STANFORD — The day David Shaw became Stanford’s head coach almost two years ago, he said he never wanted to interview for another football job again. He walked out of his first news conference and up to his new office, where he spent about 90 minutes reflecting with his father, Willie Shaw, who had lost out on the same position to Bill Walsh two decades prior.
“There was a tear or two shed in there,” Willie Shaw said.
At the rate his son is going, job security no longer seems to be an issue. Instead, Shaw will likely have suitors calling from all over soon — though he still insists he’s not going anywhere.
The former Cardinal wide receiver and assistant has not only kept his alma mater a national power, he has started to build his own legacy on The Farm. Shaw won the Pac-12 Conference’s Coach of the Year award for the second straight season Monday, becoming only the fourth coach in league history to take home the honor in consecutive years.
Shaw also has a chance to do something even his more prominent predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, never could: win the league title and secure a Rose Bowl berth when eighth-ranked Stanford (10-2, 8-1) hosts No. 17 UCLA (9-3, 6-3) in the league championship game Friday.
“Very seldom do you get to see somebody live their dream, whether they’re your son or not,” Willie Shawsaid. “He’s living that dream.”
While Harbaugh turned Stanford into a surprising contender, Shaw’s steady hand has kept the program going strong since the San Francisco 49ers hired Harbaugh away in January 2011.
Shaw led the Cardinal to an 11-1 record before a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in last season’s Fiesta Bowl. This year has perhaps been even more impressive: Shaw helped Stanford overcome the departure of No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck, seamlessly made a midseason quarterback change from Josh Nunes to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan and overtook Oregon to win the league’s North Division crown.
“I think the hardest thing for me is when we didn’t play well on offense, of course, the quarterback gets so much of the blame,” Shaw said Monday when asked to reflect on his season as a coach. “And Josh had to shoulder so much of that even when guys dropped passes or protection issues or we didn’t run the ball well. Josh had to bear the brunt of that criticism.
“I tried to take that back on my shoulders away from him. That was tough. And then just finding our team’s rhythm. Every year, it seems to take four or five games. It seems like it took us longer to really find our rhythm as a team.”
Shaw’s relentless recruiting also has put Stanford in position to contend in the Pac-12 — and perhaps even more — for the next several years with a roster stacked with underclassmen who are already key contributors. So much so that Shaw figures to be the latest in a long line of Cardinal coaches whose name begins to gain traction for even bigger jobs in the offseason.
New Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir takes that as a compliment. While he won’t publicly discuss whether he plans to extend Shaw’s four-year contract after two years this offseason, Muir said he knows thatShaw ”wants to be here for quite some time, and we’ve got to be here to support him.”
“It’s just been so impressive to watch him work and do his craft and do it so well,” said Muir, who took over in mid-August after Bob Bowlsby left to become the Big 12 Conference commissioner. “I’m just so impressed by his demeanor, just taking everything in stride and being able to execute his plan and his vision for the program.”
That vision has started to become clearer.
All of 40 years old, Shaw has showed the ability to bond with players in ways even Harbaugh couldn’t, understanding as he does the intricacies of a rigorous academics university that practically raised him: as a coach’s son, student, player, assistant coach, husband and father — he even proposed to his wife, Kori, outside of Stanford’s Memorial Church, then convinced her to wait more than a year “because it takes that long to get married in the Stanford church.”
“He came here, he played here, he knows what the type of players who go here are like,” said fifth-year linebacker Chase Thomas, who was recruited by Harbaugh. “The strenuous activities of school and athletics. He knows what Stanford is about, and he definitely shows that.”
Shaw has emerged from the shadow of the man who rebuilt Stanford and put his own stamp on the program.
He doesn’t sleep in his office, work 20-hour days or show emotion the way Harbaugh often did. He avoids scheduling early morning meetings so assistant coaches can have breakfast with their kids and take them to school.
Often times his wife and their three children — Keegan, Carter and Gavin — are waiting after practice. On Tuesday nights, the coaches and their families meet for dinner in the athletic offices before late-night meetings, and Thursday nights he usually lets his staff take off so they can come in fresh Friday morning.
All the while taking time to appreciate, as he has said since he was hired, “the job I always knew that I wanted.”
“I can remember Dave telling me that in Pocatello, Idaho, close to 13 years ago,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, whose name is also sure to generate attention for head coaching vacancies. “All he ever wanted to do was get back to Stanford. So to say that then, and he’s always been a man of his word, so I truly believe that whatever he says goes.”
Shaw’s coaching background has been well documented: he was an assistant in the NFL for Philadelphia, Oakland and Baltimore before joining Harbaugh as an assistant at the University of San Diego. He joined Harbaugh at Stanford in 2007 and coached receivers and running backs while also serving as offensive coordinator for four years.
Shaw often credits coaching mentors Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green, Tyrone Willingham, Harbaugh and Walsh, among others. Nobody, though, has had a greater impact on his life and career than his father, a retired NFL and college assistant who had two stints as a Stanford position coach and was a finalist for the Cardinal head coaching job in 1992 before Walsh decided to return at the last minute.
Watching his son take hold of the Stanford program the last two years — and often helping out as a keen observer during practices — has only made it more special since that first conversation in the head coach’s office, when Willie Shaw remembers how the two talked about “his goals, his dreams, how he has become an extension of my dreams and taking it a step further.”
“At Stanford,” Willie Shaw said, “he’s at home.”