Ann Killion
Tuesday December 7th, 2010

What's the most remarkable thing about this college football season? Not Oregon's minuscule time between plays. Not the size of the loophole the NCAA opened in its embarrassing decision on Cam Newton.

No, the most remarkable thing about this college football season is Stanford. A team that was 1-11 in 2006, at a school considered unfriendly and untenable in the world of big-time college football, is now 11-1 and ranked fourth in the country.

Stanford, headed to the Orange Bowl next month, is sort of Division I broccoli. Everyone knows it's good for them, everyone's parents want them to eat it. Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh turned something that's good for you into something that's delicious and fun.

It's pretty astonishing. Harbaugh has transformed a program that was considered untransformable: unable to compete in today's big money, high stakes, slimy world of the BCS.

"When you come to a place like Stanford, people say you can't win in big-time football," said senior nose tackle Sione Fua, who was a freshman on the 1-11 team. "Too smart. Can't get the right players into school."

For most of this decade Stanford lived up to that reputation. Under Buddy Teevens and then Walt Harris, the Cardinal disintegrated into irrelevance. A trip to the 2000 Rose Bowl, success under Bill Walsh, glory days with John Elway and Jim Plunkett -- it all seemed part of an antiquated past. As the world of college football got creepier, a place like Stanford seemed passé.

Until Harbaugh came along with a vision for winning.

"Not only did I envision it, I promised it to our team," Harbaugh said. "I asked them at the first meeting, 'How many believe we can win a national championship?' That was the message."

It should be noted that promise came while all-world quarterback Andrew Luck was still in high school.

"At that time, they had to have real faith," Harbaugh said. "Believing without seeing. Many did and many didn't. The ones who stayed are the ones who made it happen."

Certainly Harbaugh was the beneficiary of accommodations at Stanford. Stanford Stadium had been remodeled and updated in 2006. Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, who hired Harbaugh, increased football staff and recruiting budgets. The university became more supportive of football and communication with the admissions office improved.

But Stanford isn't like most other schools. The athletes still have to make through admissions. Both Heisman Trophy contenders of the past two years --running back Toby Gerhart and quarterback Luck -- were high school valedictorians.

The biggest credit for the turnaround goes to Harbaugh. He changed attitudes and mindset and brought in terrific recruiting classes.

"It's great to be part of this culture change that has occurred," said senior receiver Ryan Whalen, who committed to Stanford while Harris was the coach. "It's a winning culture. We didn't know what it was like to win and win consistently."

Creating a culture change is what every losing program -- college or pro --attempts to do. Harbaugh's success, along with his explosive offense, is why he's now one of the most coveted coaching candidates in football right now.

Bowlsby knows it and is trying to hang on for dear life. He said on Sunday that Harbaugh has a contract proposal on his desk. Though Harbaugh is already the highest paid coach in school history and signed through the 2014 season, Stanford is prepared to sweeten his deal (Bowlsby would not provide any details of the offer).

"We have a proposal in front of Jim and he's indicated he plans to accept it," Bowlsby said. "We're happy and we think he's happy."

Harbaugh should be happy. He'll likely be courted continuously over the next few weeks by several teams. Though his alma mater Michigan is often mentioned, the bet here is that Harbaugh would jump to the NFL, where he could join his older brother John in coaching at the highest level. At 46, he's a former NFL quarterback and NFL assistant who is at the top of his profession. The timing for a high-profile NFL job may never be this perfect again.

Harbaugh has nothing left to prove at Stanford. And no matter how idyllic the campus is or how comfortable administration has made him or how many wins the Cardinal notch, Stanford will never be the kind of high-profile atmosphere found elsewhere in college football or in the NFL. Cardinal games didn't even sell out this season and there are questions about how many fans will make the trip to the Orange Bowl. Stanford is a small private school with a limited local fan base and a relative inability to penetrate the Bay Area's sporting conscience.

Harbaugh might not be around forever, or even for more than a few weeks. But he's made his mark. He's transformed Stanford into a winner and that's the most surprising accomplishment in college football.

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