Passive to Aggressive
Nov. 18, 2008
STANFORD, Calif. - The moment was far from seminal to anyone in attendance, but the symbolism was significant nonetheless.
Neatly dressed in a suit and tie, Alex Fletcher walked out of the late-July heat, into a Los Angeles hotel ballroom and to a microphone at Pac-10 media day.
A simple thing, really, but Fletcher's presence in itself should have screamed the message: A new era had arrived in Stanford football.
The days of physical domination were over.
'The reason I brought Alex, is because that is the strength of our football team,' Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh told assembled reporters. 'Our offensive line.'
Many in attendance had witnessed enough of the struggles of Stanford's line over the past few years - the sacks, beatings, and helplessness - to know how ridiculous Harbaugh's proclamation sounded. The thought was not lost on Fletcher himself.
'When I came in, we were the weakness of the team,' said the fifth-year senior center. 'Now, we are finally the strength.'
The stats bear that out:
Stanford is averaging 206.5 rushing yards per game, third in the conference, 20th in the nation, and ahead of schools such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and LSU.
Toby Gerhart has gained 1,033 yards and is closing in on Tommy Vardell's 1991 single-season school rushing record of 1,084.
The Cardinal has rushed for 2,272 yards, within reach of the single-season mark of 2,481, which has stood since 1949.
No other team has rushed for more yards (202) or gained more first downs (21) against USC this season than Stanford.
This was what Fletcher envisioned when he arrived from Old Brookville, N.Y., as the prize of then-coach Buddy Teevens' second recruiting class. The player who turned down the likes of USC, Michigan and Penn State was so excited about his early Stanford commitment that he became a recruiter himself.
'When I was getting recruited, he would call me every day,' said tight end Austin Gunder, also in his fifth year. 'He got everything moving and everything in place for a lot of guys to come here.'
Fletcher had already become a semi-legend on Long Island, having led St. Anthony's to three consecutive Catholic High School Football League of Metropolitan New York AAA titles and a combined 31-2 record as a three-year starter.
By one count, he recorded 55 pancake blocks one season, and was ranked the No. 3 center in the country by rivals.com.
'The ground game at St. Anthony's started behind Fletcher and usually finished in the end zone,' wrote Newsday in 2003. 'The intimidating Fletcher was a force in the middle.'
Lucille Fletcher, Alex's mother, had to laugh.
'Alex really wanted to be a professional tennis player,' she said. 'But when he started to get big, he said, `Maybe I'd better play football.''
A wise choice. If he wasn't going to the next John McEnroe in performance, he might have matched him in point violations for unsportsmanlike conduct.
'He was the type that would yell at his opponent and try to intimidate him,' said Steve Fletcher, Alex's father. 'That hasn't changed.'
Still, there has been an unmistakable evolution in the personality of Alex Fletcher.
'High maintenance,' is one term his father used to describe his son in his younger years.
Alex remains emotional, driven and striving to improve. But those qualities turned negative when they were combined with frustration and a quick-trigger temper.
'Alex has never been a follower,' Steve said. 'He's always been the person that has been followed. He's always been the first one to rise to the challenge. That breeds a lot of respect.'
Such traits became useful at Stanford. He had rarely dealt with losing and certainly had not prepared himself for a unit that fell into disarray.
The origin of the fall can be traced to 2003, when the offensive line was left threadbare after a coaching change. New coach Teevens addressed the shortage by signing five offensive line recruits his first season and Fletcher a year later.
Steve Fletcher knew and respected Teevens, having played against him in the Ivy League when Teevens was a player of the year quarterback at Dartmouth, and Steve a defensive tackle at Princeton.
The value of a strong education was stressed by Steve and Lucille, a Vassar graduate. Their mandate to Alex was to choose a strong academic school, with Stanford providing the ideal choice.
'We feel the reason we go to college is your education, no matter how good a football player you are,' Lucille said.
Sometimes, Alex needed reminding, particularly during a dismal stretch in which the line was in a tailspin fueled by inexperience, injuries and a lack of improvement. Its nadir came during a nightmarish 1-11 season in 2006 that left quarterback Trent Edwards battered, dropping his NFL Draft value, and the line humiliated.
'There was a ton of talent on defense, and we had a good quarterback, and good wideouts and receivers,' Fletcher said. 'But we just couldn't run the ball and attack. There was no mystery.
'It was a lack of ability at times, and a lack of confidence. When guys get beat, get beat and get beat, they lose confidence. That's obviously always been an issue.'
Alex clashed with coaches and questioned his decision to come to Stanford. Lucille recalls talking him down during their daily conversations.
But Alex never tempered his passion for the game or his devotion to his teammates. He took it upon himself to try to hold the team together, and reassured them that better days were ahead.
He was right. The culture began to change with the hiring of Harbaugh and offensive line coach Chris Dalman before the 2007 season. Harbaugh's energetic style brought the enthusiasm back to the team and Dalman, a Stanford graduate and Super Bowl champion player, provided the cutting-edge schemes and techniques that transformed the Stanford line from passive to aggressive.
The improvement was swift. Stanford went from no individual 100-yard rushing performances in 2006, to three in 2007 and 10 this season going into Saturday's 111th renewal of the Big Game against Cal.
Last year, Stanford was held to minus-8 yards rushing against Oregon State. This season, the Cardinal rushed for 210. That was the turning point for Fletcher.
Fletcher calls his early Stanford years, 'the dark side.' But his parents believe that going through those struggles, as difficult as they were, helped develop the more mature son they see today.
The intensity remains, but the outbursts are few.
'I still play with a chip on my shoulder,' Fletcher said. 'But now I'm more into winning the team battle than my individual battle.'
So Fletcher, resplendent in his suit and tie, was indeed the proper choice to be the face of Stanford football that July day.
After all, he was the leader of the offensive line - the team's strongest unit.
- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics Media Relations