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Stanford downs Oregon and remains the West Coast's weird nerd overlord

SB Nation's Steven Godfrey got to know the rapidly evolving Cardinal fan base, which pairs nicely with a team built like the stone age never went out of style.

Stanford's band forms the Oregon logo. Because it's Stanford.
Stanford's band forms the Oregon logo. Because it's Stanford.
Steven Godfrey

Palo Alto, California. They are pushing a grocery cart with a battery-powered amp strapped to the side of a keg down the middle of the road, a wonderful jalopy rattling along in the wake of the marching band.They're not in the band, that band other fans talk about, the bizarre Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band. They're merely following, but the same spirit moves them. Running to groups of onlooking Oregon fans, they emphatically high-five anything wearing green or gold.

"Yeah! YEAH. Yes, yes, let's do this, yeah."

The visiting Ducks are confused, which is the point, although the point never gets any clearer than that. Irony? Mockery? Self-parody? The amp is blaring a mash of house and indecipherable rock, and as their leader pushes the cart along, various members approach the other band, the orderly Oregon band, waiting in lines to enter Stanford Stadium in bright white and green traditional uniforms.


It takes me the better part of 40 yards to catch up to the grocery cart, where the driver goes by "Miguel." He decides that's his name after giving me his real first and last name, then begging me not to use them, then providing two other aliases, then "Miguel," which is the name of a member of the group who isn't paying attention. For all their insistence on creating a bawdy, fearless deconstruction of college football fandom, Stanford students are hyper-aware of being caught on camera doing anything of note.

"Never know when you might get vetted one day," a member of the group explains.

For like, the presidency of a nation?

"Yeah, probably not. Still though."


Earlier in the afternoon, a student in line offers me a bottle of Red Stripe, but when he offers to hold up one of his NERD NATION signs, he quickly hides his beer out of sight despite being a year and change older than 21.

Nerd nation is a thing, a self-effacing mantra that's also meant to defy critics. It's why Cardinal players Tyler Gaffney, A.J. Tarpley and Shayne Skov showed up to Thursday's post-game press conference in black glasses with white tape on the bridges.

"We take pride in what we do," Skov said in explanation of the stunt.

We have arrived at our destination, a soccer field temporarily zoned for not only the Cardinal fraternities, but also a lavish, ticketed and walled-off pregame meal and mixer for Oregon alumni. The cart slowly disappears into a throng of drinking, smoking, grinding, screaming, and singing Stanford undergraduates.

Miguel is a Symbolic Systems major who demands that I do a keg stand as payment for any personal information supplied. His friends egg me on.

"That would make the story. That's a great sports story. That's Stanford, man. You have to do a keg stand!"

I decline politely, and another member of "Miguel's" fraternity is more than eager to take my place. Instead I promise to race a 19-year-old girl while shotgunning a beer as payment. She's wearing a cut-to-ribbons tank top that reads "DUCK THE FUCKS" over an extremely visible sports bra. Her hair and makeup are on par with a wedding day photo, so I assume that's the joke when she asks if I like her "outfit."


The Oregon vs. Stanford game is study of dynamics, not contrasts. Besides, all three sides agree it's not a rivalry -- Duck fans, Cardinal fans, and anyone remotely associated with or even someone who accidentally mentions Southern Cal.

"We've got Washington, [Stanford's] got [Cal], but everyone hates USC."
"Oregon is just a good team that's good the same time we are. There's Cal, and that's The Game, sure, but there's Southern Cal, and you want to win that every year, because they're awful," a young Stanford alumni in line for the bathroom explains.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," a 60-year-old man in a smoke-colored Marcus Mariota jersey pipes in. "We've got Washington, they've got their thing here, but everyone hates USC."

"Fuck L.A. forever, that's why," a voice calls out from a bathroom stall.

Both programs are considered nouveau riche in the longview, and both have carved out idiosyncratic philosophies on recruiting personnel and scheme. An outsider might easily want to swap their styles of play on cultural grounds -- surely the cutting edge of Silicon Valley would champion a system nicknamed "Blur" that reevaluates the scoring potential of everything, and if any kind of football would personify the survivalist ethos of Ken Kesey's rainy Oregon logging culture, it would be the power running game.

