Gridiron Gadflies

Two diehard Cardinal fans publish an in-your-face newsletter that tosses both brickbats and bouquets.

September/October 1997

Reading time min

Gridiron Gadflies

Glenn Matsumura

A bootleg, as football fans know, is a play in which the quarterback fakes a handoff and runs with the ball, making a wide sweep around the defense. "Bootleg" is also used to describe something illegal or unauthorized but highly desired--a surreptitious concert recording, perhaps, or Prohibition-era moonshine.

So when Lars Ahlstrom (left) and Jim Rutter were looking to name their irreverent, somewhat underground newsletter devoted to Cardinal football, it didn't take long before they hit on the Bootleg.

Billed as the "Unauthorized Authority on Cardinal Football," the Bootleg is a four-page newsletter produced weekly during football months and occasionally during the off-season. Its mission, stated in the April 1994 maiden issue: "self-proclaimed expert analysis, Sunday-morning quarterbacking and constructive criticism." A typical issue includes reviews and previews of games and write-ups of practices and press conferences. The design is basic gray--there are no photos and the pages clearly come from a desktop printer. But readers relish its in-depth coverage of Stanford football and its cheeky attitude toward the University powers-that-be.

In fact, the Bootleg is renowned for its in-your-face tone. In the first issue, Ahlstrom and Rutter went after Cardinal fans (they "suck"), Bay Area media (the San Francisco Chronicle has an "embarrassing Golden Bear bias") and, for good measure, the Stanford Band (its mascot, the Tree, is "a sorry excuse for shrubbery"). They even took a shot at canonized head coach Bill Walsh. "We were really raw," concedes publisher Ahlstrom, '82, the chief financial officer of a clothing company. He insists they have mellowed since then.

Not completely. In the spring 1997 issue, the Bootleg jabbed quarterback Chad Hutchinson, who was skipping spring practices in order to play varsity baseball: "Last we checked, he was on a friggin' football scholarship."

Mixed in with the saucy attitude is some serious reporting. Last November, the newsletter published a comparison of the SAT scores of football players at a range of schools nationwide. (With a 1,064 average, Stanford players ranked first, 120 points above the mean.)

The roots of the Bootleg can be traced to a 1993 game at the University of Arizona. Ahlstrom and Rutter had never met, but they found themselves sitting next to each other in a driving rainstorm. "We were the only ones in the whole section cheering for the team," says Rutter, '86, a venture capitalist who serves as editor. "Everybody else just said, 'Eh, we lost.' "

The pair started sharing thoughts about the team by fax. A few months later, they condensed their musings into a newsletter and distributed it to some friends. The response was enthusiastic, so they produced another issue, and another.

Ahlstrom and Rutter now publish 14 issues a year. By charging $49 per year (the e-mail version goes for $39), they say they're "breaking even" on the venture. Circulation stands at about 700.

"I like the information in it," says Edgar McDowell, '26, who, as the Bootleg's oldest subscriber, estimates he's seen more than 400 Stanford football games. "But I don't always agree with it."

Neither does the athletics department, which is a frequent target of Bootleg barbs. But Athletics Director Ted Leland shrugs off any concern. "Ninety-nine percent of it is supportive of Stanford and Stanford athletics," he says. "I hope they prosper--and I hope they'll be nice."

Leland compares the Bootleg to the Band. Often it "doesn't reflect the company line." But, he acknowledges, "That's all part of Stanford."

Ultimately, the Bootleg is simply a newsletter for serious fans, by serious fans (its e-mail address is rosebowl@the bootleg.com). Ahlstrom and Rutter invent nicknames (Coach Tyrone "the Sheriff of" Willingham), hire airplanes for stadium flyovers ("Shave Badger Butt" at a Wisconsin game) and aim to bring more enthusiasm to Cardinal football.

"We're just trying to create more fun around the games," Ahlstrom says. "We don't think there's enough fun."

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