‘The Spirit of Stanford’
- by David Kiefer Stanford Athletics Communications
Frankie Albert was no Gary Cooper. But then again, Cooper was no Albert.
In celebration of Stanford’s 100th NCAA championship, a reference to Albert may help illustrate why the achievement is so significant.
Albert played the starring role on Stanford’s “Wow Boys,” the 1940 team that went 10-0 and revolutionized football with its version of the “T” formation, creating the modern position of quarterback.
In show business parlance of the day, a star was born.
Albert’s fame had grown so great that Hollywood signed him as the leading man in a motion picture about himself. The film, “The Spirit of Stanford”, took much dramatic license and featured a plotline of: Football player gets girl, player loses girl, player gets girl back, all with a Stanford “S” monogrammed on his sweater.
However, “The Spirit of Stanford” was apparently the 1942 equivalent of “straight to video.” No Oscar nomination for Albert, though his contemporary, Cooper, got one for “The Pride of the Yankees.” But, then again, Cooper never had to throw a forward pass.
Albert never appeared in another film, but had fine reasons to leave Hollywood behind, namely becoming the greatest left-handed quarterback of his day with the San Francisco 49ers and, later, the team’s head coach.
But the connection to Stanford’s championship milestone is this: Deep in the mind of a Hollywood producer came the inspiration for a title that embodies the success and steadfastness – the “spirit” — that makes Stanford so special.
One hundred NCAA championships prove that the producer was on to something. Indeed, given the nature of Stanford’s focus both on academics and athletics, at no other institution is the “spirit” so driven.
Whether achieved or not, the championship quest reveals the character of those whose influence doesn’t end at the finishing tape, final buzzer or 18th hole.
Consider Jennifer Azzi.
The guard from Oak Ridge, Tenn., led Stanford to NCAA women’s basketball titles in 1990 and 1992 in such charismatic fashion that Maples Pavilion was empty when she arrived and packed when she left. Azzi not only helped popularize the game locally, but nationally, and later embarked on a career in public speaking, specializing in teaching leadership skills, before taking over as coach at the University of San Francisco.
Consider Jacob Vandermeer.
A sophomore on the Cardinal’s championship men’s volleyball team in 2010 (NCAA title No. 98), Vandermeer helped develop a potential cure for Legg-Calve-Perses, a crippling hip disease that affects about 1,200 children a year. Just 20 years old, he was one of the few undergraduates ever to address the Orthopedic Research Society.
Consider Josh Nesbit.
In the summers between soccer seasons as a Stanford goalkeeper, Nesbit, ’09, traveled to the impoverished African nation of Malawi to create a rural communications health network using donated mobile phones, and trained volunteers to maintain the system, saving countless lives.
Consider Cory Booker.
A Stanford football player and Rhodes Scholar, Booker, ’91, has dramatically reduced violent crime and corruption in Newark, N.J., once one of the most dangerous cities in America, since becoming mayor in 2006.
Before intercollegiate sports were established for women, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, ’44, was a pioneer as a competitor in swimming, tennis, and track and field while at Stanford. Kennedy created the Special Olympics and became one of the greatest advocates for those with mental disabilities.
The world’s greatest athlete, Bob Mathias, ’53, played in the 1952 Rose Bowl and won his second Olympic decathlon gold medal in the same year, in a world-record effort. He went on to serve four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Julie Foudy, ’94, was the captain of the U.S. soccer team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup and captured the heart of a nation while transporting women’s team sports into the mainstream. She would use her stature to expose the poor working conditions in Asia where soccer balls were produced, and served on the front lines in the cause of gender equity.
This “spirit” could be embodied in a single picture. Buried deep in Stanford’s archives, the image was taken at a track and field competition, the Big Meet against California, in 1925 – Stanford’s first NCAA championship season in any sport. The meet was so tight that the winner of the final event, the mile relay, would capture the team victory.
On the final leg, hundreds of students clad in suits and caps pushed themselves toward the cinder track at Stanford Stadium to line the straightaway to the finish. The photo captures the moment as Stanford’s Ted Miller, with a huge lead and even bigger smile, carries the baton toward the finish line while students leap with joy, tossing caps into the air. A California runner can be seen behind, trudging through the celebration around him as he knows the race is lost.
Stanford arrived for the 1925 NCAA track and field meet in Chicago with little money and no hotel reservations, but somehow worked connections enough to find plush lodging and meals, for a total of $3.50 a day. On the track, Stanford received winning efforts and NCAA records from Biff Hoffman in the discus, Tiny Hartranft in the shot put, and Swede Leistner in the high hurdles, on the way to an upset victory over powerful Michigan.
About this time, there was interest in building a top golf course on campus and the architect chosen was well-known William “Billy” Bell. At a cost of $240,000, the Stanford Golf Course was completed in 1929, and became home to one of Stanford’s first NCAA dynasties.
Under coach Eddie Twiggs, a former railroad executive and amateur golfer coaxed into coaching the team by athletics director Al Masters, Stanford won four national titles from 1938-42 – the final one with Sandy Tatum, a Rhodes Scholar and future president of the U.S. Golf Association, capturing the individual title.
Dynasties would become a Stanford trademark. Men’s tennis would go on to win 17 NCAA titles from 1973-2000. Women’s tennis would win 16.
Men’s water polo would capture 10 NCAA championships. Men’s and women’s swimming and diving would win eight apiece.
Though the achievements may seem to run together, each team carries a story of challenges and obstacles overcome, about the will to win and performance under pressure.
During Stanford’s two NCAA titles of 2010, those teams would provide two glorious examples.
The NCAA women’s tennis final between Stanford and Florida was tied 3-3 with only one match left in Athens, Ga., when Stanford freshman Mallory Burdette fell behind 5-4 in the third set to the Gators’ Marrit Boonstra.
But Burdette found the resolve to win three consecutive games. And when a Boonstra return sailed wide to give Burdette a title-clinching 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-5 victory, Mallory was tackled by her joyous sister and teammate Lindsay Burdette. Teammates joined in the dogpile, and it became evident with their shared passion and commitment that “family” wasn’t limited to the two sisters.
In the early evening of May 8, 2010, a kill by Brad Lawson against Penn State completed a stunning transformation by the Stanford men’s volleyball team as it captured the NCAA championship on its home court.
The catalyst was an assistant coach named Al Roderigues, a middle school P.E. teacher by trade who never accepted a cent for coaching in his 18 years at Stanford. It was he who made hope real.
“Don’t worry,” Roderigues told the freshmen who sought sanctuary in the vans “Big Al” would drove on road trips during a dismal 3-25 season in 2007. “Someday, you’ll go ‘Worst to First.’”
For four seasons, Roderigues’ motto became a mantra, a theme that echoed along with the sound of volleyballs deflecting off the shadows inside the Burnham Pavilion practice gym. And, as those years passed, the Cardinal kept getting better, even as Roderigues’ health grew worse. He was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer.
In March, 2010, just days after Stanford took over first place in the conference and moved to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time in years, members of the team visited Roderigues in the hospital and presented him with a photo collage, with the last-place 2007 standings framed in contrast to the first-place 2010 standings next to it.
Roderigues had seen his prediction fulfilled. Six days later, he died.
The spirit of Stanford … it was at Maples Pavilion when Lawson’s kill came crashing down, just as it has been 99 other times in Stanford’s NCAA history.
Indeed, the spirit of Stanford could not be confined to the walls of a studio lot. Even in a forgotten film, Hollywood was on to something – a spirit that lives today.