Q&A: Provost Jonathan Holloway remembers his football career at Stanford ahead of NU’s game Saturday


Source: Stanford Archives

Jonathan Holloway (No. 8) runs onto the football field in 1985. Holloway played football at Stanford.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


For a little over two years, Jonathan Holloway has served as Provost of Northwestern. But almost 35 years ago, Holloway was an incoming freshman on the football team at Stanford after earning USA Today All-American honorable mention honors in high school. Holloway’s brother Brian played with John Elway at Stanford before becoming a first-round pick and three-time Pro Bowler. Holloway, however, had a much different college career. With the Wildcats opening the 2019 season against the Cardinal in Palo Alto, The Daily talked with Holloway over the phone about his football career. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: What attracted you to football at such a young age?
Holloway: It wasn’t my idea. My brother played football. I’m the youngest of three. My brother is eight years older, my sister’s six years older. When my brother got to high school, he started playing football and had great success. I was playing soccer and doing other Little League things. When I got to high school, I figured I was going to just continue running track. But my brother said why don’t you give it a shot — football that is — and if you don’t like it just don’t do it. And I had great success as well. It really wasn’t a long standing burn and love for the sport that drove me to it. It was an idea. I tried it out and because I got nice things from it, attention, whatnot, I kept at it.

The Daily: What are some of your first memories of playing football?
Holloway: I didn’t know the heck I was doing. I really didn’t follow football except to watch my brother play when I was younger. I started as, my high school was three years, so I was a sophomore. My other memories are I was very fast, for my size especially. It was fun to run down people and tackling them and rushing the quarterback. It was actually tremendous fun. I graduated 34 years ago and I can still recall with perfect clarity some great moments, but the horrible thing is the moments were “Oh if I had just” — like I picked up a fumble once my junior year at the one yard line and if I had just evaded one tackler at our own 30, I would have run for a touchdown. This is 35 years ago. That pops in my head I still get stressed about it. It’s ridiculous. Some of these things just stick with you. But we were a great football team. In my three years — two years on varsity — we were 27-3. It was mostly good things, just a few setbacks.

The Daily: How did you develop into a highly-acclaimed high school football player?
Holloway: I practiced. I know the thing in my favor is I was a three sport athlete: football and indoor and outdoor track. I was tall, in general, for high school, although average height on my defensive line. We were a massive team. I’m six-three and a half. But I was very fast for my size. So even if I made a mistake at the line of scrimmage, I could actually chase down running backs. I think it was that range, and that I could exploit that ability to recover more than anything else that made me interesting to schools. I’m sure my brother who was an All-American at Stanford and then a professional football player, I’m sure the fact that there was that sort of pedigree is something that was known to all the recruiters and that’s their job. I’m sure that has something to do with it too.

The Daily: What are your favorite memories of playing at Stanford?
Holloway: (Laughs) I didn’t play. I was a hot shot recruit who ended up being a complete scrub when I got there. So my favorite memories are just friendships that I’ve made. In my senior year, I wasn’t even on the depth chart anymore. They’re all these injuries to the starting offensive line, I was playing outside linebacker, all these injuries to the starting offensive line so the scout offensive line was moving up and they literally needed bodies to run the scout offense. So I wasn’t even practicing, I was moving gear on the sidelines at that point. The coaches told me to put on an offensive jersey and start running scout team offensive guard and tight end. I ended up doing it for, I think, half the season. And it turns out, I was a natural. I was too small to play offensive guard, but I was a natural at tight end. Everything was easy. The coaches at one point said, “We don’t have any film of you playing tight end. Why didn’t you tell us you played tight end?” I’m like, “I’ve never played it in my life.” And they said — now I was a senior — “Do you want to switch?” I’m like “No, I’m done.” I’m walking out the door. It’s funny in retrospect, but it was sort of this sobering moment, like I had been playing on the wrong side of the football for four years and just one frustration after another. I just couldn’t perform at the level that they needed. I’d have flashes of it now and again, but I could not compete at that level at that position.

The Daily: What was a typical school day like for you?
Holloway: I loaded everything into the morning. It wasn’t until the winter of my senior year when I was post-football that I ever took a class at Stanford that ended after I’ll just say one o’clock, but class began before noon. Because the afternoon was taken up with physical therapy, meetings and football and then homework. It also wasn’t until my senior year after football when I stayed up, past midnight doing homework because I was just so tired all the time. I’d stay up socializing but homework always had to be done by midnight because I just couldn’t think straight. I look at my Stanford alumni magazine. They always have a section in the back about people in your class and what they’re doing. If I recognize literally five people over the course of a year, I’m surprised. Football really drove my experience. I kind of wonder, not with regret, what it would have been like to have been a Stanford student without that kind of mandatory experience time commitment, just to discover different types of experiences. I just don’t know what it’s like.

