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COHN: David Shaw, Stanford man through-and-through

Coach David Shaw will lead Stanford into Tuesday's Rose Bowl, the Cardinal's first appearance in 13 years.

Associated Press photo
Published: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 7:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 11:26 p.m.

STANFORD

Willie Shaw likes to tell this story about his son David, who just happens to be Stanford’s football coach, whose team just happens to be playing in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

David, a Stanford graduate, asked his future wife Kori to marry him in front of Memorial Church on the Stanford campus. She said yes. He said they would have to wait before taking their vows. She asked why. He said there was a year’s waiting list for Memorial Church. She agreed to wait.

David Shaw played wide receiver at Stanford from 1991-94, played for Denny Green and Bill Walsh. Father Willie twice was an assistant at Stanford and held several coaching jobs in the NFL. He would have taken over at Stanford in 1992 if Walsh had not shown interest in returning at the 11th hour. To which Willie always says, “If I had the choice between Bill Walsh and me, I would have chosen Bill Walsh.”

Now, David, 40, has the job Willie almost had. This season his Cardinal defeated the Associated Press’ No.1 and No. 2 teams, Oregon and USC, and Stanford recently extended his contract.

So, this is a love story about a man and a school, and it’s a story of a man being at the exact right place at the exact right time.

Shaw recently sat in his office for an interview. It is the office Walsh used and the office Jim Harbaugh used, and every time you meet Shaw you are meeting the extension of a great coaching tradition.

As an undergraduate, was Shaw already starting to think like a coach?

“I didn’t know it but, yes,” he said. “I never thought about it until the younger players started calling me ‘Coach Shaw.’ My fourth and fifth years, I became annoying because I was the one who said, ‘Hey, you’re too short to get your depth. It’s supposed to be 12 yards, not 10. Hey, you’re going the wrong way. Hey, your splits are too wide.’

“To give myself the best opportunity to play, I had to know everything. I had to know all the positions. I got to the point, even as a receiver, I understood the protections. I understood where the quarterback was going to be hot.

“My sophomore year I roomed with (quarterback) Steve Stenstrom and I asked him about his reads and Steve would always talk about his progressions. There were times where I was out at my position and I saw the coverage and I knew if I was going to get the ball or not because, if it’s Cover 2, I’m not even in the progression vs. Cover 3, I’m No. 2 in the progression, so I better get to my spot.

“I was already thinking about our offense, how it relates to the defense, what the strengths and weaknesses of both were. Without knowing, I was thinking like a coach.”

When Walsh would diagram a play to the offense, Shaw didn’t just listen to what Walsh said about wide receiver. He wanted to understand each role, all 11 of them. He’d go to Stenstrom and ask him to go over every aspect of the play.

When they graduated, Stenstrom, who is now president of Pro Athletes Outreach, a religious counseling resource, understanding Shaw would rise to whatever coaching level he chose, told him half-jokingly, “I hope you will consider me for your offensive coordinator.”

Shaw’s manner can be deceiving. His facial expression rarely changes. It is a half-smile — a winning, inviting smile. His face disguises the fire inside. He described how he found the fire.

“I’ll never forget one of the biggest moments for me was my freshman year,” he said. “I had redshirted and we were in spring ball. I dropped one pass and it didn’t bother me. The fact that I took it nonchalantly really upset (running back) Tommy Vardell. Tommy walked up to me after the next day’s film session and he said, ‘Hey, if they’re not going to hand the ball to me and they’re going to throw it to you, you’ve got to catch it.’

“And it hit me, ‘He’s right. He’s the best player on our team and if I get an opportunity to catch the ball, I’ve got to catch it because otherwise why not keep handing the ball to Tommy?’ I felt bad. I owed him. The best teams have that mentality. ‘I don’t just owe the coaches. I don’t just owe the fans. I owe the other players to do my best.’

“It’s the biggest reason you win games. I tell my players that all the time.”

Add to Shaw’s half-smile a soft, soothing voice. Was his soft voice OK with professional football players when he coached for the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens? Is it OK in college?

“Yes and yes,” he said softly. “My dad said, ‘Coach to your personality.’ It’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I have been so blessed. I played in the same offense for five years. It changed from Denny Green to Bill Walsh but it was the same offense. Fortunately, I got an internship with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Ray Rhodes was the head coach and it’s the same Bill Walsh tree, and Jon Gruden is the offensive coordinator. It’s the same exact terminology, the same exact offense.

“So, I went in one year out of college to be an intern at a place where I know the splits. I know the routes. I know the quarterback’s progressions. I know the hots. I know the protections. I’m a young guy but the guys who were there were comfortable enough to say, ‘You have something to contribute, so go ahead and help.’

“I was able to answer questions. What I learned is NFL players respect you if you can help them do their jobs. It doesn’t matter if you yell. It doesn’t matter if you don’t yell. It doesn’t matter if you speak softly or you speak loudly. If you can give them information to help them do their jobs better, they’ll listen to you. As long as you approach them from a point of knowledge and you help them do their jobs better, they’ll always listen and they’ll always respect you.

