Nov. 26, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. - When John Lynch looks back on his football career - one that spanned 15 NFL seasons, and included nine Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship - he remembers Oct. 3, 1992.
That was the day Stanford rallied from a 16-point deficit against a typically great Notre Dame team of the era, one that produced seven first-round NFL draft picks over the next two years. Yet, it was Stanford that earned a 33-16 victory and launched the Lynch legend as one of the fiercest hitters in football history.
In 1992, Lynch hardly resembled that persona, to all but one man at least. He still was regarded as an erstwhile quarterback with a future in baseball. However, one game and one hit changed that thinking and, to this day, Lynch regards that game as perhaps the greatest he ever played, and certainly the most significant.
Lynch arrived at Stanford in 1989 as a blue-chip quarterback recruit from Torrey Pines High School in San Diego. But three years later, he still was unable to win a starting job. When he failed to beat out Jason Palumbis during 1991 fall camp, Lynch requested a switch to the secondary.
"I thought I was quitting football," said Lynch, who also played baseball at Stanford. "It was really just frustration. Baseball was going well, but I wasn't really giving either sport my full concentration. I thought of maybe transferring. Instead, I just wandered into (coach) Denny Green's office and said, `Just put me on the field.'"
Three weeks later, in the season opener, Lynch started at free safety. But after two games, he was replaced.
Again, Lynch questioned his commitment to football. That was when Bill Walsh came into the picture. Green had left Stanford to coach the Minnesota Vikings, and Walsh, who built the San Francisco 49ers into an NFL dynasty, was returning to the program he once coached.
Lynch had a decision to make. He was a 1992 second-round draft pick by baseball's Florida Marlins and signed for $100,000, throwing the first pitch in the history of the organization for the Single-A Erie Sailors. However, if he gave up football, Lynch was promised a "pretty lucrative" deal.
Walsh called Lynch into his office.
"Listen, I understand you have a heck of an opportunity with the Marlins," he said. "But I think you could be a Pro Bowl safety."
You've got to be kidding, Lynch thought to himself. He had just started playing the position and wasn't even playing that much.
"With all due respect ... ," Lynch began to say.
About then, Walsh popped in a videotape of Lynch making a play. It was followed by footage of 49ers All-Pro Ronnie Lott making a similar play. Another of Lynch was followed by another of Lott, and so on.
For the first time, Lynch caught a vision of his own football potential.
"By the end of that meeting, I called my dad and said we've got to call the Marlins," Lynch said.
With Lynch entrenched at free safety, Stanford traveled to South Bend to play Notre Dame. The Cardinal was 3-1, but had yet to coalesce despite outstanding personnel, Lynch said. Walsh was in the twilight of his coaching career, had lost some of his focus and had stocked his staff with several of his former players who were new to the coaching profession.
But as the game drew closer, Walsh's fire returned.
"He had us believing we were going to beat Notre Dame," Lynch said. "That game, Bill Walsh flat-out outcoached them. You saw why he was regarded as `The Genius.'"
The game started poorly for Stanford. Steve Stenstrom was sacked in the end zone for a safety on the game's first play and Lynch was knocked cold during the first quarter, the only concussion he suffered during his football career, as Notre Dame built a 16-0 lead.
Lynch emerged from his fog at halftime and changed the game. On the first play of the second half, the Fighting Irish sent its battering ram of a fullback, 250-pound Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, charging off tackle, only to be met by Lynch, full-force.
Lynch hit him so hard that Bettis' helmet and the football went flying, sending shock waves over silent Notre Dame Stadium. Stanford recovered at the Irish 22-yard line, scored three plays later and the comeback was on.
"I don't know if that ever happened to him before," Lynch said. "With a big back like Bettis, everyone goes low. I think I kind of surprised him."
Later, during their years together in the NFL, Bettis told Lynch, "Not many people took me on like that."
The nationally-televised collision that got Stanford back in the game, was big for Lynch too. He would end up with nine tackles and an end-zone interception of a Rick Mirer pass that would have given Notre Dame the lead.
"Until you do it on a big stage, you don't really know how you're going to react in those situations," Lynch said. "After that game, I really felt I could play at a high level.
