ONE DAY IN the not-so-distant future, when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has burned every bridge from San Mateo to Oakland and skips town in the middle of the night to, say, resurrect the Browns, David Shaw will be heralded as the best football coach in the Bay Area. But truth be told, he already is.
Shaw went a remarkable 23-4 during his first two years at Stanford, the second-best debut among first-time head coaches at a BCS school (behind Larry Coker, who went 24-1 with Miami in 2001-02). He has already outdone his predecessor, Harbaugh, by winning one Pac-12 title and more than survived without QB Andrew Luck, winning the 2013 Rose Bowl. And Shaw, 41, an alumnus of the school and a California native, has done it as a Bay Area guy. Unlike mercurial and mercenary Harbaugh, Shaw epitomizes the region's existential quest for a balanced life -- whether that means refusing to sleep in his office or refusing to play a wayward star. "I don't make the emotional choice," he says. "I've always made the commonsense choice."
Never was that difference in perspective more evident than on a Sunday in late September, when Harbaugh encouraged the decision to play linebacker Aldon Smith -- the 2012 NFC defensive player of the year -- even though Smith had been arrested the Friday before on suspicion of driving under the influence and marijuana possession. It was Smith's second DUI arrest in two years. Only after the game did the 49ers announce that Smith was entering a facility to be treated for alcohol abuse.
Less than two years earlier, Shaw faced a similar dilemma soon after his first season on the job. In January 2012, middle linebacker Shayne Skov, the heart and soul of Stanford's defense, was pulled over in the parking lot of his dorm on suspicion of DUI and arrested. Although Skov had no previous brushes with the law, Shaw didn't flinch. He suspended Skov from the team for the 2012 season opener and the following winter quarter. "It was hard to see Shayne go through it because I absolutely love him," Shaw says. "But the decision was easy. I slept great that night."
In 2011 Shaw inherited the Stanford team Harbaugh had famously rescued from generations of mediocrity by installing an old-school, hit-'em-in-the-mouth attack previously unknown to nerdkind. In just four years, Harbaugh, with Shaw as his offensive coordinator, had transformed the program from a 1-11 doormat into a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion. Then he bounced, right on cue, to the NFL, something every Stanford coach frustrated by the school's rigorous admissions standards and craving a bigger spotlight (and paycheck) has dreamed of doing.
At first, the hiring of the relatively unknown Shaw -- a thoughtful, methodical man who doesn't drink or swear and seldom raises his voice -- puzzled a fan base that had come to associate winning with Harbaugh. "He's fiery and excitable and a pusher and a big personality," Shaw says of Harbaugh. "I appreciate him for being who he is. And that's not me."
Shaw's team reflects the coach, dismantling opponents in a businesslike fashion without much fanfare. In its 2013 Pac-12 opener, Stanford, ranked fifth, took on then-No. 23 Arizona State at home for what was supposed to be the Cardinal's first real test. Leading 39-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Shaw pulled many of his starters to avoid injuries. But after ASU scored 21 unanswered points to creep back in, Shaw reinserted starting quarterback Kevin Hogan to ice the game. Although Stanford won 42-28, it actually lost two points in the coaches poll. Shaw's show of coaching restraint is a far cry from that of Harbaugh, who once went for two while leading USC 48-21 late in the game. Amazingly, nobody appreciates Shaw's style more than the star he once suspended. "He's more focused on making sure you move forward and make corrections," says Skov, now a senior and a team captain, "whether it's football or in your life."
But Shaw and Harbaugh, different as they are, share common ground. Both grew up as a son of an assistant coach. Shaw's dad, Willie, served two stints at Stanford -- including one as defensive coordinator from 1990 to '91, a time when David went from high school standout to freshman receiver for the Cardinal. Harbaugh's father, Jack, was also Stanford's defensive coordinator, from 1980 to '81, while Jim played at Palo Alto High.
Had Shaw not chosen to work in his father's profession, he likely never would have left the Bay Area. Two decades ago, shortly before graduating from Stanford, he had a job waiting for him on Sand Hill Road, the venture capital mecca that separates the university from the rest of Silicon Valley. When he turned down the offer to take a coaching gig at Western Washington, his mother, Gay, sobbed. How could he leave behind this paradise and his bright future? "I wasn't ready to wear a tie," he says.
But his heart never really strayed from Palo Alto. He took his future wife, Kori, on a tour of his alma mater on their first date and proposed to her in front of the school's Memorial Church four years later. So it was perhaps inevitable that the area would call him back -- from 1998 to 2001, he honed his chops under Jon Gruden with the Raiders, in between stints with the Eagles and Ravens. He then went on to design offenses for Harbaugh, which positioned him to bring his family's saga full circle.
When Dennis Green left to coach the Vikings after David's freshman year, Stanford offered the head-coaching position to Willie and even scheduled a news conference. But before Willie's name was announced, Bill Walsh threw his headphones into the ring, and Willie's dream was over before it began. He followed Green to Minnesota, but the family kept its home in Union City -- and David stayed to play for Walsh, remaining stoic, just as he had each time the family moved to follow Willie's career. "I don't ever remember being upset about moving," Shaw says. "I don't remember being excited. It was just a fact."
When Shaw was named Stanford's head coach, his mother cried again -- tears of joy this time. His father beamed throughout the news conference. In April Stanford's defensive-coordinator position was endowed, by an anonymous donor, as the Willie Shaw Director of Defense. Early this season, as he does at every practice, Willie watched proudly from the sideline as his son presided over drills. "You see that guy over there?" Willie said, pointing at David. "I brought him here when he was a year and a half!" This time, though, his son plans to stay put. Said Shaw last year: "I want to be coaching here until my kids graduate from here -- and I have a 2-year-old."
It took a wrecking ball like Harbaugh to barrel in from the outside and redefine success for Stanford football. But it took an even-keeled and self-possessed Stanford man like Shaw to make a BCS contender fit in on The Farm. Just how much has the community bought into Shaw's program? This year marks the first time in school history that season tickets have sold out. But with Shaw, it's more about the team than any one guy on the sideline, especially him: "No one comes to football games to see the coach."