Stanford like no place else

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- More so than perhaps any other spot in America, the campus at Stanford fosters an environment in which you never know whom you'll encounter.

Just this week, in fact, David Shaw, the school's first-year football coach, spoke with a doctor he'd met recently. Shaw knew the doctor followed football, so in the days before the unbeaten and third-ranked Cardinal host No. 6 Oregon (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ABC), they talked football. But only briefly.

The doctor, according to Shaw, is working with a group to make progress toward a cure for cancer.

"Stanford-Oregon is not high on his list this week," Shaw said.

The Stanford campus, even for Shaw, the bright, 39-year-old former NFL assistant coach and former offensive coordinator here under Jim Harbaugh, offers a constant dose of perspective. It can be a humbling place.

No signs or posters appeared on campus this week to encourage the Stanford football team. The Farm, as they call it, remains abuzz with talk of academic pursuits and social gatherings unrelated to the big game. Andrew Luck, the nation's most high profile college athlete, walks among his peers with little or no fanfare.

There's talk that the crowd Saturday for ESPN's "College GameDay" might actually set a record low for attendance, what with the early morning start and apathetic nature toward football of the Stanford students.

Yes, Stanford is simply different, and football success isn't about to change it.

"I can honestly say that unless you're out here in that Stanford bubble, you won't understand," said senior co-captain and safety Michael Thomas. "We understand. That's just the culture around Stanford. It's not that people don't care; there's just a whole bunch of other things going on."

With its unique culture, the blueprint to build a successful program at Stanford also resembles that of few others. Despite the presence of Luck, Stanford relies on an unorthodox system.

Defenders, many converted from offense, play a punishing style. Offensively, it's much the same, with an abundance of tight ends and H-backs and fullbacks. Stanford has four fullbacks on scholarship.

"What it takes to be academically successful here, socially successful and successful as a football player," Shaw said, "there's not a lot of people who fit all three categories."

Lately, though, there are more. The Cardinal's success over the past three years, in addition to the exposure afforded third-year starting QB Luck and former running back Toby Gerhart (the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up), has allowed Stanford to clear new hurdles in recruiting.

"I don't think Stanford ever struggled to find good players," Luck said, "but maybe now it's up on a guy's radar earlier."

Stanford's 2012 class has 14 commitments and sits at No. 24 in the class rankings. It includes two players in the ESPNU 150: No. 17 Noor Davis, the nation's top outside linebacker, who is from Leesburg (Fla.) High School; and Ashburn (Va.) Briar Woods athlete Alex Carter, who is No. 113 in the rankings.

Stanford signed the 21st-rated class a year ago, featuring linebacker James Vaughters, who has contributed immediately out of Tucker, Ga., and safety Wayne Lyons of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a contender for playing time before he opted to redshirt.

In 2010, Harbaugh's class ranked 18th. But before that, Luck said, it required a "leap of faith" on his part and from others to attend Stanford. He knew he'd enjoy his time in Palo Alto and leave well prepared for life, Luck said, but football glory was hardly a guarantee.

"You had to trust you could go to a school and win where they didn't traditionally win," the junior quarterback said.

Stanford endured seven straight losing seasons before it won eight games in 2009. Last season, the Cardinal finished 12-1 in a breakthrough for Harbaugh, now coaching the San Francisco 49ers.

Shaw's 9-0 start has ensured only the second instance of consecutive nine-win seasons in 120 years of Stanford football. Before last season, Stanford had posted only two nine-win seasons since 1978.

So what does it mean for recruiting?

"With the presence of Andrew and the exposure this program is getting," Stanford recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said, "we can beat the SEC on kids in the Southeast. The old recruiting bash on us was, 'Well, you'll get a great education, but nobody cares about football and you'll go .500.'

"But that's not the case anymore, so what are people going to say about us?"

Maybe they'll say that Luck is a once-in-a-generation talent and that when he leaves, presumably as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft after this season, the Cardinal will return to mediocrity or worse.

"He is once in a generation," said Polian, the son of Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian. "But look, we didn't win the lottery to get him. We recruited Andrew Luck. Jim Harbaugh and his staff get credit for that. We'll always be able to recruit good quarterbacks here.

"We've got this thing going. And frankly, we play a style of football that I wouldn't exactly call quarterback-driven."

According to Polian, smart players drive the Cardinal system. Stanford asks its players to digest more information than at other schools and to sell out for the team.

"The key to succeeding here is understanding who you are and what your strengths are," Polian said.

There's a toughness about the Cardinal that allows them to stand out in the Pac-12. And it's by design.

Such an attitude embodies the Stanford man, Shaw said.

Take senior fullback Ryan Hewitt. He played six positions last week in Stanford's win at Oregon State. Shaw said Hewitt "saved our bacon."

"You've absolutely got to have football intelligence to fit in our offense," Hewitt said.

So even with a larger pool of potential recruits, Stanford won't deviate from its plan to find the right fit for its system. With stringent academic restrictions in place that limit its options to about 25 percent of the players available to most competitors, Polian said, the Cardinal can't afford many misses in recruiting.

Polian coached five years at Notre Dame before joining the Stanford staff last year. The entrance requirements at his former school fall well short of the standard to gain entrance at Stanford.

So to suggest that Stanford -- with its surging program, new energy in recruiting and a national brand -- strives to become a modern-day, Notre Dame-like powerhouse is a misnomer, Polian said.

Like the Irish, though, Stanford recruits coast to coast. It has no choice, really, because even the nation's most populous state, California, can't provide enough Stanford-equipped talent to fill a roster.

The starting defense includes only two Californians.

"We're all brothers," said cornerback Terrence Brown of Torrance, Calif. "It doesn't matter where you're from."

Every Pac-12 team but Washington State counts a pledge from a Californian rated higher than wide receiver Kodi Whitfield (Los Angeles/Loyola), the only in-state player committed to Stanford for 2012.

"You know what we are?" Polian said. "We're Harvard that can win the Orange Bowl. Getting in here is like getting in an Ivy, except we play USC."

And then there's Oregon, the new bully on the Pac-12 block. A good performance Saturday night before a national audience would continue to help the Cardinal's cause.

"Great exposure for Stanford," junior running back Stepfan Taylor said.

Taylor, from Mansfield, Texas, said his buddies back home didn't talk much about Stanford when he signed in 2009.

"They're changing their attitude now," he said.

Slowly, maybe Stanford fans are also coming around. Luck said he noticed a sizeable group that traveled to USC two weeks ago. He's even heard a few words of congratulations on campus after victories.

"It's fun to be part of a culture change," Luck said.

Mainly, though, no one here wants Stanford to change. Sure, the players and coaches embrace better talent -- but only if it fits the Stanford profile.

As for the doctor who's working to cure cancer, he'll be at the game Saturday night, Shaw said.

After all, success in multiple disciplines is commonplace around campus.

"Stanford is full of people who love to see greatness," Shaw said. "It's a place of many excellences."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com.

Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman