Pundits laud Nick Saban for his ability to reload Alabama year after year with five-star recruits and put out a championship-caliber team.
Get the biggest, fastest and strongest in the country to commit, and things tend to go your way on the field.
Across the country in Palo Alto, Calif., David Shaw isn't trying to emulate Saban's model. He couldn't if he wanted to. He coaches at Stanford. Being a five-star defensive end with a 4.5 40 doesn't mean much if the recruit can't get past the admissions board. All the extra fun (read: extra classwork, high SAT scores, AP courses, essays … just to get into school) can be so daunting that it turns some players off and renders admission impossible for most.
But the resulting effect is that the small pool of recruits that remain – Shaw says his staff focuses on "less than 200" each year, very low for a D-I school – are equal parts intelligent and athletically gifted. What's more: They really, really want to be there. Even the stars with NFL-ready talent rarely leave early.
"For us, the challenge is finding those rare kids that are tough, that are fast, that are smart. The kids that fit our culture," Shaw told Yahoo! Sports. "That's why we go coast to coast, and that's the difficult part is we have to go find these kids wherever they may be."
And since Stanford recruits are in for the long haul, they've got no problem putting in extra work – a trait that has paid dividends in a big way over the past six years.
Former head coach Jim Harbaugh inherited a program in shambles in late 2006. The Cardinal had finished that season 1-11 and in last place in the Pac-10.
Hoping to revitalize a listless offense that averaged a little more than 10 points per game – and perhaps to appease alumni by adding a former Stanford player to the staff – he immediately brought on Shaw as offensive coordinator.
The culture change in the first year was noticeable. Harbaugh and Shaw didn't sugarcoat anything for holdovers or incoming recruits. They told them they'd be pushed harder than any of their opponents, because that was what it would take to turn the worm.
Of course, that's language that roughly 95 percent of college coaches use to lure recruits. Still, Harbaugh and Shaw don't exactly seem like the type who would sell something and not follow through on it. And the proof is in the pudding in this case.
In the first year of the Harbaugh regime, the Cardinal won four games and averaged close to 20 points per game. In the second season, Stanford won five games and averaged 26.2 points per game. In the third, the team won eight games and scored 35.5 points per game.
"Most successful people aren't surprised by success because they've worked extremely hard to get where they're at," Shaw said. "This hasn't been an overnight [transition]. This hasn't been all of a sudden we're really, really good.
"For us, it's been a constant pushing the envelope, a continual effort in getting better and taking the next step for the program."
The course correction, as it were, led to several high-profile commitments. Among those swayed to sign with Stanford was a four-star, pro-style quarterback out of Houston, Texas, named Andrew Luck and a four-star linebacker from New Jersey, Shayne Skov.
"I just had a lot of faith in what the coaches were trying to get done here," Skov said when asked why he picked Stanford over several high-profile East Coast schools. "We just had to believe that we could turn the football program around and believe that if we keep winning, the opportunity of great academic and athletic success would sell itself [to more high-profile recruits]."
The transition from joke to juggernaut hasn't come without hurdles.
Stanford lost Harbaugh and Luck to the NFL in consecutive years, and fans and the media alike had all but written off the team before last season. The Cardinal was ranked, but barely, coming in at No. 21 in the preseason AP poll. The team had just missed out on a potential BCS title game because of a single loss to fellow Pac-12 power Oregon and was sent to the back of the line.
The sentiment behind the poll drop was fairly obvious, and not without merit: "They won't be able to hang with teams like Oregon anymore." Or, "How do they replace somebody like Luck?"
Of course, the program Harbaugh built and Shaw inherited doesn't operate like that. Sure, they couldn't possibly replicate Luck's production, but Stanford was never built to be a one-man show.
And as good as Luck was, his leaving allowed the Cardinal to focus on becoming a more complete team.
"There wasn't much concern at all [when Andrew Luck left]," Skov told Yahoo! Sports. "He was an incredible player and a hard one to replace, but we had lots of talent on offense. We knew we'd have the same tough defense and we'd be able to keep teams from scoring much."
The results last year defied all expectations – at least those from the outside world. Those within the program knew the "next man up" routine would work because of the culture Harbaugh and Shaw instilled from the get-go.
"Changing perception is like turning a cruise ship. It's not gonna be a tight turn. It's gonna take a while," Shaw said. "Sometimes I get a little smile on my face when somebody says 'Gosh, I can't believe you guys are still doing so well.' Well, we've built the program the right way. It wasn't just, 'Hey, we've got a great player, let's ride that great player.'
"We tried to build a program and build a team that'd be competitive year-in and year-out."
Perhaps the defining moment of the Shaw era thus far came last season against Oregon.
The Ducks, with their breakneck pace and blurry speed, were ranked No. 1 in the nation and well on their way to making a second BCS title game appearance in three seasons. Oregon had lost a grand total of six games in four years under Chip Kelly – and only once at vaunted Autzen Stadium.
But the Cardinal beat up the high-flying Ducks with a smashmouth brand of nasty, owning the trenches on offense, cutting off angles on defense and generally outworking the home team. The result was a 17-14 OT Oregon nightmare.
The last time the Ducks were held to 14 points or less, it was 2009 and Kelly was making his head-coaching debut.
It was a game important enough to Luck that it kept the Indianapolis Colts QB up late the night before a vital NFL game. (Indy fans can't really fault their star QB for the Colts' embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots that Sunday). Shaw said Luck wasn't the only former player amped by the upset either – the coach received "dozens" of congratulatory texts from players past praising Stanford's effort.
The Cardinal head coach won't soon forget that brisk night in Autzen Stadium, but the team wasn't content stopping there. Stanford would cap its overachieving season by winning its first Rose Bowl since 1972 in a tight 20-14 scrap against Wisconsin to finish 12-2.
"When [Harbaugh] left, you know, there was a brief moment where you had to wonder as a player about the direction of the program," Skov said. "But at the same time, Coach Shaw was around and we didn't want anybody from the outside. It was obviously the administration's decision who the next coach was, but you know, they asked us for input and we all told them that we were comfortable with [Shaw] and wanted him to be our next coach. They picked him and we picked up where we left off."
It's another season, another offensive star lost for Stanford.
Workhorse running back Stepfan Taylor ran for 1,530 yards (10th in the nation) and 13 TDs last season, so the Cardinal offense will obviously need to adjust.
Shaw doesn't seem too worried about it, though.
"Our hallmarks aren't going to change," he says. "Our offensive line is going to determine how our team plays. Our front seven is going to show our attitude, and the attitude that we play with."
That attitude has taken on a persona all its own this offseason as Skov and his teammates have adopted the Twitter hashtag #Partyinthebackfield. With Bronko Nagurski candidates Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner all returning, it's hard to imagine the Cardinal won't be the same brutal, unforgiving defense that battered Oregon last season.
Shaw expects a lot out of the group and isn't afraid to put that out there. He's got a still-maturing quarterback in Kevin Hogan and an unproven corps of running backs – which includes highly touted recruit Barry Sanders Jr. – so he'll need the Cardinal front seven to be their normal, unrelenting selves.
The expectations are high once again for Stanford this season – making three consecutive BCS games will do that to a program. But don't expect a change in attitude from Shaw or his Cardinal team.
"We're getting a lot of pressure right now, which is fine, but I still kind of chuckle when somebody says, 'Now you have a chance to be a national contender,' " Shaw says. "We've been a contender, we've been there and we plan on continuing to be there. The fact that we're there this year, OK, great. But we want to be there the next year and the next year and the next year, too."
He may sound greedy, but underestimate David Shaw and Stanford at your own peril.
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