Two months ago, Stanford football, mired in a losing streak, faced a bevy of gravely legitimate questions. The Cardinal were stuck in a 5-5 rut, a product of offensive ineptitude that frustrated the fan base and emptied sizable chunks of the stadium. The gas tank that Jim Harbaugh had left full when he departed to the San Francisco 49ers back in 2011? It seemed to be running on empty. Stanford was functioning solely on the fumes of its exhausted defense, and the clock seemed to be ticking even on that reliable unit.
Then came five consecutive victories that have completely reversed the narrative surrounding the Stanford program. The first three of those wins came in resounding fashion on the field, while the most recent two have arrived in dramatic fashion off of it.
The opponents the Cardinal have defeated during their recent stabilization of what had been a very unsteady situation: Cal, UCLA, Maryland, and Jim Harbaugh (twice).
Yes, you read that right. In order to right the ship, Stanford has had to defeat the same Jim Harbaugh who initially left them the keys to glory four years ago. Sometimes, the wacky world of football gives us full circle stories that simply couldn't have been scripted in a more fascinating fashion.
Chalk this latest one up as a massive victory for current Stanford coach David Shaw.
Even after the Cardinal's offensive resuscitation earned that desperately-needed trio of victories to close the season, the Stanford program was still under siege. Multiple reports indicated Harbaugh wanted to poach defensive/recruiting coordinator Lance Anderson and sports performance director Shannon Turley, widely regarded as the two most important members of the Cardinal's staff, to his new job at Michigan.
Stanford, coming off its first five-loss season in half a decade, seemed like potentially vulnerable prey. Harbaugh, possibly confident this was the case, reportedly told at least one Michigan recruit he was persuading a number of Cardinal assistants to join him in Ann Arbor.
This was a serious threat to Stanford, and it's not hard to understand why.
As a liaison between the Stanford football program and the university's famously strict admissions office, Anderson had become a master of the recruiting game and an excellent defensive coordinator to boot -- the Cardinal finished second nationally in scoring defense despite losing a truckload of defensive star power before the season (see Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds, and Josh Mauro). Meanwhile, Turley's innovative approach had garnered national attention after it had created a physically dominant roster and cut Stanford injury rates by a staggering 87 percent since his arrival in 2007.
Colleagues dub Turley the "scientist" and the "technician," and Stanford uses his track record of keeping players healthy while developing them into NFL prospects as potent fuel on the recruiting trail. The likes of Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman, two of the biggest stars in the professional game today, return to train with Turley at Stanford in the offseason. It'd be hard -- if not impossible -- to quantify the monetary value of that fact when it's presented in a high school player's living room.
In short, Anderson and Turley were two assistants Shaw could ill afford to lose. And he had to beat Harbaugh -- the coach who had initially employed these coaches at the University of San Diego before bringing them to Stanford -- to keep their services.
In a precarious time for the Cardinal program, Shaw came through with two of his biggest victories as coach.
It's likely that Shaw's allure as a popular leader to work under -- one willing to step up to the plate for his assistants in negotiations -- was instrumental in winning these battles. Sure, Stanford's inconsistent offensive play has led to some fan and media criticism of the Cardinal's head man, but he has earned steady appreciation from inside the program for his guidance as its chief. This respect proved vital this past weekend, and Shaw kept an essential part of his brain trust intact.
Of course, Stanford is not out of the woods yet. A majority of the defense's starters will graduate this offseason. The team is waiting for the future plans of left tackle Andrus Peat and quarterback Kevin Hogan. Even if both of those players return to the program in 2015, the Cardinal will have much to prove after their ultimately disappointing 8-5 campaign, and they'll have to rely on several currently inexperienced players in the next foray.
But this past weekend's off-field victories were as necessary as they were symbolic for Shaw's program: They maintained momentum following the team's promising finish to the 2014 season, and they retained two critical drivers for the daunting reloading effort that now faces the Cardinal. Most importantly, they solidified belief that Shaw can carry the success that ended this recent season into 2015. Positive forward energy is now a valuable Stanford ally, and it shouldn't be underestimated.