One troubled night following the death of his son, Leland Stanford was visited in his sleeping chamber by the boy's ghost. Observing that the old railroad tycoon had been weeping over his tragic loss, the shade admonished him for such self-indulgence and made what seemed a capital suggestion:
"Father, do not spend your life in vain sorrow," it said to him. "Do something for humanity. Build a university for the education of poor young men."
So Stanford did.
That, at least, is one explanation for the founding of Leland Stanford Junior University on Leland Senior's stock farm in Palo Alto, Calif. And though the story may be apocryphal, Stanford people are rather fond of it, for it tends to bolster their conviction that, although their university was erected on solid ground, it was at least celestially inspired.
Californians have long held to the view that there is, indeed, something otherworldly about Stanford. It is a prestigious private school of unimpeachable academic and social standing in a state where public education, particularly at the university and college level, has made its highest marks. Stanford is hardly the poor boy's school that the ghost had in mind—tuition will rise to $2,850 in September—but it has been so generously favored with scholarships that nearly half its 11,500 students are receiving financial aid of some sort.
Athletically, Stanford confounds its rivals by competing in the collegiate major leagues with a male undergraduate student body of little more than 4,000, with relatively few purely athletic scholarships and with an approach to sport bordering on the cavalier. Two successive Rose Bowl victories over heavily favored Big Ten schools with a much more orthodox football orientation testify to the effectiveness of this studied nonchalance.
Admittedly, it is no longer fashionable to attach cosmic significance to mere college football games. With the economic ax falling, college athletic departments, once the money trees, are rapidly becoming just additional flora in the groves of academe. But even with this changing attitude, Stanford's approach to big-time athletics seems outrageously casual.
"The schools we should be playing are Harvard, Yale and Princeton," says sociology professor Sanford Dornbusch, articulating a familiar Stanford complaint that invariably galls its colleagues in the Pacific-8 Conference. "But because of our physical isolation—airline costs, scheduling difficulties, etc.—we are to a large extent stuck in the Pacific-8. A lot of people wish we weren't. Athletes at Stanford are not heroes. Many of them feel they must counteract the image that they are animals. They feel a lot of pressure to do well academically and so they usually do. But the university really cares about them, about not exploiting them."
The Stanford athletic department is virtually self-supporting. The only direct funds it receives from the university are for partial support of the physical education program, an amount approximating $400,000 annually. The remainder of the department's $2.4-million budget comes from football gate receipts ( Stanford owns its own 87,000-seat stadium), concessions and television revenue, its golf course, gate receipts from other sports, notably basketball, stadium and arena rentals, coaching camps and a gym store. With this income, the department has finished from $100,000 to $400,000 in the black for the past seven years. The $400,000 or so it spends on athletic scholarships is raised not by the university proper, but by the 4,000-member Stanford Buck Club, which is composed of alumni and "friends of the university," some of them transplanted Easterners who find in Stanford the same sort of private school esprit I they had left behind.
A modern American university with a moneymaking athletic department can afford to assume a holier-than-thou posture before those less favored. Still, back-to-back Rose Bowl triumphs would seem an embarrassment to an institution that professes to have put football in its place as an extracurricular activity hardly more meaningful to the academic experience than folk dancing. And so it would, were it not for a certain psychological resourcefulness typical of Stanford. The wins over Ohio State and Michigan, Stanfordites will say, were of true significance because they represented triumphs of life-style. The seeds of these victories were sown not so much on the practice fields, it will be alleged, as in the psyches of the competitors. Stanford football players under their then coach, John Ralston, enjoyed extraordinary freedom. What they did off the field was their own concern. Discipline was not imposed from the outside; it was expected to come from within. The length of a player's hair, the cut of his clothes, were considered to be personal matters.