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Cardinal rules

Can a university be nationally ranked in both football and academics? Not if it's Stanford.

December 09, 2006

AT STANFORD UNIVERSITY, some football players next year will be playing for their third head coach. The latest to get the ax was Walt Harris, who was fired this week after just two seasons. The coach before Harris lasted three years. The next victim of this buzz saw is anybody's guess, but before Stanford fires another coach, university administrators may need to address the institution's larger identity crisis.

Money has always played a role in the supposedly amateur world of collegiate athletics, but as the dollar amounts rise, its influence deepens. College athletics departments are signing licensing deals with sports-marketing companies, and universities are selling naming rights for their stadiums. TV deals are getting richer as sports channels proliferate. With all this money on the line, the pressure to win is intensifying. That means more competition for top athletes and more willingness to bend the rules on admissions and other standards. Unless you're Stanford.

Stanford has among the toughest admissions requirements in the country, even for football players. It is one of a handful of schools, including Northwestern and Duke, that aim to field competitive Division I teams without compromising academic standards. The success of this strategy is evident: Stanford was 1-11 this year, Northwestern went 4-8 and Duke didn't win a game.

The Ivy League schools solved this dilemma by opting out of the tainted system. Though the Ivies have a storied football history, the league lost its membership in Division I in 1981 in a dispute with the NCAA over TV revenues, and administrators decided not to appeal. It was a principled move, even if Yale might now have a tough time taking on the Oaks Christian High School team. Conversely, some football powerhouses -- USC comes to mind -- have seen a decided improvement in their academic reputations even while winning national championships.

Stanford is one of the world's preeminent universities, and it may even be able to play with Oaks Christian. (USC is another matter. The score this year was 42-0, and you don't have to ask who won.) The Cardinal, whose dismal season played out in a newly renovated and often empty stadium, can't have it both ways. Stanford and schools like it are going to have to decide whether they want to be more like the Ivies or more like USC. In the meantime, it's not fair to blame the coach for failing to accomplish mission impossible.

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