Joe Ruetz led Stanford to new heights. He offers an inspiring example for today's leaders.
I recently studied the remarkable life of Joe Ruetz (pronounced “Ritz”), an athlete, adventurer, soldier, and leader who was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1916. His story is intertwined with Stanford University’s rise to excellence in athletics and, although it unfolded many years ago, lends us some valuable lessons on courageous leadership in challenging times. Setting the stage with four seemingly unrelated stories, I describe how Joe led through conflict to help make Stanford great.
As a young man growing up in South Bend, Indiana (where his family moved from Wisconsin), Joe Ruetz decided that he wanted to hike the most unexplored areas of the United States, including parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, and Utah. Having traversed mountains, deserts, and plains with his cousin Louie and other family members, the former college football player’s ambitious next plan was to re-trace the 1880 Hole in the Rock Expedition taken by Mormon pioneers in southern Utah.
Joe started his hike with excitement on December 6, 1941. After his first long day’s journey, he built a blazing fire and wrote in his journal that “the night was brilliantly clear and a late rising moon lightened the slicks and canyon below me.”
Joe was a seasoned outdoorsman, ready for most challenges that the wilderness brought. But when historic snowstorms began bombarding southern Utah, he realized that he was in serious trouble. Joe was alone at 7,000 feet. His journal entries shifted into short and haunting notes on survival. On January 3, oblivious that the United States had plunged into war nearly a month earlier after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Joe described: “Snow was 3 feet deep at times. Became coated with ice. Hit Picket Fork at 2:00. Slid down an almost vertical cliff for 30 feet on the snow…Hands were nearly frozen.” Cold, injured, and sustaining on nothing but a teaspoon of sugar each day, Joe came close to conceding, writing “I have given up all hope of ever returning alive.”
The Spurned Coach
Paul Brown and Bill Walsh paired up to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to three playoff appearances in the 1970s. Brown, the famous head coach, taught Walsh the lessons of old-school football. As their years together moved along, assistant coach Walsh gained notoriety for his innovative “West Coast Offense.” He was widely viewed to be Brown’s heir apparent. But when Brown retired on January 1, 1976, he surprisingly named Bill Johnson, another one of his assistants, as the new head coach.
Walsh was shocked to be passed over for the position. He grew further confused in the following weeks when Brown refused to recommend Walsh for positions with other teams. Whether it was professional jealousy of his “genius” assistant coach or some other personal matter, being spurned and blackballed by his mentor sent Walsh spiraling into depression. Professional humiliation was accompanied by the personal hardship that such job transitions bring, as he, his wife Geri, and their children were forced to leave Cincinnati, the city they had come to know as home. Walsh described the time as “devastating.” Years later, Walsh’s son recalled about the ensuing months that his father “lived in a friend’s basement” and that “his heart had been broken. He contemplated getting out of football.”
The New Law
Title IX was passed by the US Congress in 1972 with the intent of creating equitable opportunities for women in schools and universities. The new law was a landmark moment for gender equity in higher education, but the actual implementation of Title IX was a slow and arduous process marked by resistance at each step. College athletics was a “notoriously troubled” area for Title IX policy implementation. Title IX stipulations that female students were to be granted comparable scholarships and participation opportunities as men were seen as a threat to men’s programs. Lagging behind other parts of most campuses, the NCAA did not systematically enforce Title IX until 1980. In fact, NCAA President John Fuzak attempted to get the NCAA exempted from Title IX, writing to President Gerald Ford that Title IX “could seriously damage if not destroy the major men’s intercollegiate athletic programs.”
Stanford University was like other Division I schools in that many key players were “jittery about the threats it (Title IX) pose(d) to their power and monopoly over the athletic system at Stanford.” Coaches asserted that any resources directed toward scholarships and facilities for women would be detrimental to men’s teams. Some faculty – who enjoyed “men only” privileges at the campus pool (swimsuits optional) – balked at any changing of their routines.
