SALT LAKE CITY — Back in 2004, as Utah was set to play Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, the Panthers’ Walt Harris was a lame duck coach. Just three weeks before the Jan. 1 game in Phoenix, Harris was named head coach at Stanford, replacing Buddy Teevens.
Teevens was let go after three forgettable seasons at Stanford, compiling a 10-23 record and finishing 8th twice and 9th in the Pac-10. But Harris turned out to be worse, going 5-6 his first year, followed by a 1-11 season in 2006. His winning percentage of .261 was the worst in school history and he was fired after his second season.
It was rock bottom for a Stanford program that had won the Pac-10 title and gone to the Rose Bowl just seven years earlier under Tyrone Willingham and has employed some of the top college football coaches in history, from the legendary Walter Camp in the 1890s to Glenn (Pop) Warner in the 1920s to Bill Walsh in the 1970s and ‘90s.
So how did Stanford, which plays at Utah Saturday at 4 p.m., turn around its program so quickly after that dismal 1-11 season just seven years ago?
The credit has to go to current San Francisco 49er coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned the Cardinal into a national power in just four years.
Harbaugh came up from the University of San Diego in 2007 and immediately made a difference for the Cardinal. The year before under Harris, the Cardinal scored only 127 points on the season, scoring above 10 points just three times. In Harbaugh’s first year, they nearly doubled that number with 235, improving to 4-8.
The improvement continued every year as the Cardinal went to 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 in 2010 when they averaged 40 points a game, won the Orange Bowl over Virginia Tech 40-12 and finished ranked No. 4 in the country.
David Shaw, just 38 at the time, was promoted from offensive coordinator, and the Cardinal didn’t miss a beat, going 11-2 in 2011, losing a heartbreaker in overtime to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl and coming back with a 12-2 season and beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Both years, Stanford ended up ranked No. 7 in the country.
That brings us to this year where the Cardinal are ranked No. 5 in the country with a senior-dominated, well-balanced team that doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses.
The Cardinal have an experienced returning quarterback in Kevin Hogan, who has completed 63 percent of his passes for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns this year. They also have a senior running back in Tyler Gaffney, who ranks 37th in the country in rushing at 89 yards per game.
On top of that, the defense is supposed to be one of the best the school has ever had with several NFL prospects and eight starters back from last year’s team, which held Oregon to 14 points in an upset victory. The offensive line has four senior starters back and the new starter is a former Parade All-American, 6-7, 312-pound Andrus Peat at left tackle.
No wonder Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says, “They’re very deserving of their ranking. They're the most physical team that we've played to date, without a doubt, the most physical team in the Pac-12 in my estimation, at least to this point in time.
The Cardinal may not be as explosive as Ute opponents Oregon State or UCLA, but are efficient. And they do have one player the Utes will need to stop in order to win in Ty Montgomery, who amassed 290 all-purpose yards last week in the win over Washington. Not only did he return the opening kickoff 99 yards, he also returned a kickoff 68 yards to set up another score and caught a 39-yard pass from Hogan.
“The Montgomery kid is a real weapon, so we’ve got to try to keep the ball out of his hands,’’ Whittingham said.
On defense, Stanford is also very experienced with six seniors among its front seven. Fifth-year senior linebacker Trent Murphy is tied for eighth on Stanford’s all-time list for sacks and earlier this year returned an interception for a touchdown.
STANFORD NOTES: Two of Stanford’s coaches are former coaches at Utah. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason coached wide receivers and special teams at Utah in 2002, while inside linebackers coach David Kotulski coached the U. defensive line and linebackers in 1978-79 . . . The only player from Utah on the Stanford roster is quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who hails from Pleasant Grove . . . Stanford’s 13-game winning streak is tied for second longest in school history . . . The last time Stanford played in Salt Lake it took a 27-20 victory in 1995. The following year, the Utes won at Stanford 17-10 . . . Stanford’s last visit to the state of Utah was in 2003 when the Cardinal defeated BYU 18-14 . . . Two coaches with local ties once coached at Stanford. Jack Curtice left Utah in 1957 to coach at Stanford, but only managed a 14-36 record in five seasons. He was replaced in 1962 by former Utah State coach John Ralston, who was more successful, going 55-36-3 from 1963-1971.