When David Shaw was promoted to head coach of Stanford football almost two years ago, there wasn’t much to say about him.
Sure, some people knew that he was the offensive coordinator who guided an Andrew Luck-led offense to scoring at least 40 points in six of 13 games in 2010. Sure, a few people might have known that he served as an assistant coach in the NFL for almost 10 years. But Jim Harbaugh had such a dominating presence during his tenure as head coach that once he departed for the San Francisco 49ers, it felt like Stanford was left with a gaping hole.
It also left a big question: Who is this Shaw guy and how good of a coach is he really?
One of the biggest knocks against Shaw last year was that he had simply inherited a team that his predecessor had so masterfully built over the span of four seasons.
In truth, I do think it’s hard to argue against the idea that last year’s Cardinal crew was mostly Harbaugh’s legacy. It was Harbaugh who, being classic Harbaugh, went out of his way to say that Luck was the best QB prospect since Eli Manning before the future star even emerged on the national scene. It was Harbaugh who expertly mentored eventual NFL first-round and second-round picks. And let’s not forget, it was Harbaugh who transformed Stanford from the laughingstock of the Pac-10 into a national powerhouse.
Shaw was handed a team brimming with talent, a team that at best would win a national championship and at worst go to a BCS bowl. The first-year coach was put in a tough situation. If he rigidly followed his predecessor by copying what Harbaugh did, he would be criticized for not showing his own coaching style. If he went away from what Harbaugh had successfully built and things went awry, the blame would pile up even more. What was he supposed to do?
One of the biggest criticisms that Shaw faced last season came after the Fiesta Bowl, where he decided to put the ball at the foot of Jordan Williamson instead of in the hands of Andrew Luck in the waning moments of the game. Whether that was a mistake or not is an entirely different debate, but the most important thing is that he has managed to quickly and fully learn from his maturing experiences as head coach.
And it’s paid off.
The work that Shaw has done so far this season has been incredibly underrated. Just three weeks into the season, he created a masterful game plan that propelled the Cardinal past then-No. 2 USC. He has found a way to strengthen the Stanford secondary that was vulnerable even under Harbaugh’s regime. He has managed to effectively utilize the team’s depth at linebacker, offensive line and defensive line and at the same time ease the best recruiting class in school history into the college level.
There’s also something to be said about Shaw’s unique coaching personality. He is on the cool, collected end of the spectrum just as much as Harbaugh is on the fiery, brash opposite end, but he doesn’t have the brooding, evil-hooded persona of Bill Belichick either. Plus Shaw has his own quiet humor. Yesterday, when asked if he would rather see Oregon’s speedster De’Anthony Thomas on offense or defense, he replied, “I’d rather see him on the bench.”
Shaw has coached his team to three signature wins—against USC, Arizona and Oregon State—this year alone. There were moments in all three games when it seemed unlikely that Stanford would be able to pull out the victory, but Shaw rallied his team on all three occasions. Players can’t rally that many times if they don’t have a great coach.
Above all else, the most telling sign of Shaw’s success as head coach is where his team is at right now. The Cardinal may have two losses and a couple ugly wins, but it’s in position to claim the Pac-12 North title as well as the conference championship that eluded even Harbaugh. Even after losing the best quarterback, best tight end and two of the best offensive linemen in the country, Shaw has found a way to coach the Cardinal back to where it was last year.
The apprentice has become the master. In the next two weeks, Shaw has the chance to accomplish something that Harbaugh never could.
George Chen always believed in Shaw. Congratulate him for staying strong in the face of those two losses and ugly wins at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DailyGChen.