STANFORD, Calif. – Dr. Michael Longaker might be the only university medical professor in the country who texts regularly with the athletic director and head football and basketball coaches. He plays an important, behind-the-scenes role for the Stanford Athletics, and his value can’t be underestimated.
The Deane P. and Louise Mitchell Professor in the School of Medicine, and Professor of Bioengineering and of Materials Science and Engineering, Dr. Longaker is one of the most highly-regarded professionals in his field. Born in Detroit, he graduated from Michigan State and Harvard Medical School; did general surgery at UCSF; did plastic and reconstructive surgery at NYU; did cranial facial surgery at UCLA; returned to NYU to direct research programs for surgery; then was recruited by the Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford nearly 15 years ago to direct research programs.
He’s also a sports nut.
Dr. Longaker played basketball at Michigan State, where he backed up All-America point guard Magic Johnson. He was a member of the school’s NCAA Championship title-winning team in 1979, when the Johnson-led Spartans beat Larry Bird-led Indiana State, 75-64.
“The most talented player I had ever played with was incredibly hard-working and incredibly talented,” Dr. Longaker said of Johnson, who remains a good friend.
Longaker played in almost every game during his four-year career for legendary head coach Jud Heathcoate. In his first game, he jacked up a shot over future NBA standout Mychal Thompson the first time he touched the ball and swished it.
“I remember in the film Jud was reaching down the bench for someone to put in the game and said, ‘Could you at least get on the floor before you shoot?’ ’’ recalled Dr. Longaker, whose endearing self-deprecating sense of humor believes his academic genius.
“The other thing I remember is the assistant coach kind of grabs you as you go down to the scorer’s table to check in. Those tear away pants – they didn’t tear away at the bottom. I ended up looking some like Morticia in the Addams Family trying to get to the table without falling over.”
When Dr. Longaker came to Stanford, he decided to organize a lunch for colleagues and cold-called then athletic director Bob Bowlsby about speaking to his group about what makes Cardinal student athlete different. To his surprise, Bowlsby answered the phone himself and agreed. The only problem was, his wife double-booked him.
“He called back and said, “I’d love to come, but my niece is getting married and I have to back out,’ ’’ Bowlsby told Dr. Longaker.
Bowlsby suggested men’s basketball coach Mike Montgomery, who coached at Montana two years after Heathcoate left for Michigan State.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is perfect,’ ’’ said Dr. Longaker. “We had lunch, he spoke to my group and was fantastic. That kind of plugged me into basketball and he invited me to a practice to talk to the team. Then Bob introduced me to Jim Harbaugh, then Johnny Dawkins, then David Shaw. Then I met Bernard Muir. I feel like I’ve gotten to know them as humans and friends, who happen to have leadership roles at Stanford.”
In addition to his busy lab work – Dr. Longaker is a leading authority on stem cell research – he makes time to meet with football and basketball recruits and their parents to talk about medical school and the advantages of a Stanford education.
“It’s offered me opportunities I could have never imagined as a surgeon to put together programs that link the schools together,” Dr. Longaker said. “Over time, I have developed relationships with different people in athletics. It was kind of slow and steady, but the last five years it’s kind of taken off.”
Joshua Garnett, a five-star offensive line recruit from Puyallup, Wash., credits Dr. Longaker for helping him to decide to attend Stanford.
“He’s one of the reasons I came,” said Garnett, now a sophomore and key contributor for one of the top offensive lines in the country. “I sat down with him and it was good to see a guy who went to school and played basketball do so well in life. It really made me think that I could come here and do the same thing he did and get into medical school. For a guy who’s that big in the medical field to come down and sit with a high school kid meant a lot. You could really tell what a great guy he was. ”
Garnett had his pick of college scholarship offers but chose Stanford. On the day most highly-recruited players make their oral commitments, the majority wear baseball caps of the college they plan to attend. Garnett wore a red Stanford Medical School shirt.
Dr. Longaker regularly talks to Muir, The Jacquish & Kenninger Director of Atheltics, Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, and Dawkins, The Anne & Tony Jospeh Director of Men’s Basketball. Shaw was so impressed by Dr. Longaker, he selected him honorary captain for the Stanford football game at Oregon State this year and asked him to address the team. The Cardinal won, 20-12.
“Dr. Longaker is brilliant, engaging, great personality and has a great sense of humor, so the guys really connect with him,” said Shaw. “He’s been able to help in recruiting for guys interested in biology, particularly stem cell research. Josh Garnett was fascinated. ‘Where else could I go to play Division I College football, have a chance to go to the Rose bowl and work with a stem cell expert? And the fact that internships are potentially there in the off-season.’ Owen Marecic (former Stanford standout) is working in his lab right now. He’s just a great guy to have a round.”
Dr. Longaker insists in many of his talks with recruits and their families, Stanford sells itself.
“I’ve never worked at a place that offered world-class education, world-class research, and best in class athletics,” he said. “This place is unique.”
Which is why he encourages recruits to see the big picture and take advantage of all Stanford has to offer.
“I like to talk about the other 1,499 student undergraduates who will go through and ultimately what they’re going to do to change the world and what being a Stanford student-athlete, we expect your son to contribute to the university and to help make us better,’’ said Dr. Longaker. “We want them to grow and be as big as they can be as people. Come to Stanford because you want to win a national championship or play pro ball or be in the hall of fame one day. But in addition to that, take full advantage of Silicon Valley and the connectivity you have to the university. I think when you put the whole package out there, the four years at Stanford is a lifetime of benefits, and that’s a really strong statement to the parents.”
Dr. Longaker, his wife Melinda, and young sons Daniel and Andrew are avid supporters of Stanford sports and regularly attend football and basketball games. As they did last year, they will travel to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl game against Michigan State, though admittedly, Dr. Longaker’s allegiances are torn.
“If this were basketball, it would certainly be a lot different,” he said. “Given the relationship I’ve had with this football team, being an honorary captain and getting to know the guys, I’ll be pulling for Stanford.
“Now it may be a house divided in the sense that one or two of my boys may decide to put on green and white. My wife bought me an early Christmas present which is a black shirt with a helmet that is divided between Stanford and Michigan State. I’ll be sitting with all the friends we have at Stanford and rooting for Stanford. I guess at the end of the day, it’s a win-win for me.”