“I raise my voice if somebody is shortchanging their teammates by not giving their best effort. That’s absolutely unacceptable and I will not put them on the field regardless of who they are, regardless of how much skill they have. That’s when I raise my voice, but besides that, I have no problem walking over to a guy and saying, ‘That’s not good enough.’ I don’t have to yell it from across the field.

“Guys have all different kinds of personalities. I can’t try to be like Jon Gruden. I won’t be successful that way because I can’t be like Jon Gruden. I can’t try to be like Bill Walsh. There’s no way. I can learn things from those guys and then use them in my own personality. Jim (Harbaugh) had unbelievable success here. The moment I try to be like Jim, I lose myself. As long as I am me, the players know I am genuine and they’ll respect me.”

Here is Willie Shaw on his son’s soft-spoken demeanor:

“Andrew Luck threw an interception against USC last year. When he came to the sideline, David didn’t yell and scream even though, previously, he had told Luck not to throw it there. Luck knew he made a mistake. David said, ‘Here we go. We get the ball back and we’re going to score and win the game.”

He didn’t go backwards and say, ‘Why did you do that?’ Good teachers don’t yell and scream. They teach. Yelling and screaming will turn you off.”

Could we pause a moment in what is becoming a David Shaw testimonial and point out what a dream this guy is? He is so smart and just so Stanford.

Fred vonAppen, who recruited Shaw at Stanford, remembers him this way: “He slept in the same house with his dad, who was on the Stanford staff. David was coming to Stanford from the get-go. He is a quality person in every sense — bright, articulate, introspective, low-maintenance. He’s a Stanford guy.”

Shortly before he died, Walsh campaigned for Stanford to drop out of the Pac-10 in football, felt the Cardinal could not compete.

“It wasn’t just him,” Shaw said. “There was a strong sentiment from a lot of people on campus and off campus and it was based on the facts of where the football program had gone. It was the logical thing to say. It really was.”

So, how does Shaw find excellent players who can meet Stanford’s academic standards?

“The United States has a lot of people,” Shaw said. “We’ve got to find 25 17-year-olds that are good students and tough kids that can play football. We can’t operate like anybody else in America. Forget about what other schools people put in our category. There’s nobody in our category. I’m going to be in L.A. tonight. I’ve got a coach in North Carolina, one in Chicago, another in another part of Northern California. I’ve got two coaches going to a kid in middle California and also two more guys flying to Texas. And the next day, I’ve got a guy in Idaho.

“This week we’ve had coaches in probably 20 states. That’s how we have to do it. We’re going everywhere because we have to find that one kid in Florida this year that can come to Stanford. We can’t say, ‘Nah, he’s not going to come.’ We’ve got to go get him. It takes the effort starting last year for a kid that’s going to come in this class. We learned how to do this. We can’t throw up our hands and say, ‘This is too hard.’ Anything worth a damn is hard. This is Stanford football.

“We’re going to have to condition these guys to what we’re about. ‘OK, when you become a senior, we’re going to ask you to take two AP courses. Everybody else is telling you to take easy classes and graduate early and go to spring ball your senior year. We’re doing the exact opposite. We’re telling you to take harder courses. Finish the spring and come and join us in the summer a full two months after other kids have joined their programs.’

“The biggest sell is to let them know, ‘The experience of playing football at Stanford is worth it because we’re going to be good at football and you’re going to walk away with a world-class degree.’

“Sometimes, the kids don’t know they’re that type of kid. We’re going through this with a young man right now. We say, ‘How have you been up to this point in your life as a student?’

‘I’ve been a great student.’

‘You’ve pushed yourself, right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Has this been hard for you?’

‘Well, it’s been kind of tough, but I enjoy the challenge.’

‘Why, all of a sudden now, would you shortchange yourself? You’ve put yourself in position to be a Stanford student. Why now would you back off to play football someplace else? We’ll give you the same football experience but a better education.’

“We find that Stanford guy that’s in Maine or Massachusetts or Philadelphia and show them they are Stanford kids,” Shaw continued. “Sometimes, you bring a kid in and he’ll look around and say, ‘Nah,’ and we’ll say, ‘OK, great, if you can’t see what this place is.’ We’ll even help direct him — ‘Why don’t you look at this place?’”

Shaw likes to read about presidents and figures from the Revolutionary War era. Recently, he picked up a magazine article about Benjamin Franklin. He had wanted to read it five days running.

“I’m sitting on the couch,” he said, “but instead, I open up my film on my iPad and I watch Wisconsin. I feel like we’re ahead for the Rose Bowl, but I never feel I’m that far ahead that I can’t spend another half hour watching more plays, making more notes. It’s a need, a physical desire. We all have that urge we can’t turn off. It is a little sick sometimes — it’s also who we are.”

Shaw and Stenstrom, his roommate and quarterback at Stanford, are still close friends.

“I would describe David as a master of his craft as a wide receiver when he played with me, utterly dependable,” Stenstrom said. “He practiced endlessly every aspect of the game and he studied others who were great. He was never too proud to get information and grow by learning from others. David is one of my favorite people. I want to stand on the sideline of his life and cheer for him.”

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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