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David Shaw building Stanford into a perennial power with unconventional recruiting mandate

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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David Shaw stands in front of his team before they take the field to play UCLA. (Getty)


PALO ALTO, Calif. – When David Shaw and his assistant coaches go out in search of football recruits capable of playing for Stanford, the list of necessary attributes is long.

Superior academics are mandatory for admission and success at the elite university. Great athletic ability, strength and speed are a necessity to play for the reigning Pac-12 champions. Character, leadership and motivation are highly valued intangibles. 

And then there is something unique Stanford coaches evaluate when meeting with a prospect, something that few would think predicts football success.

"Vocabulary," Shaw said.

Vocabulary? 

"Yes, you look for vocabulary," he said. "Can this kid express himself in a way that befits a Stanford man?

"Does that correlate to football? I say, yes, absolutely. [We seek] a young man that has the confidence to stand up in front of you and express himself as opposed to what a lot of young kids do today – they don't give you eye contact, they kind of mumble when they talk to adults. 

"You walk around and talk to our kids, they look you in the eye," Shaw continued. "And we play that way. We are going to play right at you, in your face, 'Here is who we are, here is how we play.' There is a one-to-one correlation. There is no doubt about it to me. The inability to be intimidated by a person or a situation is something that is significant."

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David Shaw is not some old codger who can't relate to the younger generation. He's a 40-year-old former Stanford player with nearly a decade of experience coaching in the NFL.

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David Shaw and his daughter Keegan hold up roses after Stanford's Rose Bowl win. (Getty)

It's not like he's sacrificing success on the field simply for the sake of strong communication skills either. He's led the Cardinal to a 23-4 record in his first two seasons, including its first Rose Bowl victory in over four decades. 

And he was laying out his recruiting philosophy early on a bright sunny spring morning last week as a slew of NFL scouts, coaches and general managers mill about downstairs awaiting the start of Stanford's pro day.

"All 32 teams represented," Shaw notes. "It's validation that what we are doing is right. We are preparing guys for the NFL."

No, Shaw isn't some out-of-touch idealist. He's one of the brightest young coaches in the game, so competitive that he figured out how to take Stanford's inherent disadvantage – academic and cultural requirements that limit recruiting – and turn it into a positive. It's a magnet that will draw in high-quality kids seeking to be surrounded by their own. 

"If we can fill a locker room with a whole bunch of guys like that, [players] that are tough and smart and have that kind of confidence and can work together, we are going to be good for a long time," he said.

Vocabulary? Yes, vocabulary.


Shaw grew up in the game. His father, Willie, was a long-time college and NFL assistant coach, including two stints at Stanford. David joined the program in 1990 and played wide receiver from 1991-1994. He also did a season on the basketball team. He returned in 2007 as Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator and became head coach in 2011.

He knows the program like almost no one else, from all angles and all perspectives, when it was both good and bad. After his second year under Harbaugh, Shaw tried to theorize what the key to success was.

"I had to get introspective," Shaw said. "I went backwards and said, 'Who did I play with that was good here?' John Lynch. Darrien Gordon, Bob Whitfield. All great. Great at Stanford, great in the NFL. 'And what did those guys have in common?'

"All of those guys, very smart, very bright, ultra competitive in every way, but also engaging personalities. Those are the guys that stirred the drink here."

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David Shaw celebrates with former Secretary of State and Cardinal alum Condoleezza Rice. (Getty)

Shaw calls them "Stanford Men." He extended it to other sports across campus, including Brevin Knight, a men's basketball player.

Shaw became convinced that there is more to it than just strong academics, although a 3.5 GPA, advanced placement classes and a strong standardized score are essentially required. It's the way someone carries himself, the way they express themselves. He believed that was far more important than how many recruiting stars a kid had.

The Cardinal needed to be big and physical, he concluded, but also of a certain breed of personality. Harbaugh agreed and a premium was placed on finding the right people. The rest is history: Stanford, long a Pac-12 also-ran, is 35-5 the last three seasons. Oh, and all those NFL scouts keep jetting in to see the talent even after Andrew Luck left.

