Should Stanford be a Football School?

Jim Harbaugh has led the Stanford team to greatness. What does it mean for Stanford if he stays?
Stanford is currently [ranked fourth in the nation]( in the Bowl Championship Series and seems likely to end up at the [Orange Bowl]( or [Fiesta Bowl]( this January (we’ll know tonight!). It went 11-1 this year, up from 8-4 last year, 5-7 in 2008, and a woeful 1-11 in 2006. There’s no doubt that the arrival of new head coach Jim Harbaugh for the 2007 season had a major (positive) impact on the Stanford program. Given this fact, and the fact that Harbaugh’s contract does not forbid him from leaving to coach elsewhere, it’s not surprising that [a petition has appeared]( calling on the Stanford administration to:
**We****, the undersigned, as lifelong supporters of Stanford’s greatness on the**** playing field and in the classroom**, hereby offer this petition to the greater Stanford family and community including John Hennessy  (President of Stanford University),  Bob Bowlsby (Athletic Director), the Stanford Board of Trustees, Mr. John Arrillaga (lifelong Stanford leader and donor), leaders of the Stanford Athletic Board and to all Stanford football fans, friends and family; in recognition of Coach Jim Harbaugh’s achievements and commitment to the Stanford ideals of the scholar-athlete; that Stanford University will continue financial support to the continuing pursuit of excellence in D1 football.
**That Stanford University will pledge a new, extended contract to Coach Harbaugh** and the football program for maintaining the highest level of coaching that our world-class scholar athletes have come to expect.
**It is vitally important that the Stanford community recognizes the hard work of all ****Stanford athletes and their coaches. **We take great pride in the successes of the Stanford athlete on and off the field.  Coach Harbaugh has created and developed an elite football program that not even the late, great Bill Walsh thought possible.
**Coach Harbaugh’s successes on and off the field are of benefit to not only the athletes and students but to the greater mission of Stanford University to provide world-class opportunities in everything it pursues.** Stanford’s name and the pride it brings to students, faculty, alumni, families and friends have never been better as evidenced by the continued coverage of our football athletes on and off the field. From their leadership skills to their scholarship, the Stanford scholar-athlete that plays elite football is a reality.    We believe Coach Harbaugh has been an outstanding public figure and embodies the Stanford spirit and its pursuit of excellence.
***We hereby petition that Stanford University does not hesitate nor delay to ******extend a new five year contract to Coach Harbaugh no later than January 1, 2011.***
This petition has already [attracted 1769 signatures](, a mix of proud alumni and current students. What should we take away from this?
At the risk of speaking heresy, what I take away from this is not immediately that Stanford should triple Harbaugh’s salary, but rather that Stanford should think about what it means to become a football powerhouse. A few nights ago, I participated in a heated dinner table debate a few nights ago at the house. The topic was this: would Stanford benefit from paying Harbaugh the additional few million it would take to keep him at the school?
There were basically two sides to the debate:
Stanford should be awesome at everything it does, including football. vs. Stanford should not prioritize sports over other pursuits such as academics or the arts.
The first argument is easy to understand. I’ve been more excited about Stanford football this year than at any point since I came to the school. If Stanford has a yearly budget of [over $3.7 billion](, can’t it find $3 million to augment Harbaugh’s salary?
The [common response]( to this argument is that spending $3 million on a football coach means spending less on other, equally valuable, activities. Unfortunately for this counterargument, it seems likely that a high quality football team would ultimately pay for the pay raise through ticket sales and TV revenues (in spite of [some evidence to the contrary]( If that weren’t enough, is it hard to believe that alumni couldn’t be found to endow the “Jim Harbaugh Chair of Football Excellence,” thereby avoiding straining the general revenues?
The uncommon response, touched on in the piece linked above (which largely focuses on a “But why doesn’t society value X at the same level as football?” argument, which may be valid, but doesn’t deal as well with the current economics of the situation), but not fully articulated, is a question of Stanford’s ethos. Stanford is, first and foremost, an academic institution. How would having a perennially great football team change that ethos? Does Stanford want to be a school where 50 percent of the school tailgates every game? Does Stanford want to be a school where not going to the game becomes something needing a “good explanation?” Would that happen, even if Stanford was a football powerhouse? I don’t know, but I was disturbed by a quote from [a recent ESPN article]( saying:
“We’ll contact the dean of student affairs and have him drum it into every freshman’s head that Saturdays in the fall are football days,” N yelled. “Require all RAs to attend every game and offer a prize to the dorm that boasts the highest attendance per game and over the course of the year. Create a football culture from the top down!”
Do we want a “football culture?” Money may not be a binding constraint, but there are still only 24 hours in a day. There are already abundant social pressures on Stanford’s campus, no doubt, but by-and-large they seem to favor activities that I think most Stanford students already value: studying, doing lots of extracurriculars, going to the gym, etc. Does adding a social pressure to go watch football make sense?
All of this is a bit premature, of course. Would retaining Harbaugh leads us to years of sterling performances? I don’t know. Would Harbaugh’s departure doom us to ignominy again? Possibly, but we did attract Harbaugh on a [bargain-basement salary]('s-cash) of only $700,000. However, it’s a conversation worth having before we rush on in our pursuit of excellence. Stanford is already a phenomenal place. Having a football team that deserves the Rose Bowl is an awesome bonus. Does that mean that we should aim to create a culture that places additional value on football greatness? Possibly. I have a friend who told me that he would not have attended Stanford without its excellent D1 sports program – it’s important to him to have people for whom to cheer. But the resources that we commit to developing that legacy are not insignificant. Whether it is more time spent on recruiting, pressures to push the admissions office just a bit too hard to get that killer recruit, or just the fact that even a resurgent football team will have some down years, prompting unpleasant publicity about coach salaries, there are reasons not to go ahead with buying Harbaugh for life.
I’ve enjoyed watching a great team take the field this season and Harbaugh has much to do with that. If the administration did decide that it needed to pay him more to keep him, I wouldn’t protest. But I hope that when they do make their decision, they’ll consider what it means to Stanford as an institution. It’s worth the debate.

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