The Stanford men’s gymnastics team won the NCAA championship on Friday night in Columbus, and took home the team’s second national title in three seasons in the process. And while collegiate gymnastics lies well outside the expertise of The Daily Axe, it doesn’t take much familiarity with the parallel bars to appreciate the macroscopic significance of the team’s victory: Stanford Athletics has now won 100 team championships (and a record 465 individual crowns). 100 championships leaves Stanford behind only UCLA (106 total team titles) for the lead in American intercollegiate athletic history, and well ahead of all other challengers. USC, which occupies the third place position, has won 92, and the fourth-place school (Oklahoma State) has just 50.
Yes, 100 is a largely–if not nearly entirely–symbolic accomplishment, and given that it had to be accomplished across genders, sports, and eras, it’s also inherently abstract even for the world of sporting metrics and accolades. There are all sorts of snazzy figures that we can throw around about the success of Cardinal sports: a nation-best 35-year streak of at least one team championship, a remarkable 35 tennis titles between the men (18) and the women (17), and victories dating as far back as the 1924-5 men’s track and field championship, when Stanford itself was not even 35 years old. That Stanford does so well in a conference that has monopolized athletic success across the sporting spectrum is a testament to the hard work of the administration, coaches, and athletes that have chosen to create and maintain a school with both outstanding academics and outstanding athletics.
Unsurprisingly, some of the fanfare is a bit out of whack. The “Home of Champions” website that appeared over the weekend has many compelling essays by athletes, faculty members, administration officials, and students. That said, there is the typical athletic hyperbole, much of which asserts the maxim that Stanford is the only institution where student-athletes can excel in the classroom and between the painted lines. Even the most partisan of Stanford fans know that that is not true, and that it isn’t true is actually a credit to the Farm. If Stanford were the only school to offer both elements of the student-athlete experience, winning at the rate that Card teams do would be less impressive. That they must compete with the likes of Cal, Virginia, Michigan, Duke, Boston College, etc., for academically-minded recruits with elite athletic credentials makes the century mark exponentially more admirable. And that kind of explanation gets Stanford fans out of an undesirable position: that of the arrogant fan. Winning by broad dogmatism is no success; winning by honest competition, as Stanford has, is.
The rhetoric of the site as a whole did get one thing exactly right: Stanford has an undeniable culture of excellence that transcends the academic-athletic divide. When teams win and do things the right way on the Farm, fans can be some of the best in the nation, as support for the women’s basketball program has shown. Tara VanDerveer’s team has won over the Stanford community with dominance of the league, 4 straight Final Four appearances, and solid basketball fundamentals. Students and members of the general public have followed the success of the program, and–despite the financial and popular dominance of men’s basketball over the women’s game at most other universities around the U.S.–the women regularly outdrew the men for games at Maples Pavilion this past winter.
Cal and various other fans will look at the “Home of Champions” site and still see the aloofness. Statements like “Here, sports play an essential role in sustaining a strong classroom environment” certainly don’t make non-athletes at Stanford sound very good, and “the more difficult road” of student-athletes referred to throughout the site has a weirdly religious and condescending undertone. And Cal fans and their ilk, because they always do, will inevitably scrutinize the 100 championship accomplishment, point out that UCLA got there first (whatever happened to Bay Area solidarity?), and use things like “Home of Champions” and the t-shirts that the Athletics Department are almost surely printing at this very moment as proof of Stanford arrogance.
But so what? If we as Cardinal fans can get past the empty platitudes about how Stanford is the only place to win a championship and a job after graduation, and instead use the men’s gymnastics team’s victory as a catalyst to celebrate both an underappreciated squad and the athletics program as a whole, then Championship #100 is a joyous occasion.