As lopsided as the 116th Big Game promises to be Saturday, the distance between the teams on the field is minute compared to the integrity gap separating the rival programs.
Stanford is the first school to win a BCS bowl game while graduating 100 percent of its football players and Cal is dead last among major conference universities with a 44 percent graduation rate among freshmen who enrolled from 2003-04 through 2006-07.
Earlier this week, Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour admitted that the university caved into the pressure to win, lowering its admission standards for revenue-generating athletes, another colossal mess that coach Sonny Dykes will need to clean up to turnaround the Bears’ program.
Fortunately, Stanford has provided a model for how to be successful on the gridiron while maintaining high-academic standards in the classroom.
“I think we know the formula,” Dykes said. “It’s doesn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen overnight with Stanford.”
Dykes watched Shaw’s TEDx Talk over the summer and acknowledged that his plan for Cal is “remarkably similar.”
Seven years ago, the fortunes of Cal and Stanford were flipped. In 2006, Cal put together its second 10-win season in three years while Stanford waffled through a 1-11 campaign.
At the time, ideas of dropping the Cardinal football program or moving it out of Division I to a lower level of competition were being tossed around the Farm.
Instead, Shaw and his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, built a powerhouse by targeting players who are also driven to compete in Stanford’s elite academic environment.
Dykes said the prioritization of character can also work at Cal.
“You’ve got to build it with people who appreciate the team concept and accountability,” Dykes said.
Earlier this year, Dykes dismissed former four-star recruit Chris McCain for behavior detrimental to the team, proving that character trumps short-term gratification in his locker room.
“It’s hard to see that when you don’t come to practice and you’re not around our players all the time, but we feel like positive change is taking place,” Dykes said. “We know, at some point, we’ll get the results on the field — the results are the last thing that happen.”
Dykes is under more pressure right now to overhaul his team’s academic performance than he is to win games. Cal alumni are used to watching bad football, but it won’t tolerate stains on the school’s reputation.
At least one person is convinced that Dykes is up for the job.
“I do know talking to Sonny not too long after he got the job that that was a huge focus, of making sure that there graduation rate rises, making sure that they’re getting the kids that will put as much time into their studies as they do into football,” Shaw said. “I think Sonny’s going to do a great job there.”
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@ sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.