Do Stanford and Cal need to stick together?

One of the interesting angles to discuss regarding Stanford’s future in this era of conference realignment is whether or not Stanford and their Bay Area rival Cal need to stick together. As one who previously covered Cal before making the switch to cover Stanford, I feel like I can offer a unique perspective.

First off, it needs to be understood that Stanford sits in a better position than Cal. The Stanford brand is stronger and has a more nationwide appeal. Stanford is an Ivy League level institution with a jaw-dropping $ 37.8 Billion endowment competing at the highest level of college athletics. Cal (UC Berkeley) is a public university with a $ 6.8 Billion endowment. UC Berkeley is widely regarded as the top public university in the world, rivaling and in many cases exceeding the Ivy League schools in terms of academic research, but the fact remains that Stanford has more money. A lot more money. And on top of that, Stanford is in the Ivy Plus network that affiliates with the Ivy League schools and other private schools whom the Ivy League deems worthy of their association.

It also needs to be understood that Stanford athletics across the board is just better right now even though they by no means are knocking it out of the park. Football is coming off a really rough year, men’s basketball is still trying to find their groove in the Jerod Haase era, but at least baseball got back to the College World Series, women’s basketball got back to the Final Four, and women’s volleyball in a down year made the NCAA tournament. And then even with football and men’s basketball, there is hope for them having bounce back / improved seasons. Football has a really strong recruiting class coming in and a lot of key starters returning while men’s basketball will have Harrison Ingram back for a sophomore year. Men’s basketball also added a talented grad transfer in Michael Jones to go along with a solid incoming recruiting class. A run to the NCAA tournament is possible.

As for Cal, they are about as weak athletically as they’ve ever been. The football program under Justin Wilcox has been mediocre though a slight step up from the Sonny Dykes years, the men’s basketball program under Mark Fox is slowly “rebuilding”, the baseball program under Mike Neu has been hovering around .500, the women’s basketball program under Charmin Smith is yet to find success, though the recruiting gives reason for hope, and women’s volleyball under Sam Crosson managed to go winless in the Pac-12 last season.

And then if that isn’t enough, Cal is also dealing with very serious and disturbing allegations of abuse levied against their iconic swim coach Teri McKeever. It’s safe to say that things are not well in Berkeley right now. Their AD Jim Knowlton has a lot of problems that he needs to fix. Some of which are of his own doing.

But despite all these current issues in Berkeley, Cal has still been a worthy rival for Stanford over the years. The 1982 Big Game gave birth to “The Play”, which might be the most amazing play in the history of college football. Stanford chooses to not acknowledge that result, changing the score on The Ax whenever they are in possession of it. One of the more fun quirks in their long rivalry. More recently, Cal has won two of the last three Big Games.

During Big Game week, Stanford’s campus and fountains are lit up red, a banner of “Beat Cal” hangs over the western entrance of Green Library, and Stanford also puts on Gaieties, a musical performed by students in Memorial Auditorium centered around the rivalry with Cal. The Cal campus in contrast is lit up blue and gold, the Cal band and dance / cheer team perform, and there’s also the famous Big Game Bonfire Rally, which is held the night before game day.

When Stanford and Cal are both competitive, the rivalry is fierce. It’s public school against private. It’s the top public university in the world going up against perhaps the top Ivy League level school in the world. And they’re less than 40 miles apart from each other. That’s why this rivalry is so special.

And so as both schools go about navigating this new era that they find themselves in, hopefully they’ll find a way to stick together and keep the flames of their rivalry going. The schools just have too much history and too much in common, despite their on the surface differences, not to remain together.

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