Trent Johnson’s "dream job" was about to turn to a nightmare, and his bolting for LSU is symptomatic of the problems that Stanford faces in basketball and football.
Stanford has long had the highest admissions standards in the Pac-10 Conference (and probably for all schools in the NCAA’s top division) but they have gotten even tougher the last few years. The admissions office frowns on admitting junior-college transfers, which was an important method of building up John Ralston’s consecutive Rose Bowl champions in the early ’70s and Bill Walsh’s teams in his two tenures at Stanford.
Coupled with this is the fact that, under a policy established by former athletic director Ted Leland, they underpay football and basketball coaches. Leland’s philosophy was that the salary differential at a highly rated academic school shouldn’t be as wide between professors and coaches as it is at other schools. A noble philosophy indeed, but when Johnson was looking at roughly doubling his salary — and going to a school where it’s much easier for him to get top athletes in — it was a no-brainer.
Stanford’s recent emphasis on bringing in top students from other countries has caused admissions standards to rise, because the size of the student body has not increased. That’s put more pressure on the athletic programs.
That hasn’t hurt the "Orinda sports" (tennis, golf, swimming, etc.), which are country club sports. Athletes competing in those sports usually come from a good academic background. So do women’s basketball players. And college baseball has become a white sport — it’s hard to spot a black face at the College World Series.
But many of the top black athletes in high school do not get the kind of education that allows them to meet the rigid Stanford admissions standards. Other schools, including Cal, have remedial programs that allow them to do college work. (The Cal program is run by the university, not the athletic department, and has far more nonathletes than athletes.) But Stanford has no such program.
The stiffening admissions standards were a factor in Mike Montgomery leaving Stanford for the Warriors, though not as big a factor as the money the Warriors were waving at him. The last two years he was at Stanford, Montgomery couldn’t fill the scholarships he had available and he told me he hated to go to high school all-star games because there were so many star players he knew he couldn’t get into school.
The admissions office did bend to get the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, into school. They were a great feel-good story for the school, as sons of an alumnus.
The Lopez twins made Stanford the second-best team in the Pac-10 this season and got them to the Sweet 16. Without them, Stanford would have battled Cal and Washington for the seventh spot. When Johnson looked at the team’s prospects for next season without them, it was bleak.
Great universities are not just a collection of scholars, and the strong intercollegiate athletics program Stanford has run in the past is an important part of the university. The alumni who recognize that have pushed to get admissions standards back to a level that, though high, would allow them to compete within the Pac-10.
If they can’t get that, Stanford will continue to lose top coaches such as Trent Johnson, and football and basketball games will not be pretty.