My alma mater Oregon hosted Stanford last Saturday in a two-month pandemic-delayed football battle. It was the 83rd gridiron meeting between the two esteemed programs, and my Ducks’ easy victory, by a score of 35-14, narrowed the overall margin to 49 wins for the Cardinal (formerly Indians) and 34 for my guys.
Whenever Oregon plays Stanford in any sport, it’s personal to me. My history with the Palo Alto school goes back over 50 years, to the day I got a letter from Stanford’s golf coach inviting me to leave a lingering Spokane winter and visit the beautiful campus. He arranged 36 holes for me playing with his varsity stars. Although I was still in my junior year at an all-boys prep school, Coach Bud Finger said he was considering offering me a full scholarship to chase the dimpled spheroid.
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My father was elated. He had talked for years about how wonderful it would be if his only son could attend the school with so many Nobel Prize winners. An Internet search revealed the latest total of Stanford Nobel Laureates to be 85. (A recent release from UO proudly proclaimed that the university had recently recruited a Nobel winner in quantum physics to the campus. But I learned on further reading that the research for which this scholar earned the award was done in Colorado.)
My dad got a kick in later years of reminding me that while my alma mater may not have had any Nobel Prize winners, Oregon did have one large feather in its cap: “Animal House” was filmed on our campus.
My 36-hole audition with the Stanford golf studs went well. My scores of 73 and 75 matched up well with the guys. Back then we played with persimmon woods and balata golf balls, and golfers didn’t go near a weight room for fear of being mocked. Although I was an anemic 150 pounds, my drives of 260 yards were considered decent back then.
All was going fleetingly on that recruiting weekend, at least until my post-rounds interviews in Coach Finger’s office. As the coach went over the notes from the Cardinal golfers I’d played with, he inquired about my grade point average and SAT scores at Gonzaga Prep. When I somewhat proudly informed him that my GPA was 3.4 and my College Board score was 1,200, he looked like he’d swallowed a moldy fig.
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“Jack, I’m sorry to tell you that Stanford turns away 100 high school valedictorians a year,” he said. He paused for effect, then added, “And our incoming freshmen have an average score of 1,400 on the SATs.”
I threw a Hail Mary pass and replied that I’d heard that the Pac-8 Conference offered a rule that allowed some lower-rated students to be admitted for athletic scholarships under what was called the “2 percent rule.”
“That’s true,” Coach said, “but we’ve already offered that to a young man from Kansas. His name is Tom Watson.”
Of course I had no way of knowing then that Watson would go on to win eight major championships and become one of the 10 best professional golfers of all time. What I was hearing that day was that I wasn’t what Stanford was looking for. Upon my return to the cold Northwest, it sort of broke my dad’s heart when I described the experience to him.
I got some measure of retribution when my Oregon golf team beat Stanford in the NCAA Championship in Columbus, Ohio my junior year of college, after tying them in the Pac-8 championship a month before.
I should mention that both schools have elevated their men’s golf programs over the last couple decades. Stanford has added three NCAA golf titles to their storied history since Tiger Woods left UNLV at the doorstep and signed with the Cardinal in 1994. And Oregon won a national title in 2016, and was runner-up the following year, coached coincidentally by Stanford alum Casey Martin, who was a teammate of Tiger’s.
All of that ancient history planted the seed for the rivalry I still get up for every time Oregon and Stanford go head-to-head in anything. I did several touchdown dances last Saturday as my Ducks trounced the Cardinal in an empty Autzen Stadium. My son and daughter were surprised at their old man’s outburst. Maybe if they read this column, they’ll have a better understanding.