for some reason, Elway ordered Paye to call running plays. Four of them in row. The last one, on fourth down, was a pitchout to Brad Muster, a good fullback, but one who will challenge neither Carl nor Carol Lewis in the 100. And the pitchout was called to the short side of the field.
Needless to say, Texas stopped Stanford and went on to win the game. And needless to say, Elway was the subject of criticism. Mark Purdy, sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury-News, wrote the next day that the Stanford coach had "suffered a sprained brain."
But as Purdy reported Saturday, his reaction was different than that of many Stanford fans.
"My next-door neighbor, a big Stanford fan, kind of questioned the play calling," Purdy said, "but at the same time, he thought it was fine that Stanford had come so close to beating a team it wasn't suppose to beat."
Things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better for Elway and the Cardinal football team. Next Saturday, Stanford plays USC at the Coliseum. A rested USC, idle Saturday. After that come Arizona and Washington, currently Pacific 10 Conference co-leaders.
By the time Stanford gets a chance to heal up against Oregon State Nov. 9, Elway likely will have fallen well below his 5-6 record of last season and likely will be the coach of record when the Cardinal posts a fifth straight losing season for the first time ever.
At most places, those prospects would cause much loss of sleep among the faithful. Here, it likely won't even cause any loss of perspective.
Paye, when questioned about obvious fan indifference late in the game, said: "If I were in the stands and got a game like we gave them today, I wouldn't be much interested, either."
And Elway, calmly looking ahead into the eye of the hurricane, said: "We know that we won't be bigger or stronger than other teams, so we'll have to outmaneuver them. We'll have a theme, a plan to our game."
At Stanford, themes and plans would, indeed, be the way. Even if, for the moment, winning isn't.