Revenge of the Nerds: How the 'smart schools' got good at football
Duke coach David Cutcliffe spent 25 seasons in the SEC. He knew he'd arrived in a different world upon boarding the bus for the Blue Devils' first road game in 2008. "I'd never seen a kid on a road trip carrying books," Cutcliffe said. "Guys were carrying laptops, working on papers. That was brand new to me."
Stanford assistant Mike Sanford spent a season at Western Kentucky before returning to The Farm in 2011. Amid the monotony of two-a-days that August, he noticed that stars Andrew Luck and Shayne Skov both had their heads buried in the tome-length A Song of Ice and Fire books. "I thought, 'Wow, this is not Western Kentucky,'" Sanford said.
Defying the stereotype of most teen sitcom and movies, today's nerds are proving they can play football, too. "There's nothing wrong with being a nerd," said Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile, a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar. "It's something I'm proud of."
Proud or not, nerds weren't very good at football for much of college football history. Suddenly, that's changed.
Last year four schools -- Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt -- ranked among the top 20 in both the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings and the final USA Today college football coaches rankings. In November the Irish became the first team to simultaneously rank No. 1 in both the BCS standings and FBS graduation rates. In December, Vanderbilt completed its first nine-win season since 1915, while Duke played in its first bowl game since 1994. And on Jan. 1, Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 by beating Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, while Stanford beat Wisconsin for its first Rose Bowl win since 1972.
While Notre Dame's run to last season's BCS title game was surprising, it was not uncommon for the storied program. The new wrinkle is that fellow "smart schools" like Stanford (US News' No. 6 college), Northwestern (No. 12) and Vanderbilt (No. 17) are simultaneously enjoying historic peaks.
Last year the Wildcats earned a school-record fifth straight bowl trip (the previous high was two) and notched just the third 10-win season in school history. Stanford won its first Pac-12 championship since 1999 to earn a third-consecutive BCS bowl berth; the Cardinal's 35 wins over the past three seasons are more than all but one team nationally (Oregon). And Vandy, coming off its first back-to-back bowl seasons, finally won more SEC games (five) than it lost (three).
"As much as we can, we're going to change college football," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "Some of our guys are going to be CEOs and found companies and do all kinds of things outside of football. But when it comes to game day, they're just as tough and just as good as anyone in the country."
These teams have experienced pockets of success before, from the Jim Plunkett and John Elway eras at Stanford to Northwestern's out-of-nowhere 1995 Rose Bowl season. Instead of viewing the current stretch as an anomaly, however, these programs are attempting to create a new reality, and in so doing dispel generations of naysayers who assumed being smart and being good at football were mutually exclusive.
"I believe that was a truism, but it was one that the people at the schools created," said Vanderbilt vice chancellor and athletic director David Williams. "I don't think there was anything out there that was insurmountable, but it was like, no, we're a 'smart' school. Within the university itself, there was a perception that success in football must mean something negative academically."
Unfortunately, a recent incident at Williams' school has renewed doubts about whether it's truly possible to achieve big-time success in college football without suffering the ubiquitous ills. Last week, four former Commodores players -- who were dismissed from the squad in late June -- were charged with raping an unconscious 21-year-old female student in one of the player's dorm rooms. Amid the preseason excitement surrounding coach James Franklin's upstart program, the small, Nashville university is now dealing with the type of incident that gives major athletics a bad name.
"The events of June 23 ... are giving the university national attention for all the wrong reasons," wrote Tennessean columnist David Climer.
As a whole, however, the smart schools are garnering national attention for their newfound football prowess. Elite football players didn't suddenly become smarter, but the schools discussed here are doing a better job of recruiting and developing academically and athletically gifted players. And they're doing it by following the same formula as any other previously dormant programs: hiring great coaches and investing significantly in resources and salaries. Unlike any other programs, however, they face a specific set of challenges.
Stanford outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson's desk includes many college coaching staples: practice scripts, play diagrams for opening opponent San Jose State, etc. What stands out, however, is a phone-book-high pile of around 1,000 potential recruits' transcripts. It used to be higher. "I'm making some progress," Anderson joked. If there's a remotely promising sophomore or junior football prospect in nearly any corner of the country, chances are Anderson -- whose job title includes the words "admissions liaison" -- has probably sent an e-fax requesting a transcript.
