That picture of Jim Harbaugh being carried off the field on the broad shoulders of some of his players following Monday's victory in the Orange Bowl? Put it in the archives because that's a snapshot you'll never see again. The Cardinal will move on without its dynamic leader, apparently on the verge of joining the top one percent of wage earners in the country with his blue-collar image.
The same man who hired Willingham as a relative unknown also hired 'proven' coaches Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Now the same man who hired Harbaugh has a chance to keep things rolling. Bob Bowlsby's next football hire can set the stage for success or lead the Cardinal downward.
After Willingham left campus, on his own volition, for greener pastures at Notre Dame, Stanford fell into a seven-year slump, its longest stretch of losing seasons in school history.
Harbaugh leaves in much the same manner, cashing in at the peak of his success, and that's the American Way after all. Can he do in the NFL what he did for San Diego and Stanford? That's his challenge and his goal and the reason to coach.
"Ever since I've been a freshman here, his name has been mentioned for every job that's been open," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said when the team arrived home following the Orange Bowl. "We're used to it. It's just part of life."
What does the future hold for junior Andrew Luck? The young, smart, savvy and even-tempered quarterback could have cashed in on his magnificent year of success, which culminated in fifth-ranked Stanford's 40-12 victory over No. 12 Virginia Tech in Monday night's Orange Bowl.
Luck instead chose to announce his intention to remain at Stanford well ahead of any news regarding Harbaugh and instantly angered Carolina Panther fans. The kid just made a choice people. He has his own set of priorities, marches to the beat of his own drummer, to each his own; that sort of thing. Life goes on and on and on. He didn't need a reason and he still gave one to satisfy the masses.
"I am committed to earning my degree in architectural design from Stanford University and am on track to accomplish this at the completion of the spring quarter of 2012," Luck said in a statement released by the school.
The guy is a nonconsensual celebrity and spotlights make him uncomfortable.
"It's not much news to us," Stanford wide receiver Richard Sherman said. "We knew a long time ago, October-November. He's kind of a humble kid. He's a great guy. He just deflected it (the fact he was coming back). .....He didn't want to be the center of attention. He didn't want it (the news) to interfere with playing football."
Junior linebacker Thomas Keiser, however, will declare for the NFL draft, foregoing his final year of eligibility. That suddenly makes linebacker a position of concern. Owen Marecic and Chike Amajoyi are also gone, leaving Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov and Max Bergen as the top returners. Skov, of course, had a brilliant Orange Bowl.
Luck, meanwhile, threw for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns this season. He completed nearly 71 percent of his passes and earned an efficiency rating of 170.2 (average is 100). Can he do it again? Ah, that's the rub; he challenges himself daily and in his own way. Numbers don't seem mean as important to him as does achievement, and more specifically, achievement by committee.
"It's a huge deal for everybody," Sherman said. "It's huge for Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah . . . because they have to deal with it. There's a game plan for Andrew Luck and then there's a game plan for every other quarterback."
Luck already has proven himself as one of the top quarterbacks, college or pro, in the nation. There's no question Harbaugh helped him become a better football player. Luck probably thinks there's still a lot of room for improvement.
Can Stanford overtake Oregon for Pac-12 domination? Well, if Luck has anything top do with it (yes, he obviously does), the Cardinal will be one of the favorites.
Offensively, he'll have Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Usua Amanam in the backfield and receivers Chris Owusu, Griff Whalen, Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson.
The offensive line, which protected Luck like no other Stanford team has protected a quarterback, should remain in decent shape despite the loss of three starters, including All-American center Chase Beeler.
Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro will enter their third-year as a starter while Tyler Mabry also saw a lot of action.
Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz make tight end one of the strongest positions on the field next year. Having Ryan Hewitt and Levine Toilo around to play there hurts not at all.
The defense should be in better shape even with the loss of Keiser, Marecic, lineman Sione Fua and defensive backs Richard Sherman, Austin Yancey and Taylor Skaufel.
Delano Howell and Michael Thomas are all-Pac-10 type players in the secondary and Johnson Bademosi and Barry Browning each gained experience.
Matt Masifilo, Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens will fill the gap left by Fua on the defensive line.
Kicker Nate Whitaker graduates, but younger brother Eric Whitaker has a chance to take over. Punters Daniel Zychlinski and David Green return.
There's a group of redshirt freshmen waiting to make an impact and Stanford's recruiting class, should it hold, is one of the top 10 classes in the country.
As a final look at the Orange Bowl, Ertz and Fleener caught all four of Luck's touchdown passes as Stanford ends the year on an eight-game winning streak.
Fleener caught six passes for 173 yards, including TDs of 41, 58 and 38 yards as Stanford broke the game wide open with 27 unanswered points in the second half.
Taylor led all rushers with 114 yards on 13 carries while Jeremy Stewart had 99 yards in five carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run. Marecic also scored for the Cardinal.
Stanford lived up to its billing as one of the top offensive teams in the nation, compiling 528 yards of total offense, 341 in the second half. The Cardinal defense limited the Hokies' potent offense to 288 yards, including sacking Tyrod Taylor eight times. Taylor threw for 223 yards and a touchdown.
Skov was credited with 12 tackles and 2 1/2 quarterback sacks, while Howell, who had two sacks, added a key interception that led to a two-play, 97-yard touchdown drive for Stanford.
Stanford outrushed Virginia Tech, 244-65, and converted 6 of 10 third down plays. The Hokies did not have an answer for Luck, the passing game and the Stanford rushing attack.
The 12 wins extends a school record. The eight-game win streak is the third-longest (10 in 1926 and 1940, nine in 1951 and eight in 1905) in history.
It is the first time in FBS history a team has won 12 games after losing 11 games five years earlier.
The four touchdown passes by Luck set a Stanford bowl record (Guy Benjamin in 1977 Sun Bowl, Steve Dills in 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl both had three). The three TD catches by Fleener is a Stanford bowl record. It was the fourth time this year Luck has thrown for four TDs.
The 60-yard rushing TD by Stewart in the first quarter was the longest rushing TD in Stanford bowl history and seventh longest in Orange Bowl history. Stewart came in with 38 net rushing on the season.
Over the final six games, Stanford allowed 56 points. Stanford finished with a school-record 524 points, scoring 30 or more points in all but one game.