Where’s the passion? No, not The Passion. That comes as the end of every Gospel. I mean where’s the zeal, where’s the drive, where’s the ardor and the ecstasy, the fervor and the fury? Where’s Stanford’s soul? It’s nonexistent, as far as I can tell. Stanford is a blackened husk of a place, a hollow shell, a shadow, a shade, a cavern in which not even a still, small voice is heard. Stanford is inanimate.
Just look at their mascot. I’ll concede that a diminutive but plucky Irish elf who fervently makes shoes all day and hordes gold by night is not the most intimidating of ancient totems. But it’s a hell of a lot more formidable that a scraggly pine tree that does nothing more frightening than drop woody seed cones shaped like turds. Yes, coast redwoods are big and old – but so are the pyramids, and you can’t cut a road through pharaoh’s soul-crib, and the big granite pile won’t wilt and die for lack of water.
And the tree isn’t event their mascot because they don’t have one after retiring their original moniker in a fit of refined manners. Now if we’re dealing with a truly crude caricature I understand showing some decorum and elevating the level of symbolism. But we’re called the Fighting Irish because that was a running ethnic slur leveled at our lads at the same time we were playing Pop Warner’s Indians. And I know not all Indian mascots are verboten since I am acutely familiar with being gouged by Chief Osceola’s beplumed spear. Yet, rather than embrace some aspect of California culture (such as it is) or take up some battle cry, Stanford elected to be known in the abstract by a color, The Stanford Cardinal. Why not a material like The Stanford Flannel. Or an attribute – The Stanford Quickly. None of them makes any sense but at least the last two are thought-provoking.
Oh, I remember why Stanford took the completely colorless color route. They wanted to copy Harvard. That’s all they’ve ever wanted to do. Sure someone has to be first, and he’s going to blaze the trail and set the standard by which all others are measured. But you don’t have to be mindless sycophants about it. Yet that’s exactly how Stanford got its start.
Leland Stanford (railroad tycoon, robber baron, Freemason): “What would it take to duplicate Harvard in California?”
Chares Eliot (Harvard president, Boston Brahmin, ooooold money): “More than your new dirty cash.”
Leland Stanford: “Watch me do it, muttonchops!”
Charles Eliot: “Get out of my house.”
Now the actual conversation between the two men might have been a bit more nuanced, but it did take place and the gist of it is all there. Stanford wanted to buy all the university his money could purchase and Harvard was the pretty thing he saw in the catalog. The only difference is Harvard had spirit, but Leland Stanford couldn’t order his blacksmiths to forge that up in time for the grand opening, and as a result it never got made, which is why Stanford is inanimate like some cursedly ill-equipped character in Greek tragedy or a forsaken teddy bear missing an arm.
The funny thing about Lee Stanford and Chuck Eliot is they were precisely the kind of well-bred blue-bloods who were looking straight down their noses at a small Catholic school in Indiana and condescendingly chuckling up their starched sleeves until we started beating good Protestant colleges and state schools at a little game called football. And then they smeared us for being Irish immigrants. But therein is born zeal which builds on spirit and together they form the soul of a place. Oh we didn’t have Stanford’s ten-of-millions of nouveau riches and ready capital. In fact we started with nothing but faith and hope and belief and spirit. We had little more than potable water and a log cabin and the drive to build something great. And we burned it straight to the ground before Leland Stanford ever popped open his wallet, and we built it all up again in just a matter of months. It’s from those beginnings that an ardent and consuming and burning passion emanates.
And right about when Stanford was fielding its best football team ever, so was Notre Dame. Stanford was run by the best football coach money could buy in the person of Glenn Scobey Warner, an Ivy-League alumnus who rushed to California for all Stanford’s gold after leading the tawdry University of Pittsburgh to three national championships. Notre Dame was led by a Norwegian immigrant who had to work in the post office to save enough money to go to college and who then started out as a chemistry teacher before he took up coaching. Why did Knute Rockne defeat Pop Warner – because he had the Four Horsemen, yes, but more so because he and his players believed and they had something to believe in.
Warner moved back East to coach Temple in Philadelphia. Rockne died in a plane crash. A tragedy, no doubt, but give me Elijah being taken up to Heaven on his chariot of fire any day over fading into gilded obscurity. Thunder is always preceded by the deadly lightning but shake it down we will. Give me agony if the only alternative is contentment! Give me strife if the only alternative is complacency! Give me pineapples not pine cones (cue veiled Hawaiian reference)! Just give me anything that will shake the soul, because we have a soul which though battered and worn is still as resplendent and glorious as on that frigid and snow-bound day 170 years ago when we decided to start fighting for our place in the world.
Stanford has no soul. Where else do they demolish an 89,000 seat stadium and still fail to fill its 50,000 seat replacement? Stanford had a good coach and that good coach attracted some good players. But like Stanford’s other good coaches that fellow moved on because something was more interesting, more attractive, more moving. And his players are moving on as college players are wont to do after a four-year stint. So what we will see tomorrow will be the last trailing glimmer of Stanford’s most recent shooting star as it burns out in the rarefied atmosphere of Notre Dame Stadium.
Where’s the passion? It is all ours. Where’s the danger? It lies in facing the soulless foe who inspires neither fear nor loathing but lulls us into the complacency that is his only weapon. And so tomorrow we must fight and cheer with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength because nothing less than our soul in on the line.