Stanford Football's Unheralded Weapon
On its way to a second straight Pac-12 title game and with a fourth straight 10-win season squarely in its sights, Stanford is in the midst of an unprecedented run of football success. The Cardinal has been ranked in the AP Top 25 poll every week since early in the 2010 season and will play in its fourth BCS game in as many years with a win over Arizona State in the conference championship.
Many have received credit for the best stretch in program history. Former head coach Jim Harbaugh is widely considered the primary catalyst for Stanford's resurgence. Current head coach David Shaw has presided over a sustained run of excellence. Players like Andrew Luck and David DeCastro were key cogs in some of the best offenses in the nation, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy in some of the top defenses. Strength coach Shannon Turley, widely regarded as one of the best in the nation, has helped reduce injuries and improve functional strength.
But behind the scenes, another figure has quietly been a major force in the program's resurgence: outside linebackers coach/admissions liaison Lance Anderson.
Anderson, who played running back and linebacker at Idaho State in the early 1990s, has played a vital role in improving the efficiency and success of Stanford's recruiting efforts. In addition to helping conceive some of Stanford's recruiting strategy, Anderson is the point man for every Cardinal scholarship and walk-on recruit as they go through the school's rigorous admissions process. At a program that possesses the most stringent academic standards of any BCS school in the nation, that's no small task.
Couple that with his development of Stanford's outside linebackers and prowess on the recruiting trail — several publications have recognized Anderson as one of the nation's top recruiters — and it's easy to see why he is such an indispensable part of the Cardinal football program.
"I think the guy needs to have a lifetime position," said former Stanford Director of Player Personnel Jon Haskins, who worked alongside Anderson for several seasons. "I think he's that valuable."
The road to Stanford: Lance Anderson first got to know Jim Harbaugh when Harbaugh was with the NFL's Oakland Raiders and Anderson was an assistant coach at St. Mary's. When Harbaugh got the head coaching job at the University of San Diego in 2004, he tried to hire Anderson, but by that point, Anderson had already joined Utah State's coaching staff.
When the staff at Utah State was let go after the 2004 season, Harbaugh pursued Anderson again. That time, he was successful. And after working as Harbaugh's recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach at San Diego for two years, Anderson moved with Harbaugh to Stanford in 2006.
Anderson was officially the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator when he joined the Cardinal's staff. But unofficially, he began to assume a role that would prove critical to Stanford's success on the recruiting trail and later become a formalized position — that of the football program's liaison to Stanford's admissions office.
With Walt Harris' recruiting coordinator, Nate Nelson, staying on staff through Signing Day to help Stanford close its 2007 class, Anderson was able to gradually settle into the position. In his first few months on the job, Anderson took the opportunity to observe the pros and cons of the previous staff's approach to help recruits navigate the admissions process.
"Those first couple of months gave me a chance to sit back, see how things were run, see how things had been done and gather information," Anderson said. "The biggest thing I was curious about was what it took to get into school here, what was the process, what was the procedure, how do we go about identifying people."
Anderson quickly learned that there were flaws with Harris' methodology.
Despite being deep into the 2007 recruiting cycle, Anderson was surprised to learn that Stanford was not aware that one of its prospects, who ended up at Cal, attended a high school that had a seven-point grading scale, rendering the recruit's GPA less impressive than originally thought. In another instance, a coveted safety recruit wasn't enrolled in the appropriate senior year classes to have a realistic chance at earning admission. In a third case, Stanford didn't even know the ACT score for one of its prospects with only weeks remaining before Signing Day.
Anderson went about formulating a plan to prevent similar occurrences from plaguing Stanford's recruiting efforts in the future. A key component of the strategy was to obtain test scores and transcripts early in the process, and then to maintain a dialogue about the prospect's academic standing throughout.
"It just became so obvious how valuable that information is and how we have to get that stuff," Anderson said. "We have to stay on top of that so when we do identify guys we make sure they're doing the right things. If they're not, we have to find somebody else and move on to them."
In a given recruiting cycle, Anderson reviews somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000-5,000 transcripts to determine whether a given player is even worth recruiting. Then, in the latter stages of the recruiting year, Anderson maintains a steady stream of contact with Stanford's walk-on and scholarship recruits as they enter the school's admissions process. He helps guide them into the proper classes and standardized tests, and answers questions they might have about the application itself.
Often times, managing the admissions process can be just as important as convincing a prospect to make a commitment to Stanford in the first place. Once Stanford identifies and develops a strong relationship with an academically inclined prospect, often the discussion is not whether the recruit wants to attend Stanford, but rather if he'll be admitted to the school.
Jon Haskins, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 1998 after playing four seasons on The Farm, is a perfect example of that. With a 4.6 GPA and 1360 two-part SAT, Haskins had sterling academic credentials coming out of high school. But even though he was the first player in his recruiting class to receive an admissions decision, it didn't come until late October.
"99 percent of it is, 'Can I get in?'" Haskins said. "Who do they turn to? Lance — he carries the ball."
"If you don't have a guy like Lance, they have a disadvantage. It doesn't matter how many BCS championship games you go to because it's such a unique fit."
Other schools used Stanford's admissions uncertainty to negatively recruit against the Cardinal.
"I'm talking to the Duke coach and he's telling me they're messing with you," Haskins said. "And it was believable. They must not like me enough… I thought it was a way to slow play."
Anderson's guidance helped class of 2013 Stanford signee Sean Barton avoid that feeling. Anderson worked closely with Barton and Barton's father, Carl, to ensure that the family was properly informed through every step of the process.
