Stanford scholar spreads the gridiron gospel Down Under

Joe Ashfield
Joe Ashfield

JOE Ashfield was recently in Brisbane promoting and coaching gridiron Down Under.

Ashfield is an offensive assistant at the prestigious Stanford University college football team.

Stanford has a proud history, with star quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Andrew Luck graduating from its hallowed corridors.

Ashfield took the time out to chat to APN and he discussed a broad range of topics, including just how rabid college football fans are, his admiration of the way football is played Down Under, and Australia's proud gridiron history.

How excited are you to be Down Under spreading the gridiron gospel?

Very excited. This was something that I talked with my friends here in Australia and New Zealand about for a long time about getting down and doing coaching clinics.

To finally have it happen is very exciting for me, and a testament to the guys at Gridiron Queensland.

Hopefully it can be something we can continue to do. A lot of coaches in the States want to continue doing this in the future.

There's been talk that perhaps down the track, Australia could host an NFL game. Can you see that happening?

No question. There was an exhibition game in Sydney a little while ago wasn't there? (There was an exhibition game in 1999 when the Denver Broncos played the San Diego Chargers at ANZ Stadium).

And if you look recently, the NFL's been playing two or three games a year in London over the past couple of years.

I don't see why that couldn't expand to Sydney (or Brisbane, with the Queensland Government recently in talks with the NFL about hosting a game at Suncorp Stadium).

I'm sure the NFL's looking at that. I know the NFL looks to this part of the world, with not only the fandom from Australians, but Polynesians and throughout Oceania.

My guess would be that the NFL would be smart enough to promote that and bring down probably the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Troy Polamalu plays for them and he's the biggest Samoan player in the game right now.

If Australia's open to it, it'll happen in the next five years. That's my guess.

Australia likes to be known as a country that punches above its weight with its sport … we've had a fair few guys who have excelled in the NFL ranks such as Colin Scotts. What's your impression on the various Aussies playing in colleges over there, and the Aussies that have come before them?

They come from a sporting culture that is very similar to what it is in the United States, where you have rugged sports like rugby, Aussie rules and rugby league.

So they get into gridiron and it's really not that foreign to them. Australia is doing very well.

The only other country I can think of which is on par would be Germany, and that's just because they've been playing football forever.

If you look at the Australian punters and their kicking skills they get from a young age … punting in the United States is such a specialised skill. It's not something everybody does, whereas here you grow up with that skill.

So the Aussie punters that come over with their accuracy and their ability to put the ball on a spot is astounding to us, because very few in the United States have that skill.

What do you think about the fact that we don't wear any pads down here with our football, and how quick our football is?

Gridiron is a more explosive game - It's four to five seconds of pure explosion. The type of training you do is completely different.

You have 150kg men that are capable of dunking a basketball because they're so explosive.

In rugby and league, it's a little more aerobic because you're always moving.

I love that there aren't pads and how that toughness exists. My only defence of gridiron is there is a lot more contact in every position all of the time. It's not just the ball carriers that can get hit.

But to me, rugby, rugby league and gridiron are brother codes.

Can you tell us a little bit about Stanford University and how they went last season?

We've had a lot of success over the past few years. Stanford is an elite academic university - one of the top four or five in the world.

I think in the last rankings it was Oxford, Harvard and Stanford as the top three.

So that makes us a little bit different, in that we recruit elite student athletes, not just athletes.

We've been lucky enough in the past four straight seasons to go to four straight BCS (Bowl Championship Series) games. That means we've been in the top eight teams in the entire country out of about 124 teams over the past four years straight.

At a university with such a proud history, is there much pressure from the fans to try and get that breakthrough championship title (the last one came in 1940)?

There is. But our fans and alumni are so proud of our academic tradition that we want to make sure we never compromise the academic integrity of the school.

To an Australian that's not clued up on gridiron - how big is college football in the States?

Oh man. Where Stanford is it is right near the San Francisco Bay Area. Our stadium holds about 55,000 people, and for most games it'll be pretty full.

And then you go down south to Alabama and Texas where football is basically a religion, you will get over 100,000 people in a stadium every Saturday.

They'll be tailgating (having car-park parties) for hours before the game, wired up and ready to go nuts.

The heated rivalries don't end after games - they go on for 365 days a year. It is a constant presence in certain areas of the country.

How do your fans compare?

We have really good, knowledgeable fans. But I wouldn't put them in the category of other universities that are unbelievably rabid.

Some of these people - it's scary. There's a famous story of Auburn and Alabama.

Fierce, fierce rivalry.

You can't even sort of respect the other one. You love one and hate the other.

Auburn has these beautiful old trees on their campus and whenever they would win a game, Alabama fans would throw toilet paper rolls. It's called 'rolling the trees'.

An Alabama fan, after Auburn won the national championship about four years ago didn't like this.

So he went and poisoned these beautiful 100-year-old trees just to give them the middle finger.

And the guy's going to prison for it, just because he hated the other school so much. We luckily don't have anybody that insane at Stanford that I know of.

Some of those fans won't even refer to the other school by name - it's just "the other school up north".

The great John Elway is part of Stanford's history. What can you say about what he did for the university?

Just the prestige and notoriety he brought.

We've had some really good quarterbacks at Stanford, going back to guys like John Brodie and Jim Plunkett who played for the (Oakland/LA) Raiders.

He was a Super Bowl MVP, and he also won the Heisman Trophy, which is the trophy for the best player in college football.

And then Elway came along, and more recently Andrew Luck (at the Indianapolis Colts).

John was an unbelievable football player, and then went on to become a successful businessman because of his degree from Stanford.

Because of his academic acumen from coming from Stanford, he is now the general manager of the Denver Broncos.

Same with Andrew Luck. He is an outstanding football player - one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

But not too many people realise he has a degree in architectural engineering, I believe.

He can go out and make half a million dollars a year being an architect and designing skyscrapers.

That's as impressive as his football skills.

We think being good at both football and the academic side is vital for the school's reputation.

Do you think Australians can learn a bit on how America promotes its sporting history and makes going to a sporting event an appealing entertainment package for the fans?

I don't think Australia does a bad job at that. The good thing about college football is that it's been around much longer than pro football.

So it promotes the idea of tradition and traditional rivalries. Everybody remembers the great names that played 80 years ago for their team. They name stadiums after those people.

Universities promote their traditions as much as anything else.

That instills a sense of pride in the fan base.

Aussies are always fascinated about the salaries of pro American sportsmen. There was some recent press on (Australian NBA star) Andrew Bogut and he talked about the competitiveness even between teammates for money.

Does that play on the mind of college footballers?

The only time we have to deal with that is when our players are preparing for the NFL draft. It gets competitive in teams.

But there's a big difference between an NFL locker room and a college locker room. It is a profession in the NFL and guys are in it for themselves.

Whereas in college football it's all about the team.

Can you explain to us what your time was like coaching the New Zealand national team?

I loved it over there. That's where I met Adam (president of the South Brisbane Wildcats, Adam Campbell) and that's what led to me being here.

It was a chance for me as a young man right out of university to travel and to cut my coaching teeth at a consequence-free environment.

I got to experiment, have a good time and enjoy myself.

If I didn't want to get into gridiron coaching as a profession, I probably would have stayed there - I loved it.

My wife and I are looking at the idea that maybe someday we'll move back to this part of the world.

Topics:  gridiron

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