STANFORD, Calif. – David Shaw, The Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford University, never figured himself for a coach. But in retrospect, it was really a no-brainer.
His father Willie, had a 33-year coaching career, twice working at Stanford and also with the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams. Young son David followed him every step of the way and whether he knew it or not, was destined follow in his footsteps.
“Probably about the eighth or ninth grade, I knew,” said his father. “The way his mind works, I thought he was going to be good at anything he wanted to do. He was always around football. He was going to training camps and games, and always being around not just good athletes, but all-pros and All-Americans. When you’re around that long, you don’t get enamored. You’re out shagging balls with these guys. You’re not overwhelmed.”
Willie and his wife Gay often brought their three young children to practice. Sister Tawyna is two years older than David and he is two years older than Eric.
“When they’re young, they’re in bed when you go to work and they’re in bed when you come home,” Willie said. “Their mom did a fantastic job. They came to practice a lot because other than that, they wouldn’t see me. My daughter thinks she is the best coach in the family.
Both of David’s siblings were high-strung and had difficulty playing together. The easy-going David had no problems playing with either.
“Personality-wise, he’s more like his mom,” said Willie. “Part of that is he’s the middle child. He was more calm.”
That is evident on the sideline during games. Seldom do you see Shaw rant and rave or over-react, usually staying at least one play ahead with his play calling. That demeanor rubs off on his players.
When Shaw was a senior in high school, his family moved again, this time to the Bay Area. A standout wide receiver, a teammate’s family offered to let him stay to play while the rest of the family moved, but Willie declined.
“I’m not going to leave my son behind,” he said. “We’re not leaving kids behind because of football. He did well. He got into Stanford and played in his high school championship game.”
Shaw said many coaching families get torn apart by constant moving, and he vowed that wouldn’t happen with his.
“We’ve been really, really blessed,” said Shaw. “And that’s coming from the heart. We had a chance to be together and go to different places and the family stayed really close. We worked out at it. If you don’t, it’s really easy to get caught in that trap.”
Each Tuesday night during the season, David hosts a Family Night dinner on campus for all the coaches and their children.
David played football, basketball and ran track at Stanford and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1995. He finished his football career with 57 catches for 664 yards and five touchdowns.
“Bill Walsh said something to me one time when he (David) was playing,” said Willie. “He said, ‘Your son is the only player I’ve ever had in college or the pros, no matter what position he went in, when he came out, he could tell me what the coverage was, where the route should have broken off and where the quarterback should have thrown the ball. Players called him Coach Shaw.”
Quickly deciding he wasn’t ready to wear a tie to work, David started his coaching career as an assistant at Western Washington, where he worked with outside linebackers and tight ends.
“The first day on the job, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “It kind of trapped me in this profession and I haven’t looked back since.”
Dad’s only advice: “Don’t try to be like anybody else. Be yourself and that will come through. If you try to emulate somebody else, it’s going to be phony. All the other stuff he learned as he went.”
Shaw also taught him how to be a leader.
“Good leaders teach others how do be good leaders,” he said.
Two years later, David was named a Quality Control coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Then it was on to the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, before David joined up with Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, where he served as the wide receivers and passing game coordinator, helping the Toreros field the top offense in Division I-AA in 2006.
In 2007, David followed Harbaugh to Stanford and helped turn around the struggling program. On Jan. 11, 2013, he was named the new Cardinal head coach after Harbaugh left to guide the San Francisco 49ers.
Willie Shaw, who twice nearly became the head coach at Stanford, has been a presence at almost every practice. An anonymous donor thought so highly of him, he endowed the defensive coordinator position in his name last spring.
“I think it’s really cool and good for college football,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner of the father-son dynamic. “We call them both Coach Shaw. The elder Shaw kind of hangs in the background and just watches. When you see him at practice, you can tell he’s taking in a bunch of information and he’s helping not only coach Shaw but he really shadows coach (Derek) Mason and gives him a lot of help when he needs it. He’s been a huge part of our team.”
David and coach Mason use Willie as a sounding board on a regular basis.
“He’s not here to coach, but sometimes he chomps at the bit because he gets inside,” said David. “He’s just a great reference that we try to take advantage of.”
How are father and son alike?
“His demeanor,” David said. “I kind of copy it to a certain degree. It’s partly by osmosis. Just the fact that he’s not always the loudest guy, but when he makes his points, he knows his stuff inside and out. Typically, when he makes a comment, he’s right.”
Asked what he is proudest about David, Willie answers quickly. “The kind of person he is,” he said. “There are no hidden agendas with my son. What you see – it’s right out there.”
David loves having his father around. In a sense, it’s role reversal, back to the days when Willie let David come to practice.
“I hadn’t thought about that but it is very similar,” he said. “For me, it’s comforting, especially during special teams, when I walk around. Sometimes we just stand next to each other and talk about personnel and he tells me what he sees. He gets excited when he sees a young guy turn the corner and shows some promise. Those conversations are exciting. Just the fact that I have someone with an unbelievable amount of wealth and experience that has my back and cares about me, that will be able to tell me the truth, tell me what he sees and believes. I feel very blessed that he’s able to do that at this time of his life and this time in my career.”