And Stanford donors did not want their money going to women. The chairman of the athletic fundraising organization, Edwin Tanner, suggested that women’s sports should depend upon female supporters, claiming “there are gals who can give who have not.” John Arillaga, another noteworthy donor, minced no words saying he “wouldn’t give one penny to the women – I’d quit giving completely.”[i] Such strong claims against Title IX-related budgeting from Stanford’s key supporters were all the more daunting considering the significant budget cuts that were being made across the campus. Indeed, two years after the passage of the law, Title IX implementation at Stanford did not look promising.
Athletics on the Farm
Stanford was long established as one of the pre-eminent academic institutions in the world, but, as of 1972, the university was not especially renowned in athletics. Stanford won one national championship in the 1940s (in men’s golf), one in the 1950s (again, golf), and one in the 1960s (men’s swimming and diving). Its football and basketball teams enjoyed only periodic glimmers of success. Their facilities were dated.
Making matters worse, Stanford sports were an afterthought in comparison with in-state rivals UCLA, USC, and Cal-Berkeley. In the 1960s and 70s, UCLA won ten national championships in men’s basketball alone. USC won five national football titles and Cal thrived in Olympic sports, winning 12 national championships during that same period.
One of the biggest topics of sports conversation at Stanford in the early 1970s was, in fact, not even related to competitive success, but to its mascot. Student groups led efforts to ban the use of “Indians” as the official Stanford Athletics nickname/mascot. Controversy swirled when President Dick Lyman officially disallowed the use of “Indians” and called for a new moniker. Various groups contested the change. Others debated whether Stanford should become the “Griffins,” “Robber Barons,” or even “Trees” before eventually arriving at “Cardinal” as a bland, but inoffensive compromise.
How do the stories come together?
These four seemingly unrelated stories of struggle came together around the lost adventurer, Joe Ruetz.[ii] Desperately clinging to life in the frozen Utah wilderness, the former Notre Dame football star’s prayers were answered when a Ute Indian service truck carrying a doctor came into view. Joe flagged down the truck – the first human contact he’d had in over a month – and secured a ride to Blanding, his final destination. He learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war. In the months to follow, Joe joined the Navy, turned down an offer to be a commissioned officer and, instead, trained as a fighter pilot. He played for the Navy football team and was named Armed Forces All-American by Grantland Rice.[iii] The war ended and Joe headed to play with the Chicago Rockets and to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago.
Later, after some successful coaching seasons at St. Mary’s, Joe worked as an assistant coach under Chuck Taylor at Stanford. He then launched into a fundraising career at Stanford. In 1972, Joe was selected as athletic director – a position he held until his retirement in 1978. Joe took the helm as Title IX was being passed by Congress and as Stanford Athletics was at a crossroads. He made decisions that had long-term implications for Stanford.
“We’re Not Going to Do That”
Joe prioritized learning during his first year as Stanford’s Athletic Director. He met with coaches, faculty, and other leaders on campus. He also visited schools around the country, gauging their perspectives on the current and future state of college athletics. Joe found that many athletic departments were cash-strapped and most were stalling on Title IX. And, at Stanford and beyond, he found there to be great opportunity disparities affecting minority students and coaches. Joe determined that Stanford should take the lead in improving athletics in these areas.
In the fall of 1974, Joe told his staff “There are a lot of schools around the country that are trying to find ways to avoid complying with Title IX. We are not going to do that. In fact, our goal is to have the best women’s athletic program in the country.” A group called “Organization of Stanford Women Athletes” helped build campus enthusiasm for building opportunities for women’s sports, but the road ahead was arduous. Key donors objected, men’s coaches were reticent,[iv] and the athletic department budget was shrinking. And even if Joe were able to gain consensus and find the necessary resources, Title IX was ambiguous in the athletics context. Stanford would be blazing new territory with its women’s program even as the new law provided no clear direction on how to do so. In November 1974, the Stanford Daily reported that Joe’s attempts to build a women’s program left him “truly…on the hot seat.”
