SPORTS

Seeing the Field Through Rose-Colored Glasses

January/February 2000

Reading time min

Seeing the Field Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Photo: David Gonzales

I have to change my dog's name.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when a little red-furred poodle puppy joined our household, Dad held out for naming rights. The choice: Rose Bowl (she now answers to Rosie). The reason: Stanford hadn't played in the Rose Bowl since January 1, 1972, my freshman year on the Farm. I figured the dog was as close to Pasadena as I'd ever get.

As the seconds ticked down on the conference-winning, Rose Bowl-clinching victory over cal (lowercase "c" intentional), the joy was overwhelming. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I high-fived and launched into the air my 10-year-old son, J.P. (now 4-0 at Big Games), and hugged my classmate Chuck Wilson, '75, a former player with whom I've sat at home games for the last 20 years.

Then, with great care and ceremony, I lifted off the Stanford baseball cap I've worn to every Cardinal football game I've attended since 1974 and kissed the dirty, stitched-on white "S." The hat, now faded to a weak orange color, was purchased in what was the Gym Store (in old Encina Gym) during my junior year. Later I vowed it wouldn't be retired until it sees Pasadena on New Year's Day. Now, after witnessing Benjamin, Nelson (my all-time favorite Stanford player), Lofton, Bill Walsh (let's just remember the first stint), Margerum, Elway, The Play (Dwight Garner was down and don't try to convince me otherwise), Muster, Wyman, the Revenge of The Play, Milburn, Denny Green, Lynch, Stenstrom, Wong, the Sun Bowl, the 100th Big Game and five consecutive victories therein, the hat will get its rest.

It is hard to explain my devotion to Stanford sports and football in particular. I compare it to the way Stanford itself becomes a part of your soul, so important, so special and so much a part of who you are and who you become. To be sure, sports isn't quite that important, and I am fond of reminding my colleagues here in Oregon that I didn't go to Stanford for the football program. But as my career took me away from the Bay Area to Dallas, Pennsylvania, Sacramento, Fresno and now Portland, I never lost touch with the Cardinal (though I was for Robber Barons, myself), and every Saturday before Thanksgiving I return, if for no other reason than to sing "That Dirty Golden Bear." My best guess is the November 20 Big Game was the 25th I've attended. (My personal favorite came in 1974, at cal, when Mike Langford kicked a game-winning 50-yard field goal on the last play.)

Part of my attachment to Stanford sports stems from the classy friends I made in college, several of whom played on the woebegone hoops teams of the early '70s. Part of it is the sun side of Stanford Stadium on a beautiful fall afternoon, where Chuck and I still sit. (We made the 50-yard line last year.) A huge part of it is knowing that our alma mater does it right, that athletes at Stanford are students, that they graduate. And part of it is watching a football program that, through the years, despite our tough academic standards, has managed to compete pretty darn well with the football factories at SC, UW and ASU (this part is easier to see through my new Rose-colored glasses).

I spend hours every fall analyzing our football fortunes with Mike Simons, a classmate and former Stanford basketball player who is now a fellow resident of Portland. We moan over the team's failures and feel great relief when a "W" over Oregon State allows us to avoid grief. We suffered in Seattle, watching our defense make a legend of Huskies quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo. Indeed, seeing R. Jay Soward and a succession of sc receivers over the years run away from our defensive backs is always painful. Just enduring the '80s as a Stanford fan was an experience to tax the weak of heart. Plus, if we're so darn smart, why do we always waste so many timeouts getting the plays in from the sideline? (Oops . . . that would be nearly three decades of frustration leaking out a bit.)

Despite some of our shortcomings -- after the horrific loss to Texas to start the season, who wasn't ready to start thinking about basketball? -- this years's team does have talent. Troy Walters, Willie Howard (who dubbed his fellow defensive linemen the Trench Dogs), Riall Johnson and many others are big-time players. The offensive scheme and execution were a juggernaut all season. As I said to J.P. while we watched just about every conference game on TV or tape: "Hey, if we score 50 we should be okay." As for Todd Husak, he should be remembered as one of the smartest QBs to play in the cardinal and white. He won't make you forget John Elway or Jim Plunkett and, heck, Chad Hutchinson was a much better athlete, but the stats speak for themselves. He's one of only three Stanford quarterbacks to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season (Elway and Steve Stenstrom are the other two), and he holds the Stanford record for single-game passing (450 yards against, oh yes, Oregon State). Didn't you just know he'd lead the team down the field for the winning score after Notre Dame tied it up in the last game of the season?

Ironically, I didn't attend our last Rose Bowl, the stirring 13-12 victory over Michigan. I watched in my parents' family room in Pullman, Wash. My two Rose Bowl tickets were sold (scalped might be a more accurate term) to a travel agency in (heh-heh) Berkeley. The proceeds more than paid for my trip home for Christmas and back after my first quarter at Stanford. It made good sense at the time. The place ain't cheap; chipping in some funds was the least I could do -- and, hey, we'd made the Rose Bowl two years in a row, so the next one wouldn't be far down the road, right?

Well, it ended up taking 28 years -- and a most unlikely team -- but we're finally back.

I think it's great that Stanford owns the Sears Cup every year. But frankly, winning that crystal goblet every summer since 1891 wouldn't equal one Rose Bowl. A trip to Pasadena is a symbol of achievement in the most difficult of team sports, particularly for a school that won't admit a kid just because he runs a 4.4 40-yard dash.

For that reason, it was a moment of sheer exhilaration to encounter Coach Willingham at the top of the ramp after the Big Game win this year. My son wanted to see the players. When he spotted the coach, he asked for an autograph. I had met the ever-serious Willingham once before in a hotel elevator at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. I remember how nice he was to my daughter that day and his willingness to engage a semi-crazed Stanford fan (me, not her) in a brief conversation about football. This team and its remarkable character and heart are a reflection of Willingham, who more than deserved the honor he received in November as Pac-10 coach of the year.

"Coach," I croaked, "I just can't tell you what this day means to me."

Willingham looked up, smiled (he really did!) and said, "I can't tell you what it means to us."

Fair enough, the coaches and the kids accomplished this. But for so many of us in the stands, it's a season we won't forget.

Oh, the dog's new name. There were votes for Mad Dog, after Mark Madsen, of course. Thunderchicken, for the last Rose Bowl team. Weenie, as in cal, was briefly considered but rejected for the difficulty of explanation. Plus my wife has a sense of decorum sometimes lacking in her husband.

Ultimately, the answer was obvious, in tribute to this year's team:

Trench Dog.


-- Peter Bhatia, '75

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.