There will come a point when Stanford football coach David Shaw is no longer asked about Stanford’s standing as an elite college football program.
To many, justifiably, it just doesn’t make sense. How can Stanford -- with its stringent academic admission requirements and relatively low standing on the Bay Area’s sports hierarchy -- compete with the big boys of college football?
In a bottom line business, the only thing that matters is that it has. And then some.
Stanford (11-2) returns to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000 Tuesday, where it’ll see the same opponent, Wisconsin (8-5), coached by the same man, Barry Alvarez, it saw 13 years ago. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m., on ESPN.
“Is this a chance to elevate on that next level?” Shaw asked. “We think we're there.”
Just three teams have played in a Bowl Championship Series game in each of the past three years: Oregon, Wisconsin and, yes, Stanford. Perhaps nothing else can illustrate just how far the Cardinal has come since current 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took over the program, with Shaw as his offensive coordinator, before the 2007 season.
For Shaw, this season was especially telling as to what kind of coach he is.
When the Cardinal went 12-1, capped by a 40-12 win against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, in 2010, common logic said Harbaugh was the reason.
49ers owner Jed York agreed. Four days after the triumph in Miami, Harbaugh was introduced as the 49ers coach.
When the Cardinal went 11-2 last year, including a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, the credit laid with quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Indianapolis Colts agreed. In April, they used the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft to bring Luck in to replace Peyton Manning.
When training camp broke this year, Stanford wasn’t labled a BCS-bowl game contender.
The Cardinal disagreed. It set the same goal is had the past couple season -- to win the Pac-12 title -- only this time Stanford accomplished just that. Neither Harbaugh nor Luck can claim as much.
With that success has come lofty praise for Shaw, who recently signed a longterm contract extension at Stanford. He’s on the radar of NFL general managers, but the NFL is off his radar. A Stanford man through-and-through, Shaw said he wants to remain in his current gig at least until his 2-year-old son receives a Stanford diploma.
“For me in my situation, I plan on being here for a long time,” he said. “I've passed up multiple opportunities and continue to pass up opportunities, because for me, this is the place for me and my family.”
Some coaches say that and it gets brushed aside as “coach speak,” but with Shaw it feels genuine. His father, Willie, served two stints as an assistant coach at Stanford, Shaw played wide receiver under Bill Walsh and Denny Green and has the groundwork laid to where the Cardinal should expect to compete for conference and possibly national titles well into the future.
Shaw sees a lot of his own team when he looks at Wisconsin, led by running back Montee Ball, the Doak Walker Award recepient.
“We're two similar teams that like to run the football and play great defense,” he said.
Because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play this season due to NCAA-enforced punishment, the Badgers -- despite losing five games -- played for the Big Ten title by default. In that game, they hammered Nebraska 70-31 to earn their third straight trip to Pasadena.
Just days after punching its ticket, Wisconsin learned its coach, Bret Bielema, accepted the same position at Arkansas, where he received a hefty pay increase. He left immediately and the Badgers were left with a major void.
At most places, the athletic director would have looked down the hall at one of the coordinators. Not at Wisconsin. Alvarez, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 2010, didn’t have to look outside his own office. Several players on the team approached the man they call “The Godfather” and asked if he’d make a return to the sideline for one final game and serve as the interim coach.
Who was he to deny them? He is, after all, undefeated against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
“Stanford was a very good team 13 years ago,” Alvarez said. “As a matter of fact, they were a very similar team. They're a physical team. We really struggled moving the ball, running the ball against them. I thought they were coached very well then.
“They're coached very well now. They're sound. You know, I think they play similar. They ran the ball well the last time around, they could throw it, and they were balanced.”
Stanford will likely rely heavily on running back Stepfan Taylor, the school’s all-time leading rusher (4,212 yards), much like it did a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl when Taylor ran for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Stepfan Taylor has set the tone for our offense from the beginning. It doesn't matter how many guys are in the box, we're going to hand the ball off to him,” Shaw said. “It doesn't matter sometimes if we don't block it perfectly. He's going to make a guy miss.”
When freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan isn’t handing off to Taylor -- or running it himself -- his top target is Alamo native Zach Ertz. The Monte Vista High graduate was a finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, and leads the team with 66 catches for 837 yards and six touchdowns.
It has long been assumed that he’ll forgo his final season of eligibility following this season to head to the NFL, where there stands a good likelihood he’ll be the first tight end drafted -- much like former teammate Coby Fleener was a year ago.
“After Coby Fleener’s season last year, I grabbed Zach and said, are you ready?” Shaw said. “He said ‘absolutely.’ I said ‘I don't know if you're ready. Do you know what I'm talking about? All that we did to get Coby open, you're going to get those opportunities and more.’”
The same can be said for Stanford and its Rose Bowl berth -- this is not the finish line for the program. It’s a stop along the way.
For live updates during the game, follow @KyleBonagura on Twitter