"It ignited my passion for the NFL. I knew then, in my mind, that I really wanted to play in the NFL."
Walsh would coach two more years at Stanford, but neither came close to approaching the 10-3 season that included a Pac-10 co-championship, a 24-3 Blockbuster Bowl victory over Penn State, and a No. 9 final ranking.
"I really felt that at the end of that year, we could've played with anyone in the country," Lynch said. "That Notre Dame game really was the start for us."
It was Walsh's swan song and Lynch's launchpad, rolled into one unforgettable day.
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FOOTBALL: Taggart heads home
"I feel like the proud older brother," Harbaugh said.
That's not too far off. Taggart has prided himself as an honorary member of the Harbaugh family.
Taggart, who spent the past three years as Stanford's running backs coach, will leave the Cardinal for his new post after Saturday's game against Notre Dame.
Besides his coaching duties, Taggart was vital for his role as a recruiter, helping the Cardinal make great strides in the South.
"Willie's just so generous," Harbaugh said. "His integrity and character comes through in the recruiting process. He's enthusiastic and deathly loyal. Western got the perfect guy."
Taggart was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at Western Kentucky, where he spent 12 years, four as a star quarterback and eight more as a coach - mostly under Jim's father, Jack Harbaugh.
It was Jack who represented Taggart at the induction ceremony on Nov. 7, when Taggart was coaching against Oregon. That was fitting considering how closely Taggart's career has been tied to the Harbaughs. Jim, representing his father, recruited Taggart to Western Kentucky in the first place.
"Since 1994, when I met Jim Harbaugh, my life has gone nowhere but up," Taggart said. "That family changed my life for the better."
Taggart described Jack Harbaugh as his mentor.
"Jack made me understand the game of football," Taggart said. "He helped me grow into a young man. I always knew if I had a problem I could talk to him. I was one of those guys who never wanted to let him down."
Toby Gerhart, Stanford's record-setting running back, said of Taggart, "He's definitely been a big reason for my success, in terms of understanding the game - reading the safety rotations for blitzes, footwork, ball-handling, all the little intricate details that make you a better player."
Taggart called Gerhart on Sunday to tell him the news, before the hiring was announced. Gerhart said he appreciated the gesture.
"I'm super excited for him," Gerhart said. "That's a huge thing, and he gets to go where he's a legend. That's wonderful for him and his family."
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FOOTBALL: Gerhart's last home game?
Though Gerhart said he may return for a fifth year at Stanford if his NFL draft status is not projected to be high enough for his liking, the senior running back, and Harbaugh, seem content with the fact that Gerhart is likely to be playing his final home game Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
Does Harbaugh think Gerhart is ready for the NFL?
"I do, I really do," Harbaugh said. "There's no question running backs have a shelf life. I think he's more than ready to make that step. If he's going to be drafted high enough, that's something we will encourage."
Gerhart was specific in the decision-making process, saying he will wait until after Stanford's bowl game, and then send paperwork to the NFL in order to get an evaluation. If he chooses to go pro, Gerhart will forego the Stanford baseball season in order to prepare for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 24-March 2, 2010.
Will there be some sense of sadness Saturday?
"I think so," Gerhart said. "I remember in my senior year in high school, our championship game was played on our own field. After the game, our seniors made one last walk, 100 yards down the field. It was really emotional."
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FOOTBALL: Sherman may return
Senior Richard Sherman struggled some in his first year at cornerback after making the switch from wide receiver, and even was removed from the starting lineup for one midseason game because of ineffectiveness. But since then, Sherman has been a force - breaking up passes, applying tight coverage, and intercepting two passes, including a backbreaking 43-yard return for a touchdown against USC.
Now, there seems a possibility that Sherman could return for a fifth year, because he could be ruled a medical redshirt after playing only four games in 2008.
"I was really proud of how Richard played in the last game, and how far he's come in such a short time," Harbaugh said. "I think he's going to get better. He's got a very good chance of coming back next year. I feel he wants to, and I want him to."
* * *
MEN'S SOCCER: Under the radar
The Stanford men's soccer team has anonymously advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, where the Cardinal will visit No. 1 Akron on Sunday.
