David Shaw is only 41, but he’s already coached in three BCS bowls and had three Top 10 finishes. As Shaw enters his fourth season at his alma mater, the former Stanford Cardinal wideout has not only emerged as one of the top coaches in football, but also one of the stronger voices in college sports.
He hasn’t been shy about speaking out, as he did last spring when he told me why he hoped the SEC would go to nine league games, same as the Pac-12 given the new playoff format.
Last week, I caught up with Shaw to discuss, among other things, how he’s grown as a coach, his concerns about the potential for significant change in the way the business of college athletes is run and his potential interest in returning to the NFL as a coach.
Q: In what ways do you think you’re a better coach now than when you first got the job?
Shaw: The successes and failures help you. And sometimes you really learn from the losses the things we could’ve done better, but you also learn in victory. That worked for us then but, ‘Hey, we can’t do that anymore.’ I’ve surrounded myself with really good coaches and good guys who bring something to the table, so I don’t feel like I have to do everything because I have such a great staff and I’m open to letting guys work, which is something you never really know until you’re in the head coach’s position. ‘Am I going to be able to let the reins go?’
I think (former Cardinal OC) Pep Hamilton really helped me with that when I first got the head coaching job. To have him on offense, I didn’t feel like I had to coach the quarterbacks. I let him coach Andrew (Luck). I didn’t have to do the entire passing game. We did a lot of it together. I hired (O-line coach) Mike Bloomgren so I didn’t have to run the running game. He does a phenomenal job.
To have (current Vanderbilt head coach) Derek Mason, who I trust implicitly, on the defensive side, and we can communicate, but I let him do it. I hired a special teams coach, Pete Alamar, who I know can coach the kickers and punters and the snappers and do scheme. We have dialogue, but I let him do his job. For me, that’s a huge part of this is being able to delegate and let people work, as long as they work within the framework of what we establish as a unit.
Q: You’ve been outspoken, weighing in on a lot of college athletics issues. How important is it for you to have that global platform in college athletics?
I’m not usually a fan of championing causes. I really don’t want to, but sometimes when things come up that are pretty big, I think the college football coaches need to have an opinion and need to have a voice, and for no other reasons sometimes than to have all of us be on the same page. So if I ever see something that is not equitable, I’ll answer questions. It’s not about being derogatory towards anybody else. It’s about what I think is the best for the sport.
Q: Last year, you told me you thought the emphasis that some people have about stipends as compared to raising graduation rates was misguided. You’ve been passionate about the food issue with athletes and that subject was in the spotlight with Shabazz Napier’s comments after UConn won the basketball title. How uncomfortable is it for you to take that position to weigh in on those things sometimes?
It’s not for me. I think all of us want to do more for student-athletes and all of us want to make some changes, have some reforms that are in their benefit. If we’re talking about taking sections of money from universities to give to student-athletes, that money is not just going to appear.
Some people think, ‘Oh, you just signed a TV contract, send that money to the players.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. The way athletic departments work, that money gets distributed to the programs that need it. The football money doesn’t just go to the football program. It goes to the entire athletics department for their use. That’s why the finances sometimes are a little more complicated than the general public truly understands about how athletic department truly work.
And as far as student-athletes starving, I’ve just never seen it or ever heard of it, and I’ve been around this sport my entire life. As a student-athlete, and I was given a scholarship check, I had to learn how to budget. Was there a month or two when I didn’t spend my money properly? Yeah, and I learned. But that was great for me when I moved on from college, I had some experience. I learned how to budget my money.
Now, if we could give a little more money? Great. If we can take more things that have come up with food and training tables and etc., that’d be great.
Q: How concerned are you with the potential marketing rights as it could relate to recruiting where you may be bidding to try and line up deals with, say, local car dealerships for these kids to help your cause?
Yes, that is unbelievably scary. What I don’t think any of us that love college football truly want is for this to become something that is not college football. Now, we all want advancement. We all want improvement. We all want a model that works for this year and going forward. We’re all trying to work towards that, but we also don’t want to take away what separates us from the professional ranks.
When you talk to the fans, more than anything else, they love college football. They don’t want it to be professional football. There has been some talk about how a lot of people thought college athletes were spoiled and the football coaches have stood up and said, ‘Hey, this is how hard these kids work.’ We just need to be smart going forward. We want to do things in the best interest for the student-athletes and for college football.
Q: But given how competitive college coaches are, and they’re always looking for an edge, how slippery could this slope become as an arms race keeps escalating?
I don’t think you ever want to add third parties into it. We want this to be an amateur sport. We want to teach these kids life lessons. These kids are 17-21 most of them. They’re growing. They’re learning and we’re aiding them. There’s so many positives that they are getting out of this and we want those positives to continue and add more positives to them.
Q: Your name comes up a lot with coaching vacancies both in college and the NFL. Ten, 15 years from now, do you still see yourself coaching at the college level?
I love it. I love college football. I love the pageantry. I love the emotion. I love the fact that these parents are entrusting their kids to us to teach them life lessons. They walk out of Stanford with a Stanford degree and, hopefully, four or five great years of football. If you interview our guys after they leave, they loved their experience. And that’s our job to make sure they loved and enjoyed their experience, not just to win football games.
Q: What did you love most about your time in the NFL (Shaw was an assistant from 1997-05)?
There’s something to be said about coaching the best players in the world. There’s something to be said for being around guys who are the best in the world at what they do. To spend a year with Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, two of the best ever and to get to watch them work and watch them do what they do, to spend four years with a Ray Lewis and watch the best of his generation do his job, that’s the intrigue of the NFL.
That’s great in its own right, but there’s also something to be said for college football, where you get to see guys come in as young kids and you’re helping them get on that path. To watch Andrew Luck come in as a true freshman and being unbelievably talented, and all of us had a hand in guiding him. He was gonna be great no matter what, but to teach him and watch him grow and start to show all of that promise. You get to see the beginnings of those great careers.
They’re different worlds, but they both have their finer points.
Q: Can you see yourself going back and taking what you’ve learned here and applying it?
No time soon. Hopefully, years and years and years from now, people will look back at this era of Stanford football and see it as truly special. And I don’t want this era to end. I want it to continue. I definitely want to be part of it.
To do what we’ve done and with the academic parameters we have, the types of kids we have — six or seven years ago, people said this couldn’t be done at a place like Stanford. To see us be able to do this year after year, play great football with a 100 percent graduation rate, have guys move on to be able to do phenomenal things in and out of football, I think it’s truly special.
Q: You played at Stanford in the ’90s on some good Cardinal teams. What is the big difference between how the program was run then and now where Stanford is one of the top programs in the whole country?
Honestly, right now it’s actually run very similar to the way Denny Green ran it. Coach Harbaugh and I talked about that a lot early on. The similarities between Harbaugh and Denny Green are significant. No. 1, we’re taking tough kids. You don’t make a kid tough. You take tough kids. Denny said, ‘We’re gonna be physical running the ball.’ A lot of people forget when Denny was at Stanford, we had the biggest offensive line in college football and a 240-pound running back in Tommy Vardell. We had physical guys that could play the game between the tackles, and that philosophy for us hasn’t changed.
The biggest difference honestly is to be able to recruit depth. To be consistent year after year and not have a peak year and a bad year, a peak year and then another bad year. To play at a high level consistently, a big part of that is being able to recruit enough guys so you are two and three deep, where if someone gets injured, another guy can go in or when someone graduates, you have someone ready to take his place.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.