"He advised Sean about the kinds of classes Stanford expects and the kinds of grades and ACT test scores," Barton said. "From there it was up to Sean and to us to support him in that process. Lance's open, direct, honest and consistent communication was excellent. It's a simple thing, really, but so many people in all areas of life don't seem to understand the importance of good, consistent communication as a foundation of relationship a kid and his family can count on in this process."
All in all, from helping conceive Stanford's recruiting strategy when he was hired in late 2006 to ensuring that the Cardinal's prospects are in the most advantageous position to get into school, Anderson has helped make Stanford's admissions process more transparent to prospects, and in turn, reduce the number of prospects that are denied by the admissions office each year.
"Where Lance has guided us, we have a higher batting percentage than we did before because we weren't sure," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We think the grades are good enough, we think the classes are good enough. And then we get eight guys denied. As opposed to going through a cycle, and sometimes we let guys go early, which is good for them too. And say, 'You know what? You're not going to make it, take one of your other options.' So now we can go through and still get maybe two or three guys denied as opposed to seven or eight. We bat for a higher percentage because the relationship that Lance has developed with admissions."
"The bottom line is what Lance has done for us honestly has gotten to where we are to where we've been able to continually recruit Stanford kids as seen by our graduation rates, our APR and all that stuff, and still play great football, which means that we're zeroing in on the right kids."
A force on the recruiting trail: Though Anderson no longer coordinates Stanford's recruiting efforts — that responsibility is now held by quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, one of the nation's top recruiters in his own right — Anderson remains a lethal force on the recruiting trail. His recruiting territory is as vast as any assistant's in the nation — it runs from Hawaii to Georgia — and he's helped the Cardinal establish itself as a true national recruiting force.
People are starting to take notice. Anderson was named the Fox Sports National Recruiter of the Year for his role in signing Stanford's 2012 class (which also landed him a driver from former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who was grateful for Anderson's help in landing some of Stanford's sterling offensive talent).
Anderson was also recently named the top recruiter in the Pac-12 by ESPN.com
"Lance is the best recruiter I've been around in the last 20 years," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "He's better than everybody I've seen. I can compare him to Ed Orgeron, I can compare him to guys in the SEC. I don't care where he is and what he does, he's the best at what he does. It just happens that he happens to be here at Stanford University. Lance Anderson is the best recruiter hands down."
Anderson succeeds on the recruiting trail by identifying talent and building relationships early in the cycle. He's the primary recruiter for both of Stanford's current 2015 commits, Christian Folau and Arrington Farrar.
"I love how Coach Anderson is always sending me updates and (checking up on) how I'm doing," Folau said. "He's always referring to me how I'm doing in school and on the field, so our relationship has been really strong."
Anderson has also formed relationships with a number of prominent high school coaches in his recruiting areas, including Dave Peck. Peck is the head coach at Bingham High School, home to one of Stanford's most highly coveted 2014 recruits, tight end Dalton Schultz
"Lance Anderson has been recruiting our players from Bingham for at least the last seven years," Peck said. "Lance has figured out that the best way to get a high school coach to help Stanford football is to become friends with the head coach. I had the opportunity to be part of spring ball at Stanford a few years ago along with a couple of my assistants from Bingham. The coaches welcomed us with open arms and included us in everything they did during those few days that we were there. Our program is better because of the time we spent at Stanford. This all happened because of the efforts and encouragement from Lance. He is not just another recruiter to me, he is somebody that I consider a close friend."
Developing pros: Anderson has had a considerable impact in player development. Two of Anderson's pupils at Stanford, Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas, are in the NFL. A third, Trent Murphy, will be a high pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. (Anderson also coached current Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Sione Fua from 2007-2009. Anderson moved from defensive tackles coach to outside linebackers coach when Randy Hart joined the program prior to the 2010 season.)
"He's helped me a lot as far as my approach to the game goes," Trent Murphy said. "He sets an example by how hard he works. I've heard from the coaches that he's a workhorse. He gets to the office first and leaves last. He grinds through tape and he works really hard. He's had a lot of good players that played for him like Chase Thomas and Alex Debniak. I've learned a lot from just watching those guys. It's helped a lot in my development."
Derek Mason, who's coached alongside Anderson at four different colleges, said that Anderson's teaching style has succeeded in generating consistently high play at the outside linebacker position.
"(He's) fundamentally sound as a coach," Mason said. "He gets guys to exceed sometimes what their true talent level is by getting to them to know and understand the fundamentals of the game and then encompassing being able to play hard and understanding how to play the defense. Those three components are hard. Different guys have different learning curves, but you see every year he has a guy that's stepping to the forefront and playing and playing fast. Chase Thomas, you go from Chase and you look at what Debniak did for us a year ago in his role. Lance got him to understand what his role was and how to play within the confines of what we do. You look at where James Vaughters started as a freshman then left (to play inside linebacker for a year) and then came back. He's right back where he needs to be and Trent Murphy, Kevin Anderson, they're all coming along and I think his tutelage is consistent. That's why you see consistent play at the position."
That's just one more reason why Anderson is an invaluable asset to Stanford football and an integral part of the Cardinal's success.
"He's so valuable to what we do because he understands it at every level: recruiting, coaching, and then really at the end of the day, how to get these guys to play at a high level," Mason said. "He's been here longer than anybody on the defensive side of the ball and I turn to him a lot to talk to him about what he sees and what he knows and what he understands about this place."