Ever since Stanford’s upset of Michigan in January of 1972, they had failed to reach the Rose Bowl. Over the years, though they had some good football teams from time to time they had struggled to win the Pac-10 and to reach the Rose Bowl. As other teams such as USC, UCLA and Washington dominated the conference, Stanford often struggled just to put together a competitive team. Many of their teams were pathetic and they were often viewed as a dormant program of their conference. That changed in 1999 when coach Tyrone Willingham led the Cardinal to a surprising Rose Bowl appearance. This is their story.
Building a Champion
When Tyrone Willingham was hired in 1995 to replace the recently departed Bill Walsh, the Cardinal was coming off a dismal 3-7-1 season. In Willingham’s first year, he led the Cardinal to a 7-4-1 record and a loss in the Liberty Bowl, a complete turnaround from the year before. The following year, the Cardinal went 7-5 and won the Sun Bowl 38-0. The next two years were difficult with Stanford going 5-6 and 3-8, missing the postseason both years.
However, hope was not lost as Willingham had been quietly building a championship-level team. In 1996, he added quarterback Todd Husak and wide receiver Troy Walters to the roster. In 1997, he recruited and signed defensive tackle Willie Howard and linebacker Riall Johnson. In 1998, quarterback Randy Fasani, running back Brian Allen, offensive tackle Eric Heitmann and free safety Tank Williams joined the program. By the time 1999 began, running back Kerry Carter had enrolled at Stanford.
Stanford began a most unanticipated season by losing to Texas 69-17. The Cardinal were down but they were not out. In the ensuing three weeks they entered the field with a vengeance and took out their frustrations on some of the most highly ranked teams that they would face all year. Todd Husak led the Cardinal to a 54-17 victory over Washington State by passing for 215 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for a fourth.
The following week against #19 Arizona, Walters led the team to a 50-22 victory by catching eight passes for 168 yards. The defense stepped up the next week against #21 UCLA by holding running back DeShaun Foster to 100 yards on 19 carries as the Cardinal offense tried valiantly to keep up in the shootout. Stanford relied on two quarterbacks in this game as Husak was injured early in the contest. Joe Borchard took the rest of the snaps and passed for 324 yards and five touchdowns in the 42-32 thriller.
After their thrilling win over UCLA, the Cardinal football team figured that San Jose State would be an easy match. They could not have been more wrong as a porous defense could not stop the resilient Spartans offensive assault, losing 44-39. They bounced back the following week against Oregon State, defeating the Beavers 21-17.
The Cardinal was on a roll and were greatly anticipating their visit to the LA Coliseum to face off against traditional conference power USC. It was a game for the ages. Stanford was down by 21 points at the end of the first quarter and looked to be out of the contest early. However, this was a different Stanford squad and not the pushovers of the past. Early in the second quarter, running back Coy Wire scored on a two-yard run and after a Trojan field goal, Husak threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to DeRonnie Pitts right before the half to pull within ten. After that late score, Stanford was fired up for the second half and Husak quickly threw a touchdown pass to Dave Davis. The tide was turning on the Trojans and Stanford defensive back Chris Johnson returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown to take a 28-24 lead.
The Cardinal may have taken a lead but USC refused to lose as quarterback Van Raaphorst launched a 64-yard touchdown strike just minutes after Stanford had taken the lead. The Coliseum was in a frenzy as the Trojans took a 31-28 lead but despite the momentum shift, Stanford found something within themselves that they could not find in so many other meetings over the decades.
What followed was an inspirational 14 play, 95 yard drive which ended with Todd Husak barging into the endzone on the opening play of the four quarter. Time after time, the Trojans tried in vain to overpower the Cardinal’s defense and time after time, Stanford denied USC their anticipated score. After a tense, defensive driven fourth quarter, Stanford beat USC 35-31.
The game proved to be the turning point in Stanford’s season. It didn’t matter that they lost to Washington 35-30, they knew that no matter what they would not be denied the Pac-10 championship. After losing to Washington, Stanford finished the regular season winning their last three games, including a 40-37 thriller over Notre Dame. With a long-coveted Pac-10 championship in hand, Stanford was headed to the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl was a defensive struggle with the Cardinal trying in vain to halt the powerful running of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Though the Cardinal was up 9-3 at the half, the hardnosed running of Dayne ultimately wore them down. Dayne finished the day with 200 yards on 34 carries and one touchdown while the Badgers ground out a 17-9 victory. Stanford’s magical season was suddenly over, with no Rose Bowl trophy to show for it.
That 1999 squad had several members reach the NFL including consensus All-American/Fred Biletnikoff Award winner/Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Troy Walters, Todd Husak, Randy Fasani, Riall Johnson, Willie Howard, Brian Allen and Eric Heitmann. After that magical season, Stanford struggled to recapture the fire that fueled their great run. In 2000, they finished with a 5-6 record and in 2001, Randy Fasani led the Cardinal to a 9-3 record and a loss in the Seattle Bowl. 2001 was Tyrone Willingham’s last at the Farm as he was soon hired to be Notre Dame’s head coach. Stanford struggled mightily from then until 2009 under the leadership of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck.