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The Cardinal Number Is Up

Stanford struggles through a surprising 0-4 start that it attributes to admissions standards and lack of depth

September 30, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Gene Washington is a former NFL star and a Southern California native who attended Long Beach Poly High, watched a cousin play football at USC and has a daughter who's a sophomore at UCLA.

But when it comes to his rooting interests, Washington's heart is with Stanford, where he played wide receiver in the late 1960s.

And, in football, he hasn't had much to root for lately.

"Most of us understand the issues Stanford is dealing with playing in the Pac-10," said Washington, an all-conference performer in 1967 and 1968. "Some years, we are going to be strong and competitive. Then there are going to be other years when we are not as competitive."

However, it's been a long time since Stanford has been this non-competitive.

The winless Cardinal limps into the Rose Bowl tonight to face UCLA having already suffered lopsided losses to Oregon, Navy and Washington State, plus a one-point loss to lightly regarded San Jose State, which overcame a 34-14 second-quarter deficit.

"It's disappointing," Washington said about Stanford, which last started a season 0-4 in 1987. "People want to come out to see a winner.... Hopefully, things will get better and we'll be able to rebound later in the season."

Although Stanford was not expected to challenge for the Pacific 10 Conference title this season, most experts thought the Cardinal would at least be competitive.

Under second-year Coach Walt Harris, Stanford returned three-year starting quarterback Trent Edwards and 15 other starters from a team that was 5-6 overall and 4-4 in conference.

Expected to further boost the Cardinal was the unveiling of a renovated Stanford Stadium -- with $90-million in improvements -- featuring state-of-the-art amenities throughout what was reduced to a 50,000-seat stadium.

But even at that size, the Stanford football fortunes are creating echoes. For its 36-10 loss a week ago at home to Washington State, the announced crowd was 37,498, but there were estimates that about 15,000 were in attendance.

The Cardinal's football struggles stand out especially because of the success enjoyed by Stanford's other athletic programs. Overall, the school has one of the winningest athletic programs in the nation despite the challenge of some of the toughest academic entrance requirements.

"No one is going to feel sorry for us and we certainly don't feel sorry for ourselves," said Harris, a Bay Area native who was hired away from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was 52-44 in eight seasons. "We just have to get better and we have to have it happen quick."

Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, who was hired in April, refused to comment on the football program because of his philosophy not to talk about sports in season. But former Cardinal running back Darrin Nelson, senior associate director in charge of program services at Stanford, said that the football team's record is deceiving.

"One of our main problems is that we're not as deep as other teams," said Nelson, Stanford's career leader in touchdowns, rushing yardage and all-purpose yards. "If we had all of our players, we would not be having this conversation."

It's true that Stanford has been struck by more than its fair share of injuries. Fullback Nick Frank, center Tim Mattran, guard Josiah Vinson, tight end Matt Traverso, wide receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, linebackers Mike Silva and Michael Okwo and cornerbacks Nick Sanchez and Brandon Harrison aren't available for tonight's game because of injuries.

"We've been to the Rose Bowl within the last six years," Nelson said. "It's just that, because of admissions standards, we have the potential to drop faster than other schools as far as talent is concerned. Two average recruiting classes and all of the sudden you don't have the athletes to compete."

Stanford, which has not had a winning season in football since 2001, has tougher academic requirements than most Division I-A football programs and rarely is able to accept junior college transfers. But Washington says that's not an excuse for not fielding a competitive team.

"Clearly, and most people would agree, Stanford rarely has the numbers that other programs have," said Washington, who is the NFL's Director of Operations. "But there have been times when Denny Green and Bill Walsh coached here that we had strong teams. We've beaten Notre Dame at Notre Dame before."

Harris said it's going to take time before Stanford can return to that level, but his plan is to get there soon by taking lumps now with young players who will improve.

"We've had to play a lot of players who haven't played much," said Harris, who has 14 freshmen and sophomores either starting or playing key backup roles. "This is Pac-10 football, and if you look at [UCLA], they have guys who started last year on defense who are not starting this year and they are being replaced by two-year lettermen....

"We have guys who have never played before at the Pac-10 level. That makes it challenging, but that's the way it's going to be for a while."

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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