BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
Carver Memories -- Aug. 28, 1995
The Right Call
Stanford's David Shaw found his love for coaching at WWU
By Frank MacDonald
BELLINGHAM, Wash. --- He was like most college graduates. Coursework completed and diploma in hand, he arose the day after commencement, seeing the world through a whole new lens.
To that point, in June of 1995, David Shaw had focused on contributing however he could to the football team and earning that sociology degree from Stanford. But for Shaw, like millions of others who have repositioned that tassel on the mortarboard, it only begged the next question: Now what?
He had envisioned a career in finance. Now, not so much. At least not yet. He didn't know what he wanted to do, however Shaw was near certain he would never do one job: coach football.
That all changed some10 weeks later, when all the fog cleared and Shaw saw his future. No, not every detail, yet there was an unmistakable clarity in purpose. On a late summer's day (Aug. 28), amidst the grunting and grinding and flop-sweating on the first day of practice, David Shaw came to understand his calling: yes, coaching football.
Twentysomething years on, of course, it seems a no-brainer. Of course, Shaw was born to wear a headset and clutch a clipboard on Saturdays. After all, his dad had done it, and his teammates and close friends were convinced he would be next. Now, just look at him, a four-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year roaming the sideline, thoughtfully, unflappably calling the shots for one of the top programs on the college gridiron, and at his alma mater, no less, Stanford's Cardinal.
And to think this story starts more than two decades ago, when this providence began to play out far to the north, on the Bellingham campus of Western Washington. It was then and there that, Shaw says, "I really realized that, for me, doing anything else would probably be a waste of time."
Ripe for Success
For those devoted to the fortunes of Western football, `1995' will always signal some special significance. It was Rob Smith's seventh season as head coach, and there was a sense that something special would be arriving at Civic Stadium that fall. The Vikings were coming off an 8-win season -- the program's best in 43 years -- and Smith's roster was robust with game-changers.
Robin Ross, Smith's defensive coordinator at the time (he would succeed him as WWU head coach 10 years later), was restocking the entry-level end of the staff.
One day Ross was in Southern California, where he met up with a former colleague. Willie Shaw and Ross had worked together at Long Beach State. That was when Ross first met Willie's son, then 5-year-old David Shaw.
"We had a graduate assistantship on defense opening at Western," recalls Ross. "So, I threw it out to Willie to see if David was interested. (But) I don't know a lot of Stanford graduates who want to work for nothing to be a coach."
Actually, at that moment, David Shaw might not have accepted the offer for all the money in the world. He was coming off a five-year, 57-catch career as a Cardinal receiver. Prior to that, he had played and lived football while his father worked jobs from coast to coast. By the time he enrolled at Stanford, his family had moved six times. For a brief moment at Stanford, Willie nearly became David's coach, but Bill Walsh was summoned instead.
Ross was not surprised to hear later of David's reticence to follow in his father's footsteps. "Kids that grow up in that environment see what you have to do to be successful in the business," says Ross. "That's a coach's life."
One Call Changed It All
One trait of youth can be rebellion, and in his own way maybe David Shaw was simply reluctant to go with the flow. As a fifth-year senior on The Farm, he was teased by teammates who called him `Coach' Shaw. "I knew the whole offense, inside and out, so I had a bit of a reputation," admits Shaw. "Unlike most receivers, I knew all the routes and combinations and quarterback reads."
But that was his role, one of his contributions, as a senior. It's not like Shaw was showcasing his coaching acumen. In fact, it was just the opposite.
"I'd actually told multiple people that I never would coach," he confesses. "That tells you how much foresight I had at the time." His career of choice had also lost its appeal. "I wasn't really ready to put on a tie and get into the financial world like I thought I wanted." Then the phone rang.
It was Coach Ross, and it went something like this: `Hey, David. You're young, you're single. It's not a lot of money, but Western's a great place, with a lot of great people, and it's an opportunity that you want to take advantage of.'
OK, thought Shaw, perhaps in a moment of weakness. It's just one year. His supervisor would be a family friend. "So, I figured I'd take that year and run up there and have some fun and coach some football and see if I like it."
Shaw was coming from a proud Pac-10 program in the Bay Area megalopolis to a then-NAIA program in relatively rural Whatcom County. It didn't faze him. He felt welcomed by the staff and community. Instead of fetching coffee for coaches in the big time, his role as a graduate assistant was coaching outside linebackers and safeties under Ross.
Grad assistants like Shaw may only have been paid $3,000, says Smith, but there is opportunity to dive in.
"One of the nice things at the NAIA or Division II level," he remarks, "is when you hire young coaches, you give them significant responsibility early. Some can handle it, some can't. If you don't have passion for coaching, you're not going to make it."