With his job at stake, Joe forged ahead. He worked for months with Pamela Strathairn[v], a skilled leader of the Women’s Physical Education Department, to develop a plan of action. He then brought Strathairn aboard as an associate athletic director. A litany other moves were soon made: a men’s locker room was converted and the campus pool was renovated to allow for women’s use. Department reserve funds were directed to women’s teams. Joe met with and listened to student groups, alumni, the athletic board, and many different campus groups. The athletic department hired more key staffers, including the nation’s first female to be certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association.
With gathering momentum on campus, Joe worked tirelessly to cultivate relationships with high school and college coaches and administrators around the country in order to build up women’s sports more broadly. He needed to identify top female coaches for Stanford, but also to promote women’s sports so that Stanford would have competition. Women’s sports were drawing little public attention, so Joe built out his sports information staff to devote specific attention to promoting the women’s program in the media.
Facing ongoing strong detractors and obstacles along the way, Stanford awarded its first athletic scholarships to women in 1975 – a full five years before the NCAA started any meaningful Title IX enforcement. In 1978, the Stanford Women’s Tennis team won the national championship.
Did Joe’s big risk on women’s athletics work out? Two of the longest term contributors to Stanford Athletics, Bob Murphy and Dick Gould,[vi] reflected upon the situation. Gould coached the Men’s Tennis team from 1966-2004 and was among the coaches threatened by the creation of the women’s program. Looking back, he noted how difficult – but worthwhile – the move was for Joe and the university: “Joe was the one who had the guts and the gumption to start Title IX at Stanford… He was one of the first people nationally who jumped on this. And this is one of the reasons why we have become so exceptional…Title IX was very controversial…It was not a popular move among the alums… Everyone was afraid of what would happen…It was a very unpopular move.” The Hall of Famer Gould went on to become a key partner with and supporter of women’s sports at Stanford.[vii]
Murphy, the longtime Stanford Sports information Director and football announcer, recalled: “Well, pardon the expression, but there were a lot of old jocks who just didn’t want women, young women or older women, treading on their turf…and…there was women's competition, but it was at a very low level. It was nowhere comparable to the men's side. … Nobody would show up, nobody would really care except those who played. The newspapers totally ignored it. The uniforms were hand-me-downs. The budget was zero. There was no substance to it, none at all. So obviously Joe had a bigger picture of it, as he rightly should have…I always admired this about Joe. He was a very look-to-the-future kind of person, more than just about any other athletic administrator…He recognized the value of Title IX. It wasn't just a political thing. It wasn't an instrument for him… (Joe said,) ‘Here at Stanford we feel that Stanford University should be an equal opportunity campus, and that that opportunity ought to extend to a whole bunch of young women who can swim and play volleyball and field hockey and lacrosse and water polo and all of the other sports.’” Indeed, in the years following the first athletic scholarships for women, Stanford continued devoting more resources than most to women’s sports. It accomplished Joe’s vision by developing an unparalleled women’s athletics program."
"Obviously Joe had a bigger picture of it, as he rightly should have…I always admired this about Joe. He was a very look-to-the-future kind of person, more than just about any other athletic administrator…He recognized the value of Title IX."
“I think we can do it with integrity”
Another of the difficult decisions that Joe made as athletic director was to replace the head football coach Jack Christiansen in 1976. Coach Christiansen accumulated a record of 30-22-3 – including four straight winning seasons – during his five years as head coach. He was popular with his players, to the point where they carried him off the field following his final game, a 27-24 victory over Cal. Joe was criticized for making the change, with the New York Times suggesting that Stanford’s “prestigious” values as an academic institution were being sacrificed in the pursuit of big-time college football. But, drawing from his background playing at Notre Dame and as an assistant to Chuck Taylor, Joe identified significant weaknesses in the program. He envisioned bigger possibilities for Stanford as a potential rival to other west coast powers like USC and UCLA. “We’re trying to stride the thin line between viability and integrity,” Joe told the press, “It’s a wrenching task. But I think we can do it and do it with integrity.”