"We won't even watch the tape unless we get their transcripts," said Sanford, the Cardinal's recruiting coordinator. "I don't want to see what we're going to be playing against, I want to see what we have a chance to recruit."
Many major football programs are granted a certain number of "special admits" per recruiting class. Stanford is adamant that every player goes through the school's regular, stringent application process. (All of the schools profiled here are private institutions that do not disclose most admissions data.) In 2013, Stanford's general acceptance rate of 5.69 percent was lower than even Harvard's. In 2008, then-coach Jim Harbaugh told the Los Angeles Times that only about "100 to 150" of the approximately 3,500 annual FBS signees are realistically in play for Stanford.
But once Stanford coaches find a prospect they like, they take numerous steps to help navigate the admissions process. Anderson meets regularly with the school's admissions department so that both sides know what the other is seeking. If a player shows interest in Stanford, his recruiter serves as a de facto guidance counselor, advising the player on which courses he must take (most notably, at least two AP classes as a senior) and whether to re-take the SAT or ACT to best position himself for his eventual application.
Meanwhile, the admissions department knows whom the staff most covets. "They're football fans," said Anderson. "They do a pretty good job keeping up with recruiting." The coaches give the admissions officers a wish list by position in a given year -- i.e., three running backs -- though nothing is guaranteed. "Last year we only ended up taking one DB," said Anderson. "We told them we were hoping for more than that, but there just weren't enough kids on the board [who qualified]." Unlike most schools, Stanford can't plug a gap with a juco transfer or even, in most cases, a Division I transfer.
Northwestern's 13.9-percent acceptance rate is slightly less daunting, but its admissions department won't accept a player it feels might struggle to graduate. "If I have to sell a kid to the admissions department," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald, "I doubt he's a good fit." Fitzgerald keeps a database of every recent Northwestern player's high-school credentials so that he knows early in a prospect's recruitment whether he's on target for admission and can feel comfortable that the player won't be denied admission if he's offered a scholarship.
As with any school, the admissions process is subjective, and Northwestern seems more willing than some to forgive a player who started slowly in high school but improved his grades, or a player who dealt with extenuating circumstances like a family member's death. "Everyone is dealt with here on a case-by-case basis," said Fitzgerald. "I think our admissions department has a good moral compass of looking at a kid's academic credentials but also wanting us to explain who the young person is and whether we believe he will be able to graduate from here in four years."
At Vanderbilt (11.97-percent acceptance rate), Franklin, Williams and other athletic personnel meet with the admissions department before the start of the school year to discuss every player the program is recruiting. "They'll give us feedback like, 'absolutely,' 'absolutely not,' or, 'we need more information,'" said Williams.
The first challenge is identifying potential prospects who boast the necessary academic credentials. The second is convincing them to come.
When Cutcliffe first started visiting high schools for Duke, he encountered coaches who would say: "'I've got a guy that would be good for you at Duke.' What he meant was, he wasn't good enough to play at another BCS-conference school, but he's good enough to play at Duke. Well, I wanted to talk about another [more talented] kid, but it was like we couldn't touch him."
The pervading assumption has long been that no player would voluntarily choose a doormat like Duke or Vanderbilt over a more established football power, despite the chance to earn a more prestigious degree.
Vanderbilt defensive lineman and Marietta, Ga., native Kyle Woestmann, a top 50 prospect at his position in 2010, committed to the Commodores despite offers from Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson, among others. "Everybody in Georgia loves UGA, and they're like, 'How are you not going to UGA?'" Woestmann said. "'You want to go to some program that UGA kicks all over the field every year?'"
To counter that sentiment, coaches at the smart schools have a well-rehearsed recruiting pitch like this one from Vanderbilt's Franklin: "You've got a chance to get a world-class education, but you've also got a chance to play in the conference that's won the last seven national championships. If you're a kid that wants to chase both of his dreams at the very highest level, where else would you go?"
