Stanford Coach David Shaw talks with quarterback Andrew Luck during the… (Wily Low / Associated Press )
It was only four years ago, though it seems like another lifetime.
Fourteenth-ranked UCLA stormed into Palo Alto for the 2007 conference opener and crushed Stanford, 45-17. The Cardinal's new coach, Jim Harbaugh, called his debut "very disappointing."
Back then, fans wondered whether the Stanford football program would ever dig itself out. Five consecutive losing seasons — with one victory the previous fall — had raised familiar doubts.
The academic standards were too high, people said. The available talent pool was too small. Harbaugh did not sound entirely convincing when he insisted: "We have a football team here now."
But he was right.
Today, the No. 6 Cardinal is on a roll, ranked in the top 25 for 19 consecutive weeks dating to last year. Quarterback Andrew Luck is a Heisman Trophy front-runner, and the team around him has earned a reputation as downright bruising.
With UCLA returning to Stanford Stadium on Saturday as a heavy underdog, Coach Rick Neuheisel said: "It's been interesting to watch them become the juggernaut that they are."
Which raises the question: How did they do it?
Best and brightest
Everything in college football starts with recruiting.
Stanford administrators have estimated that only 400 of the 3,500 high school prospects who sign letters of intent each year meet their admissions standards. A year into the job, Harbaugh doubted that number.
"We're probably looking at a pool of 100 to 150 scholar-athletes," he said at the time. "It's a small pool. Smaller than anybody else has."
Consider that Stanford consistently ranks near the top of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rates and nearly half of the upperclassmen on the current roster are enrolled in engineering majors.
Still, a handful of coaches — Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Ty Willingham — have found a way to build winners at the school.
The Cardinal must cast a wide net, recruiting nationally, with a slightly different strategy. Rod Gilmore, who played receiver at Stanford and now follows his alma mater as an ESPN commentator, calls it the "personal approach."
"You can't just let the assistant coaches go in there; it has to be the head coach," he said. The family must be a target "because not many parents can say 'no' to Stanford."
Harbaugh followed this blueprint. "Jim did a great job of finding the right guys," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said.
It helped that he inherited Toby Gerhart, who finished second in the 2009 Heisman voting, but improvement was not immediate. The Cardinal was 9-15 in Harbaugh's first two seasons.
From the start, the coach sought to create a new culture in the program, demanding that his team be physical and relentless.
"It wasn't just Saturdays," Luck recalled. "It was rotten practices and the workouts."
The Cardinal grew tougher along the offensive and defensive lines, emphasizing a run-first attack. Also, as California Coach Jeff Tedford says, "Andrew Luck doesn't hurt things either."
Luck was undervalued coming out of high school in Texas, part of the same recruiting class as former Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor.
The staff, including current head coach David Shaw, who was promoted from offensive coordinator when Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers — deserves credit for developing Luck and other players once they arrived in Palo Alto.
But Gilmore believes that, in addition to recruiting and coaching, the Stanford formula also requires realistic thinking.
"You can't just identify superstars and plug them in and turn them loose," he said. "You have to understand what you get at Stanford and how you make it work."
A limited talent pool often translates into limited depth. With fewer players to rotate through the lineup, the best Stanford teams over the last three decades have focused on ball control to keep their defense off the field.
Walsh employed the West Coast offense, which emphasized short passes. Harbaugh chose another path to the same goal, one that remains in place with Shaw at the helm. The Cardinal has maintained a solid ground game to help Luck rank among the nation's most efficient passers.
"We want to run the ball first," the quarterback said. "It was that way with Coach Harbaugh, and we still want to run the ball."
Search for consistency
Stanford fans have seen the pattern before.
After their team won consecutive Rose Bowls in the early 1970s, they endured a string of mediocre seasons. Same thing happened after Walsh led them to consecutive bowl games in the late '70s and, like Harbaugh, left for the 49ers. Even John Elway never led Stanford to a bowl game.
Willingham's success was followed by those five losing seasons that led to Harbaugh's arrival. Good times never seem to last for the Cardinal.
Gilmore points to the small pool of recruits, the limited depth.
"You don't have as much margin for error," he said. "If you make two or three mistakes in a recruiting class and you have a guy or two get hurt, now you have a major problem."
Which leads to a second question: Can a school such as Stanford maintain a winning program?
Heading into Saturday night's game against UCLA, the prospects look bright. The Cardinal has won 11 consecutive games dating to last season, the program's longest streak in 70 years. And for all the focus on Luck, the defense is playing well enough to rank first nationally against the run.
But Shaw seems to understand the challenge before him. He referred to it last winter when he took over.
"To be as academically oriented as we are, to have the academic standards that we have and to be a football powerhouse — that's something that people haven't really seen," he said. "And we're not there yet. Two years of good football is not enough."
Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.