Monday, November 29, 2010

Memo to Stanford Faculty and Administration re: Harbaugh

Stanford University clings to the principle of excellence.  When it hires a full professor, that individual is reckoned to be in the top three in his/her field.  Admission to Stanford is highly competitive, with one in thirteen applicants admitted to the freshman class.  Stanford routinely wins more NCAA championships than any other university despite its relatively small undergraduate student body.

Except in football!

I’ve been watching Stanford football since 1971.  This year’s team is the best I’ve seen, compiling the most wins in Stanford history.  Coach Jim Harbaugh is probably the most coveted coach in the nation for college and pro teams looking for new leadership.  He is likely to receive several multi-million dollar offers to leave Stanford and take up a new head coaching position.

When a professor receives an offer from another university, Stanford usually tries to match or beat that offer.  Stanford tries to attract the best students by matching or exceeding financial offers they receive from other schools.

But Stanford does not treat its football coach the same way.  Paying millions to a football coach, even one of the top three in the country, is not in keeping with Stanford’s educational values, even though Stanford football competes against top national programs.  Don’t the players deserve the same first-rate instruction in football that students receive in the classroom?

Why this departure from excellence?  I suspect it is faculty jealousy over highly-paid athletic coaches at an Ivy League quality academic institution.  Harvard, Yale, and Princeton do not pay their coaches seven-figure salaries, but neither do their football teams play national powers.

I have little doubt that John Arrillaga would happily pick up whatever cost it would take to keep Harbaugh at Stanford.  Barring a change in policy, Stanford is not likely to try to match or beat a multi-million dollar offer.   Too bad.  Maybe the students can start a petition drive to help keep him.


shotgundaddy said...

Amen. I'm not sure what the atmosphere is within the athletic department, but I'm wondering if there also might be concerns about jealousies amongst the coaches. Harbaugh, after all, hasn't won anything more than an Axe, while other coaches on campus have won multiple national championships in their sports. The football program obviously brings more prestige to the university than sports like swimming or volleyball or cross country, so while jealousy might be understandable, I don't think it should stand in the way of retaining an individual who is one of the best at what he does.

You're in a position of far greater influence than I; spread the word -- maybe there's hope. I'll link to your memo on my site tomorrow. You can look for it at

Chris L said...

I think the administration is probably well aware of the opinion of students, so a student petition won't do much. More powerful might be a faculty petition, or a Faculty Senate resolution supporting market rate compensation across all departments (specifically athletics).

stoussaint said...

Here's an on-line petition anyone can sign ...

smallchou said...

While I would love for Coach Harbaugh to stay at Stanford, the reality is that market rate compensation will not keep him if he is the highly-competitive and ambitious individual that he appears to be.

Despite what the program has accomplished in the past few years, the school has a limited brand in the football world. This distinction is important because I imagine Stanford's ability to retain faculty is often the combination of 1) market rate compensation, and 2) the knowledge that Stanford's academic reputation makes it a "destination job".

There are schools in football and basketball that have built such a brand over time, but not often in a world where a clear hierarchy already exists. In recent memory, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke is probably one of the only examples of taking a program to "Tier 1" status within the hierarchy of program reputations. After all, there is a reason that Mike Montgomery left when many of us thought he had almost turned Stanford into such a destination job.

Why is Stanford's brand not an issue in other sports? In those sports we either happen to already have a first-rate reputation (Women's Basketball, Baseball, Men's and Women's Tennis, etc.) built on decades of competing for national championships or there is less of a clear hierarchy.

In the end, a successful coach will only stay at Stanford in Men's Basketball or Football for a combination of two reasons:

1) Opportunity to build a legacy over decades (Mike Krzyzewski). Given Coach Dawkins' history at Duke, he may be approaching the Stanford job with this in mind. Time will tell if everything aligns here.
2) Outsized compensation relative to the highest-profile alternatives that a coach has. And in Coach Harbaugh's, his highest-profile alternatives are not actually in his current market (college football), but are rather the NFL.