Cardinal Connection: Football
Traditional fall sport seasons are looking a little different these days. The Cardinal Connection series provides a unique perspective in how teams are communicating, navigating challenges, embracing opportunities, and staying engaged -- all while remaining focused on their championship goals. The first edition offers an inside look at the football program.
THROUGHOUT THE MOST unusual off-season in Stanford football history, the program vowed to "relentlessly adapt."
For Stanford football, the theme of 'relentlessly adapt' is to embrace change, stay positive, and excel under whatever conditions are presented. With the season scheduled to open Nov. 7 at Oregon, Stanford has followed that theme as it transitions into the final stages of game preparation, an achievement in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We've been living 2-3 weeks at a time, just because things have changed so quickly," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, a few days before the Pac-12 CEO Group approved the start of the season. "There were so many unanswered questions."
With players dispersed after the March campus shutdown, Cullen Carroll, the Kissick Family Director of Football Sports Performance, sent out surveys to evaluate home workout spaces. The staff found wildly different environments and worked with players on problem solving. For instance, if a player had no squat rack and needed a max-effort lower body movement, maybe lunges up stairs while carrying a medicine ball would do. This was adaptation.
Matt Doyle, Senior Associate Athletics Director and Director of Football Operations and Player Development, said organizing the trip to Australia for the 2017 opener was daunting, but nothing compared to this because of the constant change and so many unknowns.
"This entire process, the hardest thing has been interpersonal, not being around each other," Shaw said. "We are social creatures and you join a team to be part of something. The second-hardest thing is not having a calendar. Coaches exist on calendars."
The Cardinal shifted gears – going home in March, returning in June, returning home in August, and now returning for the season.
"When you become a head coach, no matter how prepared you are, there's nothing that prepares you for the fact that you're going to spend most of your time on non-sports related things," Shaw said. "This process has been crazy for me, an education on a lot of things. It's my job to get our players to understand why we're doing what we're doing, to look at what we can do and give our all in doing it."
LIMITATIONS HAVE INCLUDED only two players sharing a ball. A center could snap to a quarterback, but then the ball would need to be sanitized. No combinations of center to quarterback to running back. Or center to QB to receiver. Social distancing was mandatory.
There are capacities for practice fields among players, coaches, athletic trainers, equipment managers and operations. Movement between fields is not allowed.
Weight-room equipment was moved from the basement of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center to the concourse at Maples Pavilion – an open-air environment. Performance coaches manage small groups at a time.
Recruiting has changed too. No campus visits for recruits. Plus, many states, including California, are not playing fall high school football. Players must be evaluated from film of workouts, practices, training, and participation in other sports. Shaw's staff is tapping into coaches and counselors.
"We make the argument that these restrictions have been the hardest on us around the country because we all know how special Stanford is," Shaw said. "Not being able to walk around campus, not being able to show people around, not being able to get people around our student-athletes.
"No other football program in America asks what our guys have to do to get here, which is taking AP courses, taking a tougher path. Without that motivation, it's hard to get guys to do that from a distance. We've had to be inventive and come up with a way to show people Stanford virtually."
Shaw is confident Stanford and the program will sell themselves.
"This has been a really difficult situation," Shaw said. "But at the same time, I remind our staff every single year, we always end up with the right guys – guys that want to be here, guys that deserve to be here. They end up finding their way here.
"All we have to do is continue to lay the path out for those guys, continue to find them, entice them with what Stanford has to offer, both at Stanford and beyond Stanford, and we'll end up with a great group."
AS STANFORD POWERS up for the season, Shaw is comfortable with the state of the program, with help from the logistical work of Doyle and Callie Dale in operations, Carroll's staff in matching peak performance to the moving target of an ever-changing calendar, and Nathan Peck's athletic training staff in understanding the team's medical needs.
"Our conference has been true to what we said, which was we're going to follow the advice of our medical experts and follow the direction of our counties," Shaw said. "We've done all we can to make sure it's as safe as possible for our student-athletes."
"As long as our student-athletes are being taken care of, as long as their families understand how well we were taking care of them, to get this unbelievable education and have an opportunity that is safe for them to thrive athletically, those are the things that matter to us.
The bottom line: "Our guys want to play," Shaw said. "They've put up with all the inconveniences because they want to play."
Now, the team is back, the opener is set, and the Stanford football season finally is upon us.