Against the wishes of many, Joe gauged Bill Walsh’s interest in the position. Joe liked Walsh’s innovative style of coaching and saw him as a perfect fit for Stanford – a university rooted in innovation. Joe explained his vision to the former Bengals assistant and offered Walsh his first major head coaching position – with at least two stipulations. First, in the pursuit football excellence, Stanford was not to compromise its academic priorities. Walsh embraced the expectation, viewing the recruitment of scholar-athletes as a natural strategy to accompany his cerebral style.
Second, Joe explained his interest in having Walsh hire African American assistant coaches. At the time, Stanford was like most other major programs in its paucity of coaches of color. Joe had scoured the country looking for up-and coming African American coaches and leaders, but found that few were being given opportunities. Like the stagnant Title IX environment, Joe saw “inertia” to be an inhibitor of progress. The leaders he visited at other universities suggested that they were interested in providing opportunities for minority coaches, but when it came time action, they were just hiring “who they already know.” Joe saw the need for proactively diversifying the coaching profession and, with the hiring of a smart new coach, identified a timely opportunity.[viii] Walsh agreed, and went on to hire Dennis Green as his running backs coach. Green would later become head coach and, following him, numerous other African American coaches were hired at Stanford over the years.[ix]
Walsh quickly turned Stanford’s team around, installing new discipline, meticulous planning, and a sophisticated offense that was predicated on passing. The team won the Bluebonnet Bowl and he was offered the head position with the NFL’s hapless San Francisco 49ers. Walsh went on to become one of the all-time great professional coaches, leading the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles. He was known as “the Genius” for bringing the vaunted West Coast offense to notoriety. And, not to be forgotten Walsh and Green, drawing from their time at Stanford, were instrumental in the development of the league’s “diversity coaching fellowship,” which, as of 2019 is credited with supporting the emergence of Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Marvin Lewis and many others.
Joe took a risk in hiring Walsh – a coach who had been cast off by others. The long-term effects of that hiring spread well beyond Stanford’s campus. After his retirement from the NFL, Walsh reflected “had I not gone to Stanford and been a head coach, I never would’ve made it as an NFL head coach. People had come to the conclusion that you couldn't have this intellectual approach to the game and be tough.”
“Had I not gone to Stanford and been a head coach, I never would’ve made it as an NFL head coach." -Bill Walsh
A National Model
When Joe was named athletic director, Stanford had won three total titles in the previous 30 years. But starting with the 1976-77 academic year, at least one Stanford team has won an NCAA championship during each of the last 43 years. Since becoming the first major program to embrace Title IX, Stanford’s women’s teams have won 72 championships – by far the most of any program in the country. Its men’s teams followed closely with 71 national championships. Stanford has won the Learfield Directors’ Cup for all-around sport success for 24 consecutive years. Its student-athletes are also regularly lauded for success off the field – in academics, business, and the public sphere. Stanford student-athletes have earned a nation-leading 167 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. Joe arrived to an athletic department that was unable to keep up with its in-state rivals, but, by most standards, Stanford now has the exemplar athletic department in the entire US.
Bob Murphy was asked to reflect upon Joe’s legacy as athletic director, and whether the difficult choices Joe made – hiring Bill Walsh, initiating the hiring of minority coaches, and, especially, his early investment in women’s athletics – were worthwhile. “Has he proved himself right? Yes. All you gotta do is check the Waterford crystal in the Hall of Fame room.”
Joe’s name may not be as well recognized as others in Stanford’s pantheon of legends – Walsh, Gould, Vanderveer, Ledecky, Luck, Shaw – but his visionary leadership was foundational in creating the place where all could flourish. Coaches and leaders in today’s college athletics face no fewer challenges than Joe faced in the 1970s. With broad media visibility and skyrocketing budgets, scrutiny of college athletics is actually higher than ever. Still, we can learn some valuable leadership lessons from Joe that are applicable to the current day.
Adventure to new places
Joe’s brother, Edward Ruetz, described how Joe always, from the time he was young, had an adventurous spirit. He was eager to explore different lands, meet diverse people, and explore novel ideas. He was not afraid of the unknown – or of the challenges that might be associated with the unknown. It was this adventurous spirit that led him to hike the most remote areas of the country as a young man and to volunteer as a fighter pilot in World War II. Similarly, Joe was undaunted by the many “obstacles to new things” during his time as athletic director in Palo Alto.
