Stanford, David Shaw make a perfect match

ByTed Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 13, 2016

STANFORD, Calif. -- Just about everybody at Stanford has a Jim Harbaugh story. He rolled through the idyllic campus during his four-year tenure, inspiring better football, rolled eyes and, yes, hurting some feelings along the way. Then he bolted to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

This is not a Jim Harbaugh story, though. This story's subject is low on quirk, bluster and viral tweets. It's about success through corporate cool rather than nuclear reaction. It's about a sustainer rather than a builder, a man of diverse interests who doesn't obsess about everyone else hearing and celebrating his journey.

David Shaw is 55-14 in five years leading Stanford after Harbaugh. He has won three Pac-12 titles over the past four years, even though his team never was tapped as the preseason favorite to do so. That is, other than this year, as his seventh-ranked Cardinal prepares for a visit from USC on Saturday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

"Jim was a tornado," said Mike Gleeson, Stanford's video coordinator since 1994. "He made a lot of people uncomfortable but he made the program -- I don't think anyone could have gotten us to where we were without a personality like that. But I don't think he could have sustained it. Dave can sustain it."

Stanford won football games before Harbaugh and Shaw -- the Cardinal went to the Rose Bowl after the 1999 season under Tyrone Willingham -- but success typically resulted in the coach bolting for a more prestigious or lucrative job. There were some lean years after Willingham, including a 1-11 finish in 2006 under Walt Harris. The Cardinal weren't ranked in the AP poll from December 2001 until November 2009, Harbaugh's third season.

They've finished ranked in the top 11 five out of the past six seasons, four of which came under Shaw.

"I didn't think it was possible to do what he has done," said Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess, who will retire this year after 41 seasons. "We've had great coaches, but no one has done what David Shaw has done. Rose Bowls three out of the last four years? Unbelievable. Unbelievable!"

There are stories about Shaw, too. Here's one.

The son of a longtime NFL and college assistant, he was born to coach football. When he was a receiver at Stanford, in fact, his teammates affectionately called him "Coach Shaw."

Well, not exactly.

Yes, his teammates sometimes called him "Coach Shaw," but it wasn't always a salute to his precociousness, nor a thank you for the help.

"It wasn't always complimentary," Shaw said.

Coaching? No way, thought the 23-year-old Shaw in 1995. He had lived through that migratory lifestyle as his dad, Willie, coached for 14 teams in 33 years, including two tours at Stanford. He had a Stanford degree, essentially a golden ticket, and the blossoming economy of the mid-1990s in Silicon Valley lay before him. Shaw was going into finance, was going to build his own business, become a Master of the Universe.

"It wasn't even a point of discussion for me," Shaw said. "I was not going to coach. I never considered it."

Only first, in order to avoid wearing a tie for a year, he would help out as an assistant coach at Western Washington. The unsought job offer came to him from Vikings defensive coordinator Robin Ross, who knew Shaw's dad, and he accepted the low-paying gig almost on a whim.

The way Shaw tells the story, he almost immediately experienced an unexpected epiphany.

Said Shaw: "The first day on the grass in practice, I was like, 'Ah, man, this is for me.' But that was after years of actively arguing with people who said I'd be a good coach. I had always been, 'I'm not going to coach. I won't coach. I'm not going to do that.' But out on the grass, I found myself communicating very quickly, very easily and very assertively, and I was never a big talker. All the sudden on a football field, I was a big talker."

So he became a coach, yet as his coaching journey wound through the NFL on his way to Stanford, he made sure he coached his way. And lived his way. While coaching is an immersive lifestyle that doesn't present much time for developing a diversity of interests, Shaw, who has a B.A. in sociology, is a reader and eager offseason world traveler.

He's interested in history, primarily the lives of U.S. presidents, and the rise and fall of great, ancient nations, such as Greece and Rome. Asked for two books that inform his personal philosophy, he cited "American Generalship" by Edgar F. Puryear and "The Greatest Salesman in the World" by Og Mandino.

His overriding focus is on leadership and "how people work and work together," he said. In the course of discussing his interests he said, "We're about things that are tangible ... Power and fame are temporary ... What are you doing with power? ... What do you focus on that can be passed on?" He gave a TED Talk called "Can Football Change The World?" in which he spoke about how his coaching intersects with major life questions.