Alas, the Stanford monster run formation served to be a more fearsome troll of Oregon than anything the band ever did. The Cardinal's out-and-out domination of Oregon through three quarters of a 26-20 win on Thursday came from the repeated bludgeoning of 66 total runs and 157 yards from Tyler Gaffney, built by gaping rush lanes. And Stanford's defense flushed the idea that their 2012 win in Eugene was any kind of fluke, showing an even more refined ability to blow up screens and perimeter runs with aggression while maintaining disciplined downfield coverage.

Just like last season, right when the nation's curiosity about the Ducks' BCS title worthiness against Alabama was about to peak. As if it was the greatest Stanford band prank of all time. The Cardinal dressed up like Alabama for a night and beat Oregon's face in.

"Tonight you saw who we are: a big, physical team that plays extremely hard and plays very well together," Cardinal head coach David Shaw said to reporters after the game. Moments earlier he was more candid in his assessment, telling the Stanford radio network inside a boisterous locker room that Oregon "hadn't played a team as physical as this one."
In Stanford's second defeat of an undefeated Ducks team in as many seasons, it has again dismantled one of the sport's most unique and emerging brands. The scores of visiting Oregon fans in Palo Alto show off what branding can do. Oregon football has become a default association for the unaligned casual fan in the Pacific Northwest, similar to Alabama or Ohio State or USC. As their coaches enjoy reminding us, Nike didn't create Oregon's successful, seductive offense, but the company's ubiquity can cater towards every stripe of Duck fan, bandwagon blue collars in garish, neon yellow jerseys and disaffected hipsters in vintage, kelly green t-shirts alike.

Fandom, not offense, is the real contrast between the Pac-12's twin new regimes. But what Stanford lacks in ubiquity and mass appeal it more than makes up for its in unique evolution. There are plenty of the wine-and-cheese alumni you would expect the golden decades of traditional, Californian, white-private-school money would produce. They dot the dirt parking lots surrounding the football stadium, some tailgating out of vintage Mercedes with card tables full of corked chardonnay, some out of customized RVs adorned with Stanford's long-abandoned Indian logo. If they didn't own whatever company they work for, they asked off their jobs to get out here for a Thursday game.


"Good rule of thumb is, if you're looking for the wine crowd, just look for the Indians stuff. They were here when they were the Stanford Indians, so they are the Stanford Indians," a young alumni advises.

The young alumni are the most even-handed representation of Stanford football fandom. The name Tyrone Willingham means something to them, but they define themselves largely by the before-and-after of 1-11 campaigns and Jim Harbaugh's 2007 upset of USC. They're conscious that this is a fat, fun time. By contrast to the current student body, their enthusiasm is genuine and their football knowledge is on par with any self-respecting fan base's.

They took planes from New York and Chicago to get here, cities where all of a sudden Stanford bars can be found on Saturdays. And they confide that sometimes, some of those bars have Stanford fans that they think didn't even go to Stanford. (This detail is mentioned to me with honesty and bewilderment, and it's just precious).

Back at the soccer fields, an exceedingly polite group of older Oregon fans from Boise, Idaho, watch the Stanford students from a distance. A cardboard box half-full of ice goes flying, landing in the vicinity of a Stanford tailgate built for a Cialis ad's silver-haired, good-looking adults enjoying red wine on a blanket. This lot has only a genuine affection for their Cardinal, formerly Indians, and they laugh at the (possibly purposeful) crass display of the students.

At once the change in Stanford fandom is on display. Bookending those courteous and grounded young alumni are the old and the new Cardinal, all of whom suggest some California parents spared the rod to let the spirits of their children free. No one rails against old fans drinking merlot and wearing polos with Chief Wahoo-looking caricatures, and there's no admonishment of the current student body's post-ironic expressionism. There is no animosity between the groups, and no greater change in character generation to generation in any fan base in college football today.

"People here are really catching the vibe about being possibly pretty good at this football thing," one of the fraternity members explains. "You know, you don't like, ever go to Stanford expecting to be good at football, or caring about that."

Pretty good? You guys haven't missed the BCS since you've been a student here.

"Yeah. Oh yeah," he responds with a shrug.

There is a blaring, chest-thumping stereo threatening to drown out the table-clothed Oregon alumni dinner yards away, where the median age of fans in line to get their picture with Ducks mascot "Puddles" is 28. The music changes suddenly from dubstep to "Shout," the original Isley Brothers "Animal House" version, and students pop with excitement. But there's something in each of their shit-eating grins that suggests it's genuine enthusiasm and ironic excitement.

Stanford is really good at college football. This is the Stanford way of being excited. Get it?

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