Stanford has long been a leader in innovation. This aspect of the University’s identity intersected with Joe’s attempts to break new ground in women’s sports and to hire a creative new head football coach. In the field of intercollegiate athletics, innovation is often associated with outcomes that lead to competitive advantage.[x] Importantly, Joe saw that the path to innovation was coupled with a willingness to adventure – to proceed despite risk. He was not paralyzed by fears over his job security. He did not prioritize self-protection, or get stalled by the inertia of “how things have always been done.” Joe’s adventurous perspective freed him to crystallize a broader vision, to take bold action, to lead with conviction.
A similar orientation can be embraced by today’s leaders in athletics. We can ask, what obstacles are in our paths to meaningful innovation? What risks are we willing to take as we adventure to new places?
Don’t go alone
After his near fatal 1941 hike into the Utah Wilderness, Joe reflected in his journal that “a man, alone in this vast wilderness is courting danger and tempting fate.” Joe held close to this lesson for the rest of his life – not only in his excursions into nature, but also in his work as Stanford’s athletic director. Joe made a point to never “go alone” in his key initiatives. He spent his first year on the job learning from leaders at Stanford and around the country. His vision to develop “the best women’s program in the country” and to structurally address disparities in opportunity for minority coaches took shape from his willingness to listen and learn.
Recordings of Joe in the Stanford archives are perhaps most remarkable for the way he dispensed credit to so many people other than himself for the progress that was made in the department during and after his time. Joe lauded President Dick Lyman, Pam Strathairn, various student groups, the faculty athletic board, coaches, and countless others with whom he developed healthy working relationships over the years. He repeatedly noted that nothing could have been accomplished without their collaboration.
Joe actively sought ideas and counsel from others, but in doing so, he did not sacrifice his core principles. Joe believed in Stanford’s mission. He was able to clearly and directly guide his department (for example, stating “We’re not going to do that” when others were avoiding Title IX) and to invite campus stakeholders to join him. In doing this, Joe did not waiver when prominent coaches and donors resisted him. He continued to communicate and problem solve with willing partners. And he did not cast off his detractors. As momentum grew, those who resisted Joe either faded away or joined the effort.
Perhaps the most interesting example of a critic rejoining the fold can be seen in what Bob Murphy previously referred to as Stanford’s “hall of fame room” – a beautiful display space that is now called the “Home of Champions.” Recently renovated, the 18,000 square foot showcase of Stanford’s athletic prowess is a remarkable testament to the Department’s consistent, widespread success. The Home of Champions includes a “Women of Stanford” display that honors the University’s trailblazing role in the field. This Home of Champions is located inside the Arillaga Family Sports Center. John Arillaga, the building’s namesake, is the same donor who, in 1975, opposed the idea of funding women’s sports. At the time, he claimed that he “wouldn’t give one penny to the women” and would “quit giving completely.” In the years following Stanford’s implementation of the women’s program, Arillaga not only changed his stance and supported the effort, but has remained one of the most prominent donors to the university and athletic department over the past 40 years.
Joe did not go alone and neither should other leaders as we are faced with difficult decisions that will shape the future of college sports. While providing clear direction for our institutions and remaining strong and accountable in our actions, athletic directors, coaches, and other leaders can make great strides if we act collaboratively at defining moments.
Grow the good
In an era where so many leaders and coaches are eager to get the next big job, build fancy new facilities, become “elite,” and to emphasize their own legacies when doing so, we can take a cue from Joe. He was a skilled leader. He pursued greatness in life – and achieved it. Joe was an adventurer and a hero. But in his pursuit of greatness, he adhered to something bigger: goodness. Joe’s leadership was rooted in humility and ethics, and he was guided by a steady moral compass. He promoted opportunity for those who had been marginalized. Joe recognized the value of athletics. He saw how individuals developed life-long habits through sport and, particularly at the college level, how athletics can bring together communities with purpose and enthusiasm. His grand vision for making Stanford the best was firmly anchored in doing what was right.
