Stanford University Needs a New Football Coach : Why not Larry Kehres?

Stanford University is marked by a unique once-only-in-America culture of academic plus athletic excellence.

But this spirit of excellence, which has spawned the likes of John Elway, Jim Plunkett, James Lofton and John Lynch, today has one major flaw – and that is the Stanford football program.

As a Stanford Law School alumnus, we follow the fate of Stanford University football with more than academic interest.

To our distant view, something is seriously wrong in the Stanford University football program this 2006 season. It is not just the bleak 0-8 record which Stanford has compiled thus far this year, but the fact that the team was nowhere in contention in 7 of these 8 games in a disastrous performance showing a football program headed straight for the rocks.

Indeed, given the schedule that Stanford has yet to face this year, as opined by Daniel Novinson at the Stanford Daily: “Stanford football may be on the road to its first winless season since 1960 — a prospect that grows increasingly likely by the week.”

What has happened to Stanford football fortunes?

New athletic director Bob Bowlsby (formerly at Iowa) has most certainly not won our confidence by declining to speak to the press about this matter for the article, “It won’t be an easy fix for Stanford football“, by Michelle Smith, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer.

Alex Gyr at The Stanford Daily in his “Sports brief: Football coaches make mass exodus” reported that when the current head coach Walt Harris came to Stanford in December of 2004, there was “a complete overhaul of the Stanford football coaching staff” as “seven new assistant coaches” were brought in.

But these changes only led to a 5-6 losing season in 2005, and, what is more significant to this observer, led to many assistant coaches then LEAVING the Stanford football team after that season for greener pastures, so that five new assistant coaches again had to be hired prior to this season. That is quite a game of musical chairs and points to some kind of a problem at the grass roots.

We attended Stanford as a student – there are NO greener pastures than Stanford. If people leave Stanford in masses, something is amiss. What is causing this mass exodus from the coaching staff?

Harris is known as a “disciplinarian”. Is an authoritarian style proving to be the wrong solution for players and assistant coaches recruited to a school at the top of the nation academically and athletically? Is a particular style of football being autocratically imposed on players (and coaches) who are not suited for it and who were not recruited for it? Are the many injuries we are seeing in part being caused by unnecessary overwork of the players in practice (contrary e.g. to the sensible and successful systems of Larry Kehres of Mount Union and John Gagliardi of St. John’s, who limit physical contact in practices to reduce the risk of injuries).

As reported by Rick Eymer of the Palo Alto Weekly in his February 04, 2005 article “Stanford football recruiting focuses effort on defense, when Harris initially came to Stanford, he concentrated his recruiting on defense, recruiting only THREE offensive players that year and this may in part explain why the team today has virtually no offense at all.

Of course, there are other serious problems at Stanford as well, as identified by Michelle Smith at the San Francisco Chronicle:

Greg Biggins, high school recruiting analyst for Superprep Magazine … said he’s seen a drop-off in the quality of Stanford’s recruiting classes in recent years … I don’t know that it has anything to do with raising (academic) standards….

Biggins said Stanford is still the only major-conference program in the country, to his knowledge, that requires potential student-athletes to apply and gain acceptance to the university before an athletic scholarship offer is extended. And only Notre Dame’s academic standards approach Stanford’s, Biggins said.

Stanford’s recruiting restrictions have been compounded by coaching turnover, not only at the head coaching spot — Harris took over for Buddy Teevens in December 2004 to become the Cardinal’s third head coach in four years — but among the assistant coaches. In this offseason alone, Harris hired five assistants to his staff.”

The major problem to this observer appears to be Harris’s authoritarian approach, with which he is simply at the wrong university. As reported by Alex Gyr of the Stanford Daily in his May 2, 2005 article, It’s a new day for football under Walt Harris:

Throughout the Stanford football program, Harris’ influence is recognizable. The Cardinal brought in seven new assistant coaches, most of them on offense, as well as a different offensive system and a whole new attitude.

