Daytime Drama: A Look Back at the Remarkable 1979 Season
By John Platz
STANFORD, Calif. - There have been Stanford football seasons in which the team's performance differed from preseason expectations. There have been seasons in which Stanford players have been among the nation's statistical leaders. There have been seasons in which much-heralded freshmen have enjoyed immediate success. And there have been seasons in which a Stanford head coach has departed abruptly following season's end.
Has there ever been a Stanford season in which all of those things occurred? The answer is yes - once. They all happened during the remarkable 1979 Cardinal football campaign, 30 years ago this year.
Coming off two consecutive seasons of eight or more wins, which included bowl victories in 1977 and 1978, Stanford underwent a sudden head coaching change in the early weeks of 1979. Bill Walsh was hired away by the San Francisco 49ers, ending his groundbreaking two-year tenure on the Farm. Cardinal assistant coach Rod Dowhower was named to replace him.
Dowhower barely had time to unload the boxes in his new office when two big things involving players happened, one positive and one negative. The positive: In February, high school All-America quarterback John Elway signed a national letter of intent to play football at Stanford. The negative: In March, all-conference running back Darrin Nelson tore a hamstring while long jumping for the track team and would be lost for the entire 1979 season. The co-existence of good and bad was a sign of things to come for the 1979 team.
When fall camp opened, more unusual events occurred. In August, two Cardinal backup quarterbacks, Babe Laufenberg and Grayson Rogers, announced that they were transferring. Elway's first few practices were phenomenal, and it was clear that he would command significant playing time. Incidentally, Laufenberg went on to star at Indiana and have an NFL career, proving that Elway's talents were good enough to chase away a future NFL quarterback. The departures of Laufenberg and Rogers instantly reduced Dowhower's stable of quarterbacks from four to two: Elway and senior Turk Schonert.
With both the quarterback and running back -- due to Nelson's injury -- thus significantly depleted of experienced talent, the preseason feeling was that Stanford's offense would struggle during the early part of the season. Along with freshman quarterback Elway, freshmen running backs Mike Dotterer and Vincent White each would play right away.
And Stanford did sputter on offense during the September part of the 1979 schedule. The Cardinal scored just 10 points in a season-opening loss at Tulane, and only 13 points in a home loss to Army in game No. 3. Neither Tulane nor Army featured notable defenses. The Army loss was particularly upsetting to the Stanford coaches, who called a rare Sunday practice one day after the September 22 defeat.
There was not much optimism, then, heading into October and the start of the seven-game Pac 10 conference schedule. With a worse-than-expected 2-2 record, the Cardinal would be opening the conference slate against the two Los Angeles-area powerhouses, UCLA and USC.
Little did Stanford fans know what lay in store -- two of the most famous games in Stanford football history.
On October 6, Stanford's young offense came to life, scoring 24 points through the midway in the fourth quarter against UCLA. However, the Cardinal had also surrendered 24 points, with fewer than two minutes left in the game.
UCLA had the ball deep in Stanford territory, but stalled. UCLA kicker Peter Boermeester came on the field to break the tie with a 39-yard field goal try. But Stanford's Gordon Banks broke through the line and blocked the kick. Stanford got the ball back on its own 23-yard line with 1:11 remaining.
In the hurry-up offense, Stanford converted a pair of Elway-to-Dotterer pass plays, then got a nine-yard gain from White to move the ball to UCLA 39. With just six seconds remaining, Dowhower opted to send junior placekicker Ken Naber onto the field to try a winning 56-yard field goal. Freshman Mke Teeuws would be the snapper, John Elway the holder.
The snap and hold were true, and Naber hammered the ball. The ball took off in a low line drive toward the north goalposts - hooking slightly as it moved through the air in crooked end-over-end fashion --bounced off the inner left upright just barely above the crossbar and tumbled through the goalposts. Good! It was the longest winning field goal in Stanford history. More importantly, it was a 27-24 win, a Pac 10 win and a win which instantly erased the pain of the disappointing September performances.
One week later, Stanford faced the nation's top-ranked team, USC, in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Trying to build on the UCLA win, the Cardinal instead got off to a rocky start, trailing 21-0 at halftime.
Then the Stanford offense awoke. Schonert threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to Dotterer and an early-fourth quarter touchdown toss to All-America wide receiver Ken Margerum , cutting the deficit to 21-14. Then Schonert scored on a 10-yard keeper to tie the game at 21 with four minutes left.
USC had the ball in the final minute, moved the ball into Cardinal territory and with three seconds left Trojan kicker Eric Hipp positioned himself for a potential 39 yard game winning field goal. But USC holder Jeff Fisher fumbled the snap, allowing Gordon Banks -- for a second straight week -- to burst into the backfield and block the kick.
The stunning final score: Stanford 21, USC 21. Stanford had tied the nation's No. 1 team in what would be the only blemish on USC's 11-0-1 Rose Bowl-winning campaign.
Two weeks in early October and two amazing Stanford performances. And with a 20-point victory the following week at Arizona, the Cardinal suddenly owned a share of first place in the conference race, with a 2-0-1 Pac 10 record. Could the momentum built upon the dramatic wins over UCLA and USC be sustained, perhaps all the way to the Rose Bowl?
Alas, it could not.
The next weekend, in Corvallis, Ore., Stanford fell 33-31 to last-place Oregon State, in what was probably the craziest game of all in 1979. Following a tying Beaver field goal with 1:11 remaining, Stanford's Rick Gervais took the ensuing kickoff just inside the goal line, then stepped back into the end zone and took a knee - thinking a touchback would be the result. Instead, the officials whistled a safety against Stanford.
Trying to overcome this misfortune, Stanford staged a furious final minute drive. However, Naber's potential winning 57-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds sailed wide.
Following a bounce-back win at home over Arizona State on a rainy November 3, boosting Stanford's record to 5-3-1, the Cardinal lost its final two contests. First came a 10-3 home loss to Oregon. A week later, in the 82nd Big Game at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal fell to Cal 21-14, with Schonert's potential tying touchdown pass into the end zone falling incomplete in the final minute.
There would be no bowl game for Stanford, despite its final three losses coming by a touchdown or less, with the Cardinal having had a good chance to win all three. In this 1979 season of ups and downs --perhaps fittingly -- Stanford's final season record went into the books at 5-5-1.
And the ups and downs of the 1979 season continued after the pads were put away in late November. Senior quarterback Turk Schonert, who alternated at the quarterback position with Elway throughout the year, finished with high enough numbers of touchdowns, completions and completion percentage to be crowned the 1979 NCAA Division 1 passing champion. Yet the program also suffered a postseason loss, as head coach Rod Dowhower stepped down at season's end.
For all kinds of reasons, the 1979 Stanford football season continues to remain vivid in the Cardinal football memory archives.
© 2009 John F. Platz. All rights reserved. Rights granted to Stanford University to use on the GoStanford.com website