June 15, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - They called him "Dr. Blitz."
That was Willie Shaw, one of the most respected defensive coaches in football.
And David ... well ... "Little Shaw" was probably the closest thing he had to a nickname when he began to follow his father into the coaching profession, as in "Hey, you're `little Shaw.' I remember you when you were this high."
As David climbed the coaching ladder, the relationships cultivated by his father transferred to himself. For that, David remains grateful, not just to those who gave him a chance, but for the legacy his father left behind in the game.
"My father's work ethic, his intelligence and relationship with coaches and players probably gave me a foot in the door more often than I even know," said David Shaw, hired Jan. 14 to succeed Jim Harbaugh as The Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford.
"He paved the way for me," David said. "They had so much respect for my dad that I probably was given the benefit of the doubt. It was not earned by me. It was earned by him."
While that may once have been true, it no longer is the case. The appointment of David Shaw at a point where Stanford football is a national championship contender reflects the respect that David has earned on his own. Stanford's offensive production has reached school-record levels, and the values he stands for have won the admiration of the Stanford community.
Willie's legacy has become Stanford's reality. And, in turn, David's career has become an extension of his father's. In the simplest terms: like father, like son.
Always a teacher
David was a year old when Willie received his big break, hired by Jack Christiansen in 1974 to coach special teams at Stanford. That was the family's first football move. There would be 12 more.
There were two things that Willie Shaw never compromised on throughout his 33-year coaching odyssey:
His family came first.
"My dad always had the philosophy that we're going to stay together no matter what," David said. "When we moved, we moved together."
And, he viewed himself foremost as a teacher rather than a coach.
Born in Louisiana and raised in San Diego, Willie joined the Air Force on the G.I. bill and earned the rank of sergeant. While stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War, he helped prepare planes for bombing runs - "every day at 4 a.m. and 2 p.m.," he said - as an electronics technician.
After military service and a playing career as a cornerback at New Mexico, Shaw returned to San Diego to earn his teaching credential and got a job teaching math and science at Bell Junior High in 1970 while coaching part-time at San Diego City College.
The experience became the foundation not only for his coaching career, but for his son's as well.
"Coaching is teaching," Willie Shaw said. "To be a really good teacher, you have to be able to command a large group of people."
You must put your ego aside, he said, and understand that your sole purpose is to prepare others to be successful.
"Once you realize that, you'll be a very successful teacher," he said, before adding, "The best coaches are the best teachers."
Confidence goes far
David Shaw saw this for himself. He watched his father draw plays on his notepad at home, often for hours at a time. But, as he got older, David saw a different side.
Sitting in on a position meeting when Willie was a defensive backs coach for the Detroit Lions in the late 1980s, David recalled watching his father "step into that room with these millionaires who are experts in their field, and seeing them hanging on every word that my father had to say."
Willie was so well prepared, so knowledgeable, and so well-versed at public speaking - he took courses on the subject in college - that he projected himself with authority even without raising his voice. His message was clear: attack. Force the opponent to adjust to you.
David emulated that sense of self-assurance with his own team, both in manner and substance.
"I tell quarterbacks to this day, 50 percent of a play working is how you call it in the huddle," David said. "In any position of authority, you need to be able to speak with authority in a way that inspires confidence."
Like his father, there are few coaches as prepared as David Shaw. But unlike his father, who chose a life of football, David was born into it.
"He had no choice," Willie said, "because he was my son."
A special place
For all the packing and unpacking - a role that David's mother, Gay, skillfully took on - Stanford always carried a special meaning.
Willie, 67, recalls his stops at Stanford in 1974-76 and 1989-91 as the "most favorite place I've ever coached," he said. "This place is still in my heart."
From his early childhood running through the eucalyptus groves outside Stanford Stadium on gameday and climbing on Christiansen after practice, Stanford became a favorite of David's as well.
"Dad, how do you get to Stanford?" he once asked.
"See that kitchen table right there?" Willie replied. "Every night, for three hours, sit at that table and read a book or do homework. You`re going to need that kind of discipline to get to Stanford."
David took on the challenge.
"It was daily, five days a week," David said. "It was to the point where it was just what me and my brother did. It was perfect because parameters were set. There was no wiggle room."
Indeed, David, a three-sport standout and an all-league wide receiver at James Logan High in Union City, earned a scholarship to Stanford.
A destiny fulfilled
Willie already was there as Denny Green's defensive coordinator and, going into David's sophomore year, was the likely successor as head coach when Green left for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings after the 1991 season.
The players wanted Shaw and coaches wanted him. The faculty and search committees were sold on him. But, ultimately, he did not get the job. Bill Walsh, three years into coaching retirement after the last of his three Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers, entered the mix and quickly was hired.
"If it's a choice between me and Bill Walsh, you better pick Bill Walsh every time," Shaw said at the time.
David had bittersweet feelings about the decision, though Walsh did offer Willie the opportunity to remain on staff. Willie chose to follow Green to Minnesota.
"I never felt any bitterness," David said. "I never felt any anger or frustration. But I knew this was a great opportunity for my father. He had worked really hard to get to that point. I knew that was a great desire of his.
"But at the same time, for Bill Walsh to come in was a great thing for me and my playing career. It was an unbelievable experience. Bill touched all of our lives."
Willie never did become a college or professional head coach - the missing piece to a brilliant coaching career, and perhaps a result of the lack of opportunities for African-American coaches during that era.
If he had been born 20 years later, would things have been different?
"There's no question," David said. "The way I look at it, there are a lot of guys who did not get those opportunities, but they set the stage for those of us that have."
Perhaps that's why Willie Shaw watched so proudly from the packed seats at Kissick Auditorium when David was announced as Stanford's coach. After all, it was 40 years in the making: From the time Willie had to rush from his junior high science class to reach the community college practice field in time, through the nights David spent at that kitchen table with a book in his hand, and from the disappointment of coming so close to becoming Stanford's head coach to the joy of finally seeing it actually happen in the form of his son.
"It's come full circle," Willie Shaw said that day. "This is even more rewarding than if I had gotten it myself. I didn't get it before, maybe this is the reason why."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics