David Shaw’s TED Talk proposes Stanford football can change the world

In a TED Talk that started making the internet rounds this weekend, Stanford head coach David Shaw went over how establishing a culture where student-athletes are expected to perform on the field and in the classroom can perhaps influence other schools to raise their standards.

He continued to elaborate on the importance of recruiting players who understand and wish to maintain a culture of high expectations and across-the-board excellence. The “change the world” part is at the very end, when Shaw explains how he tells all of his graduating players that it’s their responsibility to use what they’ve learned in all of their pursuits to help change the world.

If you’re unfamiliar with TED Talks, they’re a series of lectures delivered by leaders in various fields with the mission of spreading worthwhile ideas. Their archive is available here if you'd like a better understanding of what the series of conferences is about.

It’s an ambitious challenge from Shaw, who played receiver for the Cardinal from 1991 to 1994 and took over as head coach of his alma mater in 2011. While maintaining a top graduation rate at one of the best schools in the country, Stanford has played in three straight BCS bowls, gone 35-5 in their past 40 games and sent a host of players to the NFL. Shaw proudly noted that they were the first school to have two players selected in the first round of the draft who also had engineering degrees, achieving that with quarterback Andrew Luck and guard David DeCastro in 2012.

(For more on Stanford’s rise, read Dan Wetzel’s great piece from May.)

Of course, Stanford isn’t the only top-notch academic institution doing great things on the football field. It was a veritable revenge of the nerds in 2012. Consider:

  • Northwestern: Won their first bowl game since 1948, went 10-3 and will likely be in the preseason top 25.

  • Duke: Went to their first bowl game since 1994.

  • Vanderbilt: Went 9-4, dominated N.C. State in the Music City Bowl and went to a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time in school history.

  • Notre Dame: Was ranked number one in the polls while also holding the top student-athlete graduation rate.

Shaw’s goal is certainly admirable, but there are a few things working against him. First, you have a limited number of recruits who are capable of performing at a high level in both academics and football, and everybody wants those guys.

Secondly, you could have programs that have had continued football success without putting significant effort into making sure their players get worthwhile degrees, so what is their motivation to fix something that isn’t broken? There is also the issue with funding, as you find smaller schools without the resources for large academic support teams are often the ones lagging in certain metrics (like APR).

It will take long-term success from programs that focus on academics and a sea change in top recruits looking for quality degrees in addition to quality football to change minds across the country, but it is a worthwhile pursuit. Challenges aside, this video is great publicity for Shaw, Stanford and every school putting in the effort to win in the classroom as well as the field.

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