PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The central question is one of sustainability. I imagine it's the kind of question that comes up often around these parts, in these times, in a region that's become an incubator for eight-figure ideas: How do we make this last? I mean, I am not exactly replete with insider information on the tech industry, but I don't think it's a leap to presume this is the very question they are batting around constantly just up the road inside Mark Zuckerberg's rapidly expanding kingdom. And maybe it's a loose comparison, but I presume it is something that crosses the mind of David Shaw, as well, given that he is now in unprecedented territory as a college football coach, given that the expectations for this thing he and his predecessor have built are now as high as they've ever been.
It's kind of hard to believe that Shaw is already entering his fourth season as head coach at Stanford, but here we are. And the general sense was that, after Jim Harbaugh departed for a higher-profile job a few miles down the 101 Freeway, the Cardinal would wither away. The general sense was that Shaw would need at least a couple of years to adjust to his role, having been hired as a head coach while still on the short side of 40; and then when the Cardinal made the Fiesta Bowl in 2011, the general sense was that the departure of Andrew Luck would send the Cardinal into at least a short-term tailspin while they rebuilt. But none of that happened. What's happened instead is that Stanford has gotten consistently better. What's happened instead is that Stanford is now the most feared program in the Pac-12, largely because it seems to be the one program that's figured out how to play high-level defense.
You want to know the last time Stanford made three straight Rose Bowls, as could potentially happen this season? It was 1933 through 1935, when a gentleman named Claude "Tiny" Thornhill was the coach. Between then and now, the Cardinal were periodically good (under good coaches) and then they were no good (under not-so-good coaches). They suffered the natural ups and downs of an institution where athletics are hamstrung by obnoxious distractions like, you know, the mission of the university. But now they're doing both, winning football games and (seemingly, at least) doing it without compromising their core principles. They reload rather than rebuild, Shaw says. When they lose players to the NFL, as they now do every spring, they have others lined up to replace those players. And the longer it goes on, the longer Stanford continues to win football games, the more self-sustaining it becomes.
"As long as we recruit the way we've been recruiting -- as long as we go after tough kids, smart kids, athletic kids -- it'll work for us," Shaw says. "I tell our kids all the time, nobody has higher expectations for us than us."
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In a way, Shaw appears preternaturally constructed for this job: His father, Willie, was an assistant coach here, and nearly became the head coach until Bill Walsh chose to return for a second go-round in Palo Alto in 1992. David Shaw played for Dennis Green and Walsh at Stanford in the early '90s, and groomed himself in the NFL before joining Harbaugh at San Diego State. He's smart, and he's young (he'll turn 42 this summer), and he's calm, and he's managed to succeed largely by bucking the trends of the college game. Stanford plays physical defense in a conference that feels increasingly spread-out; Stanford runs the ball and lines up in eight and nine-man fronts in a conference that moves with increasing alacrity from one play to the next. The Cardinal are the stylistic converse of Oregon, their primary rival the past couple of seasons. They've stepped into the void left by Southern California's struggles in the post-Pete Carroll era.
This is perhaps the most challenging offseason Shaw has faced: On offense, he needed to replace nearly his entire line, as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. On defense, he needed to replace defensive coordinator Derek Mason (now the coach at Vanderbilt) plus All-Americas Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. And yet last Saturday, at Stanford's spring game, the Cardinal were still dominant up front and strong in the secondary: In a scrimmage that pitted offense against defense, the defense led 30-3 at one point.
"We think we're going to have a good offensive line," Shaw said, "but it's hard to show it against those guys up front."
Eventually, the Cardinal offense put up some points, and they did it the way they always do: With throws to the tight ends (6-foot-6 sophomore Eric Cotton appeared awfully Ertz-like), and with a handful of competent running backs (including junior Barry Sanders -- the son of that Barry Sanders, who made a couple of moves off screen passes that felt like a hereditary gift), and with a quarterback (Kevin Hogan) who seems intelligent enough to recognize both his strengths and his limitations. They have depth, and they have muscle, and they have a coach who seems determined to make this last by letting things unfold naturally; the only thing that might short-circuit the program at this point is if Shaw decides to take one of the NFL head-coaching jobs that's dangled before him every offseason. But for the most part, they seem to have this down now. Another Rose Bowl in 2014 would mark five BCS bowls in five seasons and it'd hard to argue that Shaw isn't the most successful coach in Stanford history.
After the spring game, someone asked Shaw what his biggest question mark was heading into the summer. His reply almost sounded like a Zen koan. His biggest question, he said, was "what we actually become."
"I know that's really, really vague," he said. "But that's how I look at it. We'll see what kind of team we'll be."