For the first couple of years after Jim Harbaugh left Stanford to pursue his coaching dream in the NFL, there was nothing his successor – former Cardinal receiver David Shaw – could do to dispel the doubts.
No matter how successful Shaw was beginning with his first season as head coach in 2011, his predecessor – the irascible Harbaugh – would get the credit for bringing in the talent Shaw would win with.
And so it went. An 11-2 record in his first year with a Fiesta Bowl loss in overtime to Oklahoma State. A 12-2 season with a Pac 12 title victory over UCLA, followed by a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. An 11-3 record, another Pac 12 title victory (over Arizona State), and a narrow Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State.
Shaw’s 34-7 record with two Pac 12 championships and consecutive Fiesta, Rose and Rose Bowls always would be viewed with skepticism because of the man he followed, the program he built, and the unmistakable persona.
Meanwhile, the mild-mannered Shaw who rarely showed emotion was viewed as the caretaker of the program, not one who helped form it.
Often forgotten is that Shaw was Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator during his four-year run when the Cardinal lost 15 times in the first two seasons before forging an 8-5 campaign in 2000 and the knock-the-door-down 12-1 season in 2010, including a four-touchdown victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
It was under Shaw’s guidance that the offense went from 26.3 points per game in 2008 to 35.5 in 2009 to begin a string of running-game dominance just a couple of years removed from an offense that had to scrape to achieve a three-yard-average per carry.
By 2010-11 – Harbaugh’s last year and Shaw’s first as head coach – the Cardinal averaged 40.3 and 43.2 points per game while eclipsing 200 yards rushing per game and five yards per carry.
“(Stanford is) a physical, ball-control offense, but creative within that physical presence,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “They can go no-back, they can be four wide receivers. I don’t think you can say David Shaw is this and he only does this.”
Often overlooked is Shaw’s background in the game. Prior to his arrival at Stanford, he spent 10 years with four different NFL offenses – Philadelphia, Oakland, Baltimore and San Diego – the latter of which featured tight end Antonio Gates.
The tight ends thrived in the Harbaugh-Shaw offenses at Stanford, creating weaponry within a system that – because of the very nature of the program – had difficulty attracting four- and five-star wide receivers. When those tight ends weren’t catching it, they were teaming up with an offensive line of behemoths to block for the rushing attack.
While the Cardinal were averaging better than 200 yards rushing per game, Andrew Luck was lighting it up through the air. It helps to have a once-in-a-generation quarterback at the helm, although Stanford certainly developed the other parts around him.
Kevin Hogan eventually would succeed Luck at quarterback. Hogan would do little to challenge Luck and his passing greatness, but at least maintained a level of balance between the rushing and passing attack.
“It starts with a physical running game, but (Shaw) can come out of a physical running game and be what he needs to be,” Kelly said. “If he’s got to throw it 55 times to beat you because that’s what you give him, he’ll do that. That’s the mark of a good offense and a good coach.”
Meanwhile, from 2010 on, the Cardinal defense clamped down, holding opponents to 19 points per game or less in four out of five seasons and making three yards on the ground against Stanford’s stubborn defense a real chore.
Yet when Stanford slipped to 8-5 last season, Shaw’s fourth as head coach, despite still limiting opponents to 16.3 points per game and 3.1 yards per carry, his critics finally had “proof” that Shaw was a product of the program he inherited. This line of thinking reached a crescendo in the opening week of the 2015 season when the Cardinal fell to Northwestern in lackluster fashion, 16-6.
Stanford isn’t dead yet. The Cardinal reeled off eight straight victories, defeating USC in the Coliseum and beating UCLA by three touchdowns before their first loss in more than two months to a hot Oregon team, which held off a two-point conversion attempt with 10 seconds remaining.
With the Cardinal one week away from playing for their third Pac 12 title in four seasons, Shaw brings a 51-14 record into its annual clash with Notre Dame (10-1), and Kelly knows the numbers Shaw has posted in his five years as head coach are legitimate and well-earned.
“David Shaw, obviously, is one of the best football coaches in America,” Kelly said.
With one of the most consistent programs in college football since the turn of the decade.