"I think that is something we can observe and see and judge and realize," Shaw said. "You have to be able to identify Stanford guys. When you go into a school, it doesn't matter if its East Texas, doesn't matter if it's the Northeast, if it's the Southeast, you find a Stanford guy, that's our guy and we have to get him."

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The challenge is, of course, getting him. Every program wants those kinds of players. Who wouldn't? Plus, it's not like Stanford is the only academically elite school playing college football.

Still, Shaw figures that with its unique combination of academics, location, weather, alumni, campus and so on (and so on), why shouldn't they come here? Why not Stanford? And it's not that Stanford wants a few guys like that, they want all guys like that. And that's the key he thinks.

Counting incoming recruits, Stanford's roster next year should feature players from 30 states and Ontario, Canada. The power of the university is the first draw. The second, he said, is selling them on the concept that they will feel more comfortable all the way out in Palo Alto than the powerhouse down the road.

Vocabulary? Well, at Stanford, everyone will be speaking or at least thinking like you.

"Sometimes they will live in a town someplace and they will be nervous about going across the country because they'll think, 'will anybody be like me?'" Shaw said. "We say, 'You have to come for a visit because what you are going to find is you have more in common with the guys on our campus than where you are from.'

"This is a kid that is in a small town and has a 3.8 GPA and is a great football player and has aspirations to be an astronaut or a physicist or something like that. And he comes here and realizes, 'Wait a minute, I'm like these guys right here. I go back home and I'm not like those guys back home, I'm not like those guys that go to my local college because if I go there I'm going to stand out. I'm going to be the one guy that says, 'Hey, you know what, yeah I'll come to the party later but I have to finish [school work] first.'

"Our guys all do that."


He goes back to vocabulary. Goes back to having his assistants comb through high schools seeking to hear the proper descriptions from coaches, guidance counselors, teachers and principals. They need a kid who will confidently stare another person in the eye, whether he's a coach on a recruiting visit or an acclaimed professor in class or a USC linebacker across the line of scrimmage or whatever comes later in life.

"I tell these guys all the time, the same mentality you take into a football game, you're going to take into a board meeting," Shaw said. "When you're the CEO of whatever company, you are going to walk into that board meeting with the same mentality we walk out onto the football field with."

His voice stays calm, but the pride of what he helped Harbaugh build and then took to even greater heights is clear. This is invigorating.

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The calls offering other jobs, including in the NFL, have come in the past two seasons he says, but he rebuffed them all. He knows the whispers that he'll follow Harbuagh's path to the league, but he says they don't see what he has going here.

The energy. The excitement. The potential. Coaching football is the family business. He knows when a situation is perfect. 

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David Shaw stalks the sideline during a game. (Getty)

"It's not the time [for the NFL]," Shaw said. "What we are doing here is so special. We haven't built it yet. We are building and I think what we are building has a chance to be more special than anything else that's going on in college football. 

"The thing people don't count is that the NFL doesn't hold some mystique for me. I spent a decade in it. I understand what it is about. For a lot of these long time college coaches, they say, 'Gosh, one day I want to get up there.' I've been there."

Instead, he points to this remarkable campus, this remarkable university. Sometimes, if only to clear his head, he likes to trek up to the roof of the Stanford Stadium and take a moment to survey it all.

He can look down at the field he played and now, like his dad, coaches on. He can gaze over to the Hoover Tower or the Rodin Sculpture Garden or on a clear day, the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. He can spy on all the future Internet pioneers and Supreme Court justices and Nobel Prize winners hurrying off to class.

And Shaw can even pinpoint the spot in the Main Quad, right in front of Memorial Church, where he asked his wife, Kori, to marry him.

"You can sit there for 20 minutes, see the entire campus, see the whole Bay Area and think, 'how blessed and fortunate am I to be at this place?'"

You can even think about using vocabulary to win a national title.

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