The Daily: You wore No. 8 and No. 52. Why did you wear those numbers?
Holloway: I was recruited to be a defensive back actually because I was fast. But then I just didn’t know the first thing about being a defensive back. And so I got switched in the first week of camp into outside linebacker. But, a single digit I thought looked kind of cool. I was No. 82 throughout my high school years. Eight was available so I took it. And then 52, the guys I ended up hanging out with my freshman — one was in my dorm, one was in the next dorm — happened to be numbers 51 and 53 and since 52 became available I was like heck I’ll take that. And it’s a linebacker number so simple as that.

The Daily: Did you travel to any away games?
Holloway: I traveled once when we played Notre Dame (in 1988). The travel squad, I’m sure it’s still limited, the whole squad doesn’t go. And since I didn’t play special teams, I wasn’t somebody that was going to be traveling. The redshirt year, none of the redshirt freshman travelled. The sophomore year was the difference maker. That was my chance to breakthrough, and I wasn’t able to. I actually had kind of a knee injury and had to have surgery midseason. And that was my sophomore season and after that it was kind of sunk deal. Traveled once and then again, for the (1987 Gator Bowl), of course.

The Daily: What was it like going to a bowl game?
Holloway: It’s kind of weird. Bowl games are strange. Unless you’re playing near your home base or if you have a rabid fan base, it’s very much an away game. You do a lot of stuff for the week leading up to it, a lot of meet and greet kind of things and banquet and such. But you try to get real for the game too. So it’s kind of strange feeling but also we’re playing in Jacksonville a few days after Christmas. And the city was — it was Christmas. So that was kind of weird. The game itself is fun. Now this is also a very different era of college football before the bowl championships stuff, before the TV revenue had really kicked in so things were much more modest as far as what a bowl experience could be. But what you realize is the bowl is really there not for the players not so much but for all the rabid fans and businesses in that area. It’s a big financial engine for that area.

The Daily: Who are some of your teammates that you played with that you look back and think it’s cool you go play with them?
Holloway: In terms of football, there’s people like Ed McCaffrey, Dave Wyman — linebacker for the Seahawks mainly. McCaffrey played with the Broncos and his son did all those great things with Stanford, now with the Panthers. We didn’t send a ton of players to pros. Lester Archambeau was not a huge name but had a good career in the NFL and is now a member of the Players Association doing work. But the most famous name by far is Cory Booker. He and I were there at the same time. In fact, we were both recruited by the same guy. He played wide receiver and just couldn’t cut it there and sort of was on the same track I was: Big recruit, flame out. They pushed him, ironically, to tight end and he ended up playing and getting some real playing time his last couple of years. He and I are sort of the same build, just one of those odd little quirks.

The Daily: If you were an 18-year-old recruit today, would you be able to cut it on the Stanford team?
Holloway: The Stanford team I was on would have been destroyed by what Stanford has become. It’s just a world of difference. They might look at me and say, “hey nice grades, nice pedigree, pass.”

The Daily: How did you learn from your struggles on the football field?
Holloway: My athletic career more or less was not a success in college, and frustrating, and hard. It was the first time I failed at something, certainly on a public level. I learned a lot about myself. One is that I’m stubborn. Although I really entertained the idea of quitting going into my sophomore year. And, as an individual, I could do more than I thought I could. That I had a deeper well of ability to persist than I thought I did. That was a really important discovery. It wasn’t one I learned on the field, ironically I learned that off the field, through practice basically. That’s the big takeaway I have from my time at Stanford: the ability to persevere through really difficult moments. And I still say it to this day, I love working with athletes because they know how to fail. It sounds like of a weird thing to say, but what I mean by that is athletes fail every single day, many times, more often than not. But they also don’t give up and try again. And that’s incredible skill that we all need to develop.

The Daily: Who are you rooting for this weekend?
Holloway: Northwestern of course. It’ll be weird rooting for Northwestern. It’s the first time in 42 years since my brother started playing for Stanford that I’m rooting against Stanford. It’s actually caused me a little bit of stress.

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