Two factors have made Stanford almost invisible this season. The Cardinal was coming off a 4-11-3 season, plus the team has been overshadowed by its Cagan Stadium counterparts, the Stanford women's team, which is 23-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
While the Stanford women have sold out six home games, including an NCAA quarterfinal match against Boston College on Friday that sold out 2,200 seats in fewer than five hours, the men have struggled at the gate. Only the Senior Night match against rival Cal exceeded 1,000, and a home first-round match against Saint Mary's drew only 742.
"At first I thought about it and said, `Yeah, it stinks that the girls' team sells out in five hours and ours doesn't sell out, period,'" senior goalkeeper John Moore said. "But when you take a second glance at it, it didn't happen overnight. This is the third or fourth year in a row that they've made it this far."
Senior captain Michael Strickland agrees, saying his team has to earn the attention with sustained excellence.
"I'm not going to kid myself and say it doesn't hurt to have a lot of the attention going to other teams," Strickland said. "Rightfully so, because the past few years, we haven't been winning. I don't really expect it to come overnight. I don't expect us to receive respect until, over the years, we've earned it."
The Cardinal is earning it this year, by reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. Stanford is 12-5-2, playing typical hard-nosed stifling defense, but also has an offensive dimension that it didn't have before. The additions of freshmen Adam Jahn and Dersu Albolfathi, the emergence of players such as Garrett Gunther, Daniel Leon and Ryan Thomas, and the experience of Strickland, Moore, and Bobby Warshaw, who made a seamless transition from offense to central defense, have all had an affect on the team's turnaround.
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WOMEN'S SOCCER: Fine without attention
Junior forward Christen Press has the second-highest scoring season in Stanford women's soccer history, but you'd hardly know it. Press has received little press, in spite of her amazing 19 goals and 13 assists (51 points). That's because teammate Kelley O'Hara has 59 points (23 goals, 13 assists) and is the new Stanford record-holder in season goals and points.
If Press is bothered by the lack of attention, it doesn't show.
"No, I just feel lucky to have great players around me," Press said. "You just have to think about it with an outside perspective: Will I ever have another opportunity to play with such an amazing player as Kelley? Playing with her is part of the reason I'm having such a good season, and I would hope that it's vice versa. So, it's not a bad thing in any sense."
This is the third collegiate season O'Hara and Press have played together, but they also were teammates on the United States under-23 national team and with the Pali Blues, a summer semipro team.
"That made a big difference," Press said. "When I watch Kelley play, I would guess about 80 percent of the time I know where she wants the ball or what she wants to do or where she wants me to be."
Press has scored three of top-ranked Stanford's five postseason goals going into its NCAA quarterfinal match against visiting Boston College on Friday at 7 p.m.
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FOOTBALL: The Pioneer
A professor at West Virginia State, Oree Banks, is conducting a nationwide research project in which he's trying to find the first African-American assistant football coaches hired at each NCAA Division I school. In looking through the archives for Banks' project, it was discovered that Stanford's first was Bill Moultrie, who was hired by John Ralston in 1968.
Moultrie, who had been a successful football and track coach at since-closed Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto, initially coached the defensive backs. He went on to become the head freshman coach in 1969-70, and then was the special teams coach in 1971-72.
That Moultrie was on the staff of two Rose Bowl-winning teams is not surprising, considering his later success. He left in 1973 for Howard University where he remained as track coach until 1999. He won 10 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships, was an assistant coach for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, and was elected to the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
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HOME GAME OF THE WEEK: Women's soccer vs. Boston College, Friday, 7 p.m.
The top-ranked Cardinal takes on Boston College at a soldout Laird Q. Cagan Stadium for the right to advance to the NCAA College Cup. There are many similarities between the two sides. Both have advanced with three consecutive shutouts, both play a possession style, and both boast strong offenses and stingy defenses.
The winner plays the winner of Saturday's UCLA-Portland match, in the semifinals in College Station, Texas, on Dec. 4.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
Ideas for future notebook items are welcomed. Please contact David Kiefer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Past editions of the weekly Cardinal Insider can be found on the main page of gostanford.com by clicking on "General Releases" from the "Sports" pull-down menu.