In the mascot vacuum of the 1970s, a valiant contender emerged
After Stanford retired its Indian mascot in 1972 amid concerns of Native American students, it went nine years without a replacement. Stanford athletes, feeling the vacuum, sought a symbol that was dynamic and not offensive, one that embodied their brains, heart and brawn. Their campaign to play as the Stanford Griffins failed, as today’s Cardinal fans know. Yet the leadership lessons they acquired still resonate.
It all started when two Stanford athletic trainers papered a football training room with pictures of griffins – mythical creatures part eagle, part lion – as a motivational aid.
“We jumped on the bandwagon,” recalls Gordon Banks, ’79, then a two-sport standout in football and track. “We got together to find out more about it, to build support for it, to get people to recognize the griffin as something that was good.”
The players learned that the griffin was reputed to have fangs stronger than those of 10 ordinary lions, and claws that outclawed those of 10 ordinary eagles. It was “majestic yet ferocious, both swift and alert, portraying valor and wisdom,” as they put it in a Stanford Daily op-ed, with Banks as lead signatory.
“It was perfect for what Stanford stands for,” remembers Mark Hadley, ’78, then a miler and half-miler and now holder of an endowed professorship in neurosurgery at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.
Athletes spent two years building a coalition across genders, sports and stakeholders. In 1978, 225 Stanford male and female varsity athletes submitted a petition asking that the Griffin be considered as the official mascot.
They liked that its color was red and that it served the warrior queen Califia, ruler of California in Spanish lore. This geographic tie was critical, as the Griffin backers had to outflank arguments that their symbol’s chief rivals, the Trees (plural) and Cardinals (plural), had deeper roots in Stanford and state history.
Partisans dusted off two cast-iron griffins given Stanford by early benefactor Timothy Hopkins and moved them to Encina Gym. Big names joined the cause, including Jing Lyman, wife of university President Richard Lyman, and concert promoter Bill Graham. In spring 1979, the Griffins outpolled Trees in a student mascot referendum, 35 to 34 percent. No action was taken, apparently because people thought the issue was crucial enough to require consensus.
But as years wore on, the Griffins faded. The Tree (singular) and Cardinal (singular) gelled as brands and gained ascendance. On Nov. 17, 1981, new university President Donald Kennedy declared that all Stanford athletic teams would be represented exclusively by the color Cardinal, which he termed “a rich and vivid metaphor for the very pulse of life.”
Pastor Gordon Banks, ’79, preaches in Thailand, 2015
Banks thinks the Griffin was just too obscure to gain traction. By the 1980s, many of its backers had graduated. He went on to spend eight years in pro football, including five with the Dallas Cowboys. Today he’s a senior pastor in Auburn, Washington, leading a church he grew from 200 to more than 2,000 members. The lessons of his mascot drive stayed with him, strong as a griffin’s heart.
“Stanford gave us the ability to step into a brand-new situation, assess the environment, find the decision-makers, move forward and create something that helps people,” Banks explains. “It gave us an intangible aspect of confidence, the ability to carry yourself in such a way as to be someone who makes a difference.”