It sounds pretty convincing, and perhaps like an obvious choice ... to an adult. Selling that to a coveted 16- or 17-year-old prospect who's certain that he's headed to the NFL and who has visited other campuses with sold-out 100,000-seat stadiums and national championship trophies on display is another matter entirely.
"I'm not going to lie and say I didn't fall for the party scene at some schools, the great facilities at others," said Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, an Englewood, Colo., native. "... My dad played at Colorado and had a great time there, won a national championship, but he realized some of the degrees some of the players got there are meaningless. Football is going to end for us at some point. There's life after football, and Northwestern is the platform I needed to get that going."
Former Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby, now the Big 12's commissioner, recalled that when he hired Harbaugh in 2007, the coach said: "Mr. Bowlsby, you can't convince me that with 300 million people [in the U.S.], there aren't 25 good football players out there smart enough to play at Stanford."
Clearly there were -- but they didn't all live in the part of the U.S. closest to Palo Alto. Notre Dame is widely considered the sport's "national school," but Stanford's starting lineup for last year's Rose Bowl featured players from Georgia, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida and Texas.
These schools' head coaches have all drawn raves as recruiters, and ultimately it's incumbent on them to get the teenagers they're pursuing to think beyond the next four years.
"It's not about a hashtag on Twitter, it's not about a fan that's illegally sending you, 'go to my school' messages," said Fitzgerald. "It's about using football as a vehicle to prepare you for life."
|Graduation Success Rate rankings|
|The top 15 FBS schools in 2012|
Total record: 107-83 (.563)
|Annual winning % for GSR Top 15|
Once a football nerd arrives on campus, he quickly realizes that a high SAT score won't save him from the dumb jock stereotype.
"When you do well in classes of 300 people and you're high on the bell curve, it's rewarding to know you're competing with people who have more time and probably look down on you," joked Vitabile. "Most college students don't wake up until 9 or 10. By then we've been up for three or four hours -- and then we've got to start our day."
Balancing the demands of big-time college football -- which, it's no secret, consume far more than the NCAA-mandated 20 hours per week -- and the course load at a rigorous academic school is no small feat, especially if one believes each school's assertion that there are no joke classes for jocks.
"Sometimes, it's very easy to graduate kids," said Margaret Akerstrom, who retired in June after 26 years as Northwestern athletics' head of academic services. "Just make sure you put them in the right majors, give them more help than they should get -- not saying [other schools] are crossing the lines and writing papers, though that happens -- but they're babying them."
At Northwestern, freshmen athletes are required to spend six hours per week in the library during fall quarter and to meet twice weekly with an academic advisor. After freshman year, the lone requirement is one such meeting per quarter. Tutors are available, but players must request one. "Once you get through your freshman year we expect you to start taking control of your life and needing less and less support," said Akerstrom. "That's not necessarily true at a lot of other schools, and the reason is often because the coaches want them to continue."
Like most athletic departments, Vanderbilt's foots the bill for players to take two summer courses before freshman year. Unlike most, Vandy's support comes with a specific stipulation that any athlete who gets less than a C in either class will be ruled ineligible for his freshman season. That hasn't been necessary: The average summer GPA for the athletes is 3.34.
"People say we don't have as much talent as Alabama or Florida or Georgia," said Woestmann. "We have just as much talent, it's just a little bit different to the naked eye. We have guys that can kill it in school and come out and be great on the football field. In my opinion, that's a pretty serious talent."
That doesn't mean the "dumb jock" stereotype is dead, and grumbling persists nationwide about special treatment for athletes. Stanford faced questions on its own campus when a 2011 Stanford Daily investigation revealed the existence of an annual Courses of Interest list distributed to athletes. The classes were "always chock-full of athletes and very easy A's," said a women's soccer player. School officials contended the list was intended to help athletes find classes that fit their practice schedules. In March, star linebacker Skov took umbrage with a thread on the "Stanford Confessions" Facebook group that began, "How low are the academic standards for athletes? A lot of them are pretty damn smart, but they definitely wouldn't have all gotten in if they weren't recruited."
