Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby made the only decision he could Tuesday, firing Walt Harris as football coach.
Bowlsby noted that the lagging attendance, even with a new stadium, was a factor because football helps pay the cost of Stanford’s program of 32 varsity sports, largest in the country.
But there were more important factors. On Friday, I wrote about the discontent among Stanford alumni. There was also what amounted to a silent revolt among players.
Harris bonded with his quarterbacks — Trent Edwards gave him a strong public endorsement last week — because working with quarterbacks is his specialty.
He was almost hired to do that with the 49ers 20 years ago. But Bill Walsh chose Mike Holmgren instead.
Harris’ relationship with other players, though, was much more contentious.
Privately, they complained of mental abuse. One star player — linebacker Michael Okwo — refused to participate in a postgame media conference because of his disapproval of the program. Significantly, as the season went on, Harris brought more freshman players to the postgame interviews because they were not as alienated as the older players.
In a serious development for the future of the program, there were reportedly several players ready to transfer if Harris had been retained.
In April, the NCAA approved a new bylaw that permits athletes who have earned a bachelor’s degree to transfer to another school and play while pursuing a graduate degree, without sacrificing any remaining eligibility.
Several players have already taken advantage of this change. Defensive back Ryan Smith transferred from Utah, where he had played for Urban Meyer, to Florida, where Meyer is now the coach. Offensive tackle Tyler Kreig transferred from Duke to Cal and quarterback Richard Kovalcheck from Arizona to Vanderbilt.
Stanford reportedly has several players in that category. In the admissions process, considerable weight is given to the AP college credits that high school student-athletes can earn. Some Stanford athletes enter school with enough credits to be sophomores. If they redshirt their first season, they can graduate and still have two years of academic eligibility left, which is the case for these players.
This is not the first time Harris has had problems. At Pitt, though he took his team to bowl games in six of the eight seasons, his contract was not renewed when it expired, leaving him free to take the Stanford job after Buddy Teevens was fired.
In many ways, he seemed a good fit at Stanford, with roots in the Bay Area going back to his youth in South San Francisco. But he never seemed to understand that coaching at Stanford is different. The athletes are also exceptional students and they will question authority. A coach can’t simply tell the players what to do, as he might be able to do at the obvious football schools.
Harris also didn’t understand that he had to schmooze the alumni and be at least civil to the media.
In fairness, he didn’t inherit a team with much talent. Teevens had left the cupboard bare and the tightened admissions standards have made it very tough to recruit. His team also suffered from a series of injuries to key players, including Edwards.
But when the excitement created by the new stadium evaporated, when alumni and player discontent escalated, Bowlsby had no choice. This was a no-brainer.