Where did Joe gain this moral compass? During one poignant moment in a video interview with Joe, he was applauded for his forward thinking and his commitment to “the disadvantaged” during his work over the years. Joe dismissed the compliment, instead highlighting the efforts of his father, mother, and other family members, who, in their house on St. Peter Street in South Bend, took in orphans and served the poor and dispossessed of society. “Nothing I did would fit in the same universe as what my dad did.”
Joe died in 2003 at age 86. I wonder if he might reconsider his humble self-assessment if he were alive today and knew about the profound long-term impacts that he had on Stanford and broader field of athletics?
One of my favorite passages, from the author George Eliot reminds me of Joe:
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Maybe in our striving for greatness in college athletics, our leadership sometimes gets detached from goodness. We make compromises. We justify decisions based on how well we think we will be able to compete with others. Joe showed us that we can actually be both great and good. He made ethical decisions that, at the time, appeared to threaten competitive possibilities at Stanford. But ultimately, Joe’s decisions that were rooted in goodness led Stanford to competitive heights that it might never have imagined.
Stanford Athletics would likely be successful today even if Joe had never been its leader over 40 years ago. But if we look a little deeper, there is no doubt that Joe’s unhistoric acts – his forgotten adventures, his collaborative decisions, and his moral guidance – were more than just indelible contributors to the University’s current perch atop college sports. Joe was, more than anything, a “grower of the good.”
Hear Joe describe his work in his own words:
[i]From the Stanford Daily (11/1/74)
[ii]My primary sources were the Stanford archives, the Stanford oral history project, Ruetz family journals, interviews with Joe’s brother Edward and other family members, and interviews with leaders at Stanford.
[iii]During World War II, Joe was a Navy instructor and pilot. During that time he played for the famous Saint Mary's Pre-Flight football team. He was named an All-Navy All-American byRice in 1942.
[iv]From the Stanford Daily (11/1/74)
[v]From the Stanford Daily (10/30/74)
[vi]Gould and Murphy quotes are from the Stanford University Oral History Project
[vii]Dick even married the women’s tennis coach, Anne, who led the Cardinal to the 1978 championship.
[viii]Joe drew from his upbringing on St. Peter Street in South Bend in explaining his interests to Coach Walsh. On St. Peter Street, Joe’s family invited African American and immigrant Mexican families to their house every week for meals. His father connected them with jobs, transportation, and friendship. He even cleared a neighborhood lot for football and baseball games to be enjoyed by diverse residents of the community. Joe’s parents emphasized the importance of these and other actions – like adopting and raising their orphaned cousins – to their children.
[ix]Stanford has had more African American head football coaches than any other autonomy conference school. The school also has an African American athletic director (Bernard Muir), deputy athletic director (Patrick Dunkley), and has had an African American men’s basketball coach (Johnny Dawkins).
[x]Quintane, Eric, et al. "Innovation as a Knowledge-Based Outcome." Journal of Knowledge Management 15.6 (2011): 928-47.
Joe Ruetz in 1942, upon his safe return from the near disastrous hike in Utah.
Joe Ruetz in 1975, serving as Athletic Director at Stanford.
The Stanford Daily documented the complicated path to the campus’ Title IX implementation in 1974 and 1975.
The “Women of Stanford” display, part of Stanford’s Home of Champions,is located in the Arrillaga Family Sports Center. John Arrillaga was initially opposed to the idea of donations supporting women’s sports, but later became a major supporter.
Bill Walsh (top) was hired by Joe Ruetz after being spurned by Paul Brown. Walsh credited the Stanford opportunity with saving his career. Ruetz asked Walsh to hire minority coaches, so the first coach he hired was Dennis Green. Walsh and Green then became instrumental in starting the NFL’s Minority Coaching Fellowship.
According to John Rawls, the right is defined independently from the good. The right is a pathway that leads to the good. We must understand what the good is before we can know what the right is.