Shaw's travels with wife Kori, an MIT graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, have often included tours guided by Stanford professors. Through the years, he has been to Turkey, Greece, Spain, Italy, Russia and Estonia.

A curious mind is another part of his fit at Stanford. Shaw writes recommendations for his players for admittance into law and medical schools or other postgraduate work as often as he sells them to NFL scouts. He is a different sort of coach at a different sort of university, essentially an Ivy League school playing Power 5 football.

Stanford's admission rate in 2016 was 4.69 percent, lowest in the nation. Perhaps the only controversy Shaw has suffered through during his tenure came after his comments about not using satellite camps had some calling him a snob.

He said this past spring, "It doesn't make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that's eligible to get into Stanford." The fact that what he said is true about the rare combination of academic and athletic ability needed to play football for Stanford didn't seem to matter to some.

Said longtime Cardinal women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer upon hearing about this tempest in a teapot: "They don't get it. There is no back door to Stanford."

Shaw, 44, does his coach-y things, too. He met and bonded with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney at a Nike event in 2012, and the two remain close, sharing notes on their holistic approach to coaching.

That approach starts with Shaw being himself -- not Harbaugh, not Nick Saban, not Chip Kelly, another coaching buddy. The most remarkable part of that might be Shaw's calm demeanor. Fire and brimstone -- a Hollywood and ESPN highlights staple of coaching -- are not his thing.

"He's someone who really exemplifies leadership being not spoken but demonstrated through actions," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "He's not going to yell at you, get in your face and scream at you, all that stuff."

That doesn't mean he won't get irritated with reporters, frustrated with officiating or disappointed in his team's intensity. He just can make his point without going bonkers.

"It's who I am. It's how I am," he said. "I can also not raise my voice and say, 'If you don't play better, I'm going to put in the guy behind you.' It's not mind games, it's the truth."

Funny he should mention "truth," because it is one of the slippery aspects of college coaching when the sought-after truth is whether said coach is eyeballing another job. It has become an annual event for Shaw's name to end up on coaching wish lists, particularly in the NFL.

Shaw served just two years at Western Washington before jumping to the NFL, where he spent nine years climbing the coaching ladder as a quality control, quarterbacks and wide receivers coach. When things went south for him with the Baltimore Ravens under Brian Billick, he faced his first moment of coaching adversity.

"It was a great big reality stick hitting you in the back of the head," he said.

That stick is the reason he ended up at Stanford.

He failed to land a couple of NFL jobs he targeted and considered taking a year off, as he was still getting paid by the Ravens. Then good friend John Morton called. He was leaving the University of San Diego, where he served as passing game and wide receivers coach, for the New Orleans Saints. His boss, Harbaugh, was looking for his replacement.

Shaw was skeptical, then curious, and Harbaugh won him over.

"I fully intended to go back to the NFL after a year," Shaw said. "Then [Harbaugh] said, 'I'm hearing rumblings the Stanford [head-coaching] job might open up.' I said, 'Naa. Really?' And he said, 'Would you be interested [in coming along as offensive coordinator]?' And I said, 'For Stanford, yeah.'"

While Harbaugh-Shaw was hardly a marriage made in heaven, it worked. When Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season, however, Shaw's promotion was not a sure thing. A group of Stanford players, including quarterback Andrew Luck and linebacker Shayne Skov, advocated for Shaw, but there was a flirtation with then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen. There were other national candidates, as well as other Harbaugh assistants.

At the Rose Bowl last January, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the Stanford athletic director who hired Shaw, said that Shaw might not have been the right guy in 2007, but he was the perfect fit in 2011.

"Jim had built a great program," Bowlsby told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It seemed to me that David had all the qualities to take it to the next phase. Sometimes it's more difficult to maintain a program than to build one. The likelihood that he would be there a while was a factor."

After he was hired, Shaw said, "I wanted this to be my last head-coaching interview ever."

So will it be?

"I never say never, but I don't see [leaving for the NFL] happening anytime soon," said Shaw, who was married in Memorial Church on the Stanford campus and has three children.

He paused, then concluded, "I couldn't imagine not being here."