I've been covering the week of interviews and practices at Stanford as they prepare to face the mighty Oregon Ducks, in a game that's arguably a bigger deal in several areas throughout the country than the one where the game will take place. Stanford/Oregon isn't just another game, but to most of the people who live around here it might as well be.
I'll never forget driving across the country about 10 years ago on I-80. When we passed all those cornfields in Nebraska, my buddy and I were amazed. They were doing hourly updates on Cornhuskers preseason practices on the radio, focusing on all the hot-button issues in the region -- like Nebraska's third-string right guard missing practice that afternoon.
That's not an exaggeration, and anyone who's spent some time in the middle of the nation or the south knows this from experience. But after every practice I attended this week on The Farm (well, more like waited around at the end of practice since Cardinal practices are closed to the media), at the most there were 5-to-10 fans waiting to give a couple words of encouragement to the players and coaches as they walked off the field.
In the urban region known as the Bay Area, there are no college towns. There are cities and suburbs, and they're all influenced in certain ways by each other. There are plenty of teams. If one loses, there's always another team or season around the corner to check out. And since citizens have such a wide variety of choices, most prefer to watch highest level of competition: professional sports.
This isn't to say there aren't plenty of rowdy Stanford fans, or even more Cal backers who live and die with their favorite collegiate teams. But there's a measure of perspective here. College coaches aren't demigods. Andrew Luck can leave practice and go grab a bite in one of the school's regular dining halls without anyone bothering him.
Compare the Bay Area landscape with what happened at a college town called Happy Valley, where Nittany Lion football existed in a vacuum immune from scrutiny -- until a grand jury got wind of the horrific Jerry Sandusky and his serial raping of young boys. Nothing can possibly be worse than what Sandusky did, but how Penn State students reacted to the absolutely justified firing of head coach Joe Paterno was reprehensible in its own right.
Not only is it impossible to imagine that type of corruption -- covering up for an evil criminal -- occurring at Stanford (nor at Cal, San Jose St. or any other local university), there's no way the student body would riot when the beloved football team finally experienced some consequences. On the night of Nov. 9, several (not all, it should be noted) Penn State students effectively told the world, "There is nothing in the world more important than our football team."
I'm not looking to vilify the students involved, even though it's hard to respect their point of view. However, their reactions to the scandal and Paterno's ouster are a product of their environment:
-- A town where people don't just love the football team, but where so many businesses depend on the team for commerce-related reasons
-- An athletic department that answered to no one
-- The glorification of the team, coach and environment fostered by the town of Happy Valley, PA.
There are a lot of great things about college towns. The pageantry of college athletics at the highest levels is how we justify the corruption within athletic departments and the NCAA, the BCS, teams with comically low graduation rates and everything else. But when the team rules all, the ones in charge of the team are beyond reproach.
Much has been said about how little attention is paid to Stanford by local sports fans, even with a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback and a chance (so long as they win on Saturday evening vs. Oregon) to contend for the National Championship. Talk show hosts ask, "Where are the phone calls?" People wonder if anyone would even show up so early for ESPN Gameday, which was held on the Stanford campus starting at 7 am Saturday morning (students did show up, with some pretty hilarious signs including "Hey Oregon, think you could Steal the BCS computers for us too?!").
It would be nice if college athletics got its just due in the local media, and great teams such as Stanford's football team deserve attention and appreciation. However, the hysterical adulation that borders on religious zealotry seen in many college-focused regions isn't necessarily a good thing. I'm expecting a pretty loud Stanford Stadium when I head down there in a few minutes, but it's kind of nice that -- win or lose -- the students and fans in the Bay Area will react in the way people do when they know that what their watching is entertainment ... not life or death.