Shaw is still able to share vivid details from his time at Western, and his first on-field day in particular. Ross had told him the Vikings held lots of promise.
"The first couple plays on the field I was watching Chris Nicholl just catch everything. Big hands, quick, athletic and strong," remembers Shaw. "Orlondo Steinauer was just a phenom as a punt returner and defensive back.
"Coach Ross had said we have some guys who should be playing on the next level, but for whatever reason they were there at Western. And I remember looking around and thinking, Man, these guys are good."
Some of the players were nearly Shaw's age (25). Yet when it came time to blow the whistle and begin instructing on technique, age and experience made no difference, and neither did the fact Shaw had never played on the defensive side of the ball as a collegian.
"My dad had coached for a long time, and I'd always heard his coaching points: Leverage and athletic ability and understanding the scheme and where you fit in the scheme," explains Shaw. "I started hearing myself talk and thought, Is that me talking? It felt so natural and so comfortable."
Nearby, Ross was coaching the inside linebackers, and occasionally he would glance over to see how his new coach was doing. He could tell Shaw was enjoying himself. As practice wrapped up, he approached him.
"I asked David how he liked it," says Ross. "He had this grin on his face and said, `Coach, I just love it.' And I believed it."
Shaw says everything was almost effortless. "That first day on the grass, and the first time I started giving instruction, it was like dropping a fish into water and watching him swim. It was so natural, so comfortable. I was never nervous, I was never anxious."
Whatever It Takes
As the season progressed, the hours kept accumulating yet his passion swelled. Shaw found precious little free time to explore Bellingham or make friends with people outside the program. But he didn't mind. He fully understood he had signed-up for an entry-level job. Film needed to be broken-down and playbooks assembled. Besides, it was all coming together on Saturdays.
Week after week, the Vikings were victorious. Close games and blowouts, by midseason Western reached No. 1 in the NAIA rankings. Forty-three school records were broken, most notably the one for wins in a season after finishing the regular campaign at 9-0. Although they fell in the opening round of the playoffs, the Vikings came back even stronger the next year.
Shaw spent the summer in Philadelphia as an intern for the Eagles. His ability to integrate technology into preparation was especially impressive to a young offensive coordinator named Jon Gruden. When he returned to Bellingham, he was now coaching tight ends.
Western surpassed the previous season's win total and advanced to the NAIA Division II Championship game before falling. Still, the Vikings finished 11-2 in what remained the program's greatest season.
"I had great guys to coach, and we were a great team playing against good competition," attests Shaw. It was evident to Smith that Shaw was all-in.
"And no wonder he liked coaching. He probably thought we never lose," Smith laughs. "He probably thought this coaching thing is pretty easy."
Those two seasons were the best back-to-back campaigns in school history.
Shortly after the 1996 season, Shaw got another momentous phone call. It was Gruden. He wanted him to take over Eagles quality control position. Fast-forward 10 years (and four stops) later, and Shaw was back on The Farm as offensive coordinator. In 2011, he was elevated to Stanford's head coach.
Total Recall and Respect
While there may be a lot of miles between Shaw and his days at Western, he sometimes finds himself transported back to that time, if only for a moment, now and then.
"I always have little flashbacks because it was such a positive experience," he maintains. Whether it was teaching releases and routes with Zach Ertz or explaining the finer points of an out cut last year to Kaden Smith, Shaw says he finds himself using the exact same words from when he was with the Vikings.
Those within Western Washington's football family continue to follow the fortunes of past players and coaches, and probably none more so than Rob Smith. The names roll forth, as if from a Rolodex in his head.
"Because Western was an entry level for many coaches, I love to track their progress," Smith reports. "I've always taken pride in giving someone a foot in the door and then seeing what they do with that. To see where David's gone, I get a great reward out of that."
Robin Ross remains in touch with the Shaw family, and shared breakfast with David during Senior Bowl week. He knows his call likely came at David's first career crossroads.
"When everyone graduates from college, there is always that question of, What am I going to do?" observes Ross. "David's told me it was right then, that first day, he was hooked on coaching. He enjoyed everything about it."
If the fact that Shaw can instantly recall the intricate details of those Western days is not convincing enough, his words speak volumes for his appreciation for his years as a Viking.
"That group had such a positive influence on me, and that time there was invaluable for me in starting my career," says Shaw. "It didn't matter how much I was working or how much I was making, because that's when I found something that I really loved."
Frank MacDonald is a writer and PR consultant who lives in West Seattle. He previously served as sports information director at Seattle Pacific University and communications director for Sounders FC.
Presented by Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015. He is now in his third year as the school's Athletics Historian.
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