"Every time you're a school like us, you have success, there's going to be something new that comes at you as a negative," said Northwestern's Fitzgerald, who notes his team's 3.04 GPA last year. "I would challenge those people to look at the other schools and say, 'Why aren't their graduation rates higher? Why aren't their GPAs higher?'"
One smart school, however, is dealing with something far more serious than easy classes.
In an interview in his office last month, Williams, a law school professor and vice chancellor who took over as Vanderbilt's de facto athletic director in 2003 (he's since added that role to his official title), recalled the challenges he faced convincing his fellow faculty and the university community that a successful SEC football team would help, not harm, the university's reputation.
"We had to convince everybody around here, including ourselves, that success adds value," Williams said. "You'll never do it if you're not graduating your kids, you'll never do it if your kids aren't maintaining an acceptable GPA for that place. You'll never do it if your kids are going to get it in a lot of trouble."
The program had remained largely trouble-free until this summer, when Franklin dismissed four players. Last Friday, following a seven-week investigation by Nashville police, Cory Batey, Brandon Banks, JaBorian "Tip" McKenzie and Brandon Vandenburg were each charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery in the alleged dorm room incident. A Vanderbilt fan site called it "the worst scandal to ever rock Vanderbilt football."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Williams said: "Obviously something of this magnitude when it's associated with the university -- we would be remiss if we denied the possibility that it would damage the reputation of the university and affect key progress we've made. ... You have to take every opportunity to review everything you do to make sure nothing like this happens again."
None of the four ex-players had seen the field yet for the Commodores, but all were members of Franklin's heralded past two recruiting classes. Vandenburg, a tight end from Palm Desert, Calif., was a highly sought-after junior college recruit who received offers from the likes of Nebraska, Texas A&M, Miami and Tennessee.
Vandy, long the SEC's punching bag, has clearly gone all in with football, paying Franklin a reported $3 million salary (more than in-state foe Tennessee pays Butch Jones) and investing significantly in facilities. In July, Williams did not shy away from the fact that he'd convinced the school to relax its admissions standards for certain athletes, so long as the program maintained its high graduation rate. "You're not going to compete in Division I football with all of your team acing the SAT," Williams said. "It just doesn't happen, because the Alabamas, the Georgias, the Tennessees, they're going to have a wide range in there."
Asked whether the rape incident might cause the program to reassess its recruiting strategy, Williams said: "You can only act on the information you have. You'd probably be surprised the number of kids James and his staff have had to stop recruiting because of something in their background. With these kids -- there was nothing in their background. That's all I can say about that. But even James wonders, did I miss something? Is there something else we need to be asking?
"It doesn't change the fact this incident happened, and the incident was terrible. As soon as we became aware of it, the action we took was swift and decisive."
Sadly, sexual assault is not an uncommon occurrence on college campuses, even among other academically rigorous schools, as illustrated by recent scandals involving football players at Navy and Notre Dame. But tawdry headlines, like nine-win seasons, are uncharted territory for the Vanderbilt program. A possible trial (the players will be arraigned Aug. 21) could make public some gruesome details and raise questions about whether Vandy is paying too steep a price to compete with the big boys.
Of course, all of these schools are paying a literal price in order to build the kinds of coaching staffs and facilities necessary to achieve success -- and then maintain it.
Shaw, a former Stanford receiver and original Harbaugh staff member who became head coach in 2011, loves playing the disrespect card. Asked in the spring what he'd use for motivation now that Stanford was a likely preseason top five team (the Coaches' Poll has the Cardinal No. 4), Shaw replied: "Whenever you're watching TV and they're doing the preseason shows ... We're going to get, 'Yeah, Stanford is ranked No. 4 or No. 5 or whatever it is, BUT..."
Not surprisingly, the coaches of the schools featured in this article are universally adamant that their programs are here to stay. Revenge of the Nerds will garner a sequel, they say, and the sequel will be better than the original.
"We're just getting started," said Northwestern's Fitzgerald. "We're nowhere near where I think this program is going to be. ... Where maybe some other schools have had success since 1950 -- this is our 1950s."
Whether that proves true for these schools will largely depend on retaining their touted coaches.