“I think the biggest challenge with the new staff and the players that we have is to get our style across to them and get them to execute it,” Harris said. “I think our players are excited about something different. I think our players are excited to try to get better, but I think how they go about doing it is more of a struggle. I think we’re not there yet in reaching them, I’m sure we reached some of them but we need to reach all of them.”

Not surprisingly, bringing change certainly hasn’t been easy. Through 15 days of spring practice, Harris has struggled to get his new message across to many of the players.

“What we teach is pretty basic,” Harris said. “But sometimes it takes time for players to decide to change old habits and sometimes old habits are hard to change.

Harris’ disciplinarian style and offensive acumen have not yielded a quick turnaround for the Cardinal….

… the discontent has begun. Harris is being criticized on Internet message boards and even in the broadcast booth, where Walsh and Jim Plunkett, who won the Heisman Trophy when he quarterbacked Stanford, questioned some of the coach’s decisions Saturday night against Navy.

Here is our view as a Stanford alumnus. We think that Harris has absolutely no future as the head football coach at Stanford, where an “authoritarian” system will simply not be accepted, nor is it in the spirit of “The Farm”. Quite the contrary, rather than forcing a particular style of football down the players’ throats, as Harris has apparently and unsuccessfully done, what Stanford needs is a coach like Larry Kehres of Mount Union, who describes the road to success – CORRECTLY – as follows:

Some years you don’t have the kind of players you need to say, run the option,” he said. ‘As a coach, you can’t just do what you want to do. You have to match it to the ebb and flow of the kind of players you have.’

Harris on the contrary, as we have cited above, has his own system, regardless of the players he has at his disposal, and it may thus be no wonder that the team is demotivated and decimated with injuries, being forced to play a system of football to which they are not suited and which they do not want to play.

It is time for Stanford to acknowledge that it has hired the wrong coach for Stanford.

Stanford should hire a coach with a proven and unprecedented “culture of excellence” such as Larry Kehres of Mount Union. Such a coach, the BEST in the business, would fit Stanford as the nation’s top academic+athletic university.

Jack Ewing, president of Mount Union College, is quoted by Milan Simionich at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying about Larry Kehres and the football team:

“This is a culture of excellence that I have never seen before.”

That looks like a perfect fit for Stanford. And if Kehres were unwilling to move from Mount Union, perhaps one could hire one of his proteges, so that this “culture of excellence” finds its way to the new Stanford football stadium and to the young men playing in it.

Harris refers above to the fact that some of these young men at Stanford are not understanding what he is “teaching” and that it is “a struggle”. Larry Kehres tells us, however:

I always try to get the assistant coaches who work with me to understand that if there’s no learning by the kids, there’s no teaching,” said the 56-year-old Kehres, whose 29-year-old son Vince is one of the assistant coaches. “I’ve tried hard to get the coaches to accept that as the only measure of performance, and there are just no excuses accepted. If there’s no learning, there’s no teaching…..

Harris – erroneously – puts the onus on the players.

Kehres puts the onus – properly – on the coaches.

Update – View these posts by others about Stanford football

at the Sporting News
Tagaitan’s SportingBlog
Staying the course
Edwards done as QB
The return of the Magic 8-ball!
You know what they say about when it rains

at the Stanford Daily
All wrong now: the voice of a frusturated football fan
October 16, 2006, by Daniel Novinson
A letter from a football fan is posted and it really lets the coaching staff have it – and frankly – they deserve what they are getting. Among other things, it is pointed out that Stanford head coach Harris is after 1 1/2 years of no success still playing a 3-4 pro NFL defense with players who are collegians. That same fan writes:
But ultimately, any amount of talent is constrained by the coaching staff’s gameplan. And that’s why the lion’s share of the blame lays at the feet of the men with the clipboards….
Am I the only one struck by the irony as our coaches lead an unprepared team to battle in a beautiful new stadium?

at the Mercury News
Kawakami: Timing was wrong for Trent Edwards