Stanford has struggled on that front for much of its history. Former coaches Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Harbaugh all left for NFL head-coaching jobs, while Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame. Last December the cerebral Shaw, 41, an oft-described "Stanford Man," agreed to a long-term extension (terms were not disclosed) shortly before an expected NFL courtship.
"I won't say who, but myself and my agent, we were contacted by more than half the open jobs in the NFL," Shaw said in describing the timing of the announcement. "... It was important to me, it was important to Stanford University and important for the football program to say, we don't have to worry about what's happened every single time Stanford's been successful, which is the head coach is gone. I want to be here, Stanford wants me to be here. Let's quiet the whispers."
While Shaw is rah-rah Stanford, Northwestern's Fitzgerald practically oozes purple. Already one of the most celebrated players in school history (the two-time All-America and Nagurski Award winner was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008), the fiery, articulate 38-year-old coach is as beloved as any head man this side of Nick Saban. Fitzgerald already owns the school's career wins record, with 50. "He's the perfect coach in the perfect place with the perfect fit," said Northwestern AD Jim Phillips. "The stars have aligned from that perspective."
When Michigan briefly pursed Fitzgerald in January 2011, his boss moved quickly to broker a new contract that included assurances about facility upgrades.
"This is home on the football side, this is home on the family side," said the South Side Chicago native. "That's the selfish part of it for me personally, but professionally, I wouldn't want to work with any other group of young men."
Duke tried the young alum route once, with far less success. Carl Franks, protégé of former Blue Devils coach Steve Spurrier, went 7-45 from 1999-2003. With Cutcliffe, 58, Duke got a veteran SEC head coach (Ole Miss) and offensive coordinator (Tennessee) with instant credibility for coaching both Peyton and Eli Manning. He seems no risk to flee, especially after turning down the Vols in 2010.
"Joe Paterno once told me, 'David, find a job that really fits your personality,'" Cutcliffe said. "I don't know what my personality is, but I like the job I've got and I feel we're doing things that are important."
Vandy seemingly faces the biggest challenge of the group, as Franklin has quickly emerged as one of the sport's rock-star coaches. He was largely anonymous outside of Maryland (where he was head-coach-in-waiting) less than three years ago, but now most fans nationally are aware of the energetic coach and his "Anchor Down" mantra thanks in large part to an aggressive social media presence. Whether awarding a walk-on a scholarship in front of the whole team, overseeing a coach/player dance-off or diving off a 30-foot cliff, Franklin has cultivated a player-friendly persona similar to that of former USC coach Pete Carroll. And if he keeps winning nine games or more at Vanderbilt, he'll soon be in similar demand.
On the one hand, program history (LSU once hired coach Gerry DiNardo for going 5-6 at Vandy) and Franklin's own career history (he's changed jobs 10 times in 18 years) suggest his stay may be short. On the other, after decades of seeming indifference, the university has made crystal clear its unprecedented commitment to both the football program and its coach.
While Franklin's salary information is not public, the reported $3 million figure puts him among the top half of the SEC coaches and, as of 2012, the top 15 nationally. Meanwhile, with a heavy push from the coach, the school will open a new $31-million multi-purpose training facility and recreation center in October. Last year it completed a $10-million-plus makeover of its primary athletics building, the McGugin Center, and in September it will survey fans about a possible stadium renovations proposal.
Elsewhere, Northwestern will soon begin construction on a $220-million lakeside athletics facility that will include the football program's first on-campus headquarters (its current football complex, adjacent to Ryan Field, is a mile west of campus). Duke will begin a massive renovation of 84-year-old Wallace Wade Stadium at the end of this season as part of a $100-million athletic facilities upgrade. And Stanford's coaches are currently working out of temporary cubicles on top of a basketball practice court while construction workers complete a $17-million addition to the school's athletics building.
The investments are the latest sign of a changing climate in which the smart schools will no longer accept pats on the back for going 6-6 or keeping the score close against a Top 25 team.
"We will feel we've accomplished our goal," said Shaw, "when people are watching college football, and they can't remember a time when Stanford wasn't ranked."
If that happens, "Nerd Nation" may become as much a part of the sport's vernacular as "Roll Tide."