Life Coach

On and off the field, David Shaw knew how to keep his eye on the ball.

March 2023

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Coach Shaw in a Stanford jacket waving

Photo: Jim Shorin/ISI Photos

On the wall opposite David Shaw’s desk sat a small hutch, a piece of office furniture every bit as unassuming as the former Stanford coach himself. Oh, Shaw adorned his workspace with the customary pageantry of college football coaches trying to impress 17-year-old recruits: coaching trophies, oversized photos of Cardinal stars in the NFL, framed NFL jerseys dedicated to him by Richard Sherman, ’10, Doug Baldwin, ’11, and Michael Thomas, ’12, and more coaching trophies. The swag hung on the walls to give potential Stanford players an idea of what Shaw had done. But it said virtually nothing about who Shaw is.

To find that out, you had to open the hutch.

Shaw, ’94, walked into his postgame press conference after the final game of the 2022 season and resigned as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. No one saw that coming, not even Shaw. He hadn’t begun to contemplate leaving the job he filled for 12 seasons until that week. Shaw came to the realization that, as he told his wife, Kori, “It’s time.” The milestone of a 50th birthday last year buttressed his conviction that he should move on.

“I like to look at things in arcs,” Shaw said a few weeks after his resignation. “I think this arc is complete.”

Growing up, Shaw spent two stints—in preschool and high school—on the Stanford campus while his dad, Willie, served as an assistant football coach. David played wide receiver for the Cardinal in the mid-1990s. He spent 15 years in the assistant-coach ranks, for three college and three NFL teams. The Stanford head coaching job was his dream gig. Shaw’s love for his alma mater and his understanding of and support for the university’s academic mission made him an ideal fit.

‘It just felt like this was the perfect time to bring in a new regime with all the changes that have to happen. You don’t change with the old guy. You change with the new guy.’

In his 12 seasons as head coach, Shaw won more games (96–54, .640) than any coach in the 132 years of Stanford football. He won three Pacific-12 Conference championships. He went 9–3 in the Big Game. He finished with winning records against Stanford’s other major rivals (7–6 vs. USC, 10–3 vs. UCLA, 6–5 vs. Notre Dame).

“David has represented Stanford football, as both a player and a coach, with unwavering grace, humility, and integrity,” said athletics director Bernard Muir in November. “We really owe a great deal of gratitude to David.”

If you include Shaw’s four seasons as an assistant coach to Jim Harbaugh, his teams didn’t win much at the outset. They won a lot for nearly a decade. They didn’t win much at the end. In other words, an arc.

“Any reason I wanted to stay would be selfish,” Shaw says. “Yeah, I want to get to 100 wins. Yeah, I want to get one more Rose Bowl. Yeah, I want to get one more Pac-12 championship. OK, that’s for me, and I’ve never done things just for me. So once you get to ‘Those aren’t the reasons to stay,’ this is the perfect time to say, ‘Time to step away.’”

Not to mention that college football is at a crossroads. Players are making money from name, image, and likeness licensing and so-called Alston payments. They are taking advantage of liberalized transfer rules, decamping to other schools the minute they sense a better opportunity. As Muir explained in STANFORD’s September cover story, the Cardinal is adapting deliberately to those changes when it chooses to adapt at all.

“It just felt like this was the perfect time to bring in a new regime with all the changes that have to happen, and all the adjustments,” Shaw says. “You don’t change with the old guy. You change with the new guy.” (The new guy, by the way, is Troy Taylor, who comes to Stanford from Sacramento State.)

Shaw watched how athletes came to play for his dad, a longtime NFL assistant. They arrived as high draft choices. They played. The “lucky” ones kept playing after their athletic talents had peaked. That is, they stayed too long. And after they retired, they remained a part of his dad’s life.

“I just know that arc,” Shaw said a year ago, sitting in his office on the second floor of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center. “Football for the athletes is temporary, so as a coach, you anticipate that. The influence and impact that we make on these young people’s lives, if we do it right, when they are done with the sport and raising their kids, the highest compliment you can get is when you get a call and he says, ‘Oh my God, Coach, I was talking to my son and I sounded like you talking to me.’”

Coach Shaw running onto the field with the team.ONE LAST TIME: Shaw, wearing a green pin for lymphoma awareness, leads the Cardinal onto the field on November 26 to take on BYU. (Photo: Bob Drebin/ISI Photos)

Shaw pointed at the little hutch across from his desk.

“I keep letters from parents, grandparents, postcards from former players, in that hutch there,” he said. He calls them “as valuable as any win on the field, any trophy, because we put somebody else out in the world who appreciates this place and what we do here.”

Shaw is private enough on his own. To ask him to divulge correspondence of this sort is a nonstarter. But former Stanford players and their parents speak of Shaw with the same sort of reverence with which he holds those letters.

“I really think about a coach who loves his players as human beings and not as football players,” Solomon Thomas says. Thomas, ’18, just completed his sixth season in the NFL after a Stanford career in which he won the Morris Trophy as the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12. “It’s one reason I’ve always respected him and I’ve always loved him,” Thomas says. “You don’t get coaches who want the best for you outside the game of football. They want you to do well, but they want you to do well while you’re doing well for them. Coach Shaw strictly wants you to be the best Solomon Thomas, best Christian McCaffrey [’18], whoever, in life. He means in the Stanford way of life: going out, doing cool things, changing the world, using our brains and personalities to impact people. I felt like he cared more about that than what we did on the field.”

As Bryce Love grew up, his mother told him she wanted him to aspire to attend one of the great universities within four hours of their North Carolina home, schools like UNC–Chapel Hill, Duke, and Georgetown.

“I remember when he got that call and Stanford came on the radar,” Angela Love says. “He told me, ‘Well, you didn’t say the four hours couldn’t be by plane.’”

Bryce Love won the 2017 Doak Walker Award as the best running back in college football and finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy while pursuing medical research and a human biology degree. Angela Love saw her son and Shaw as kindred spirits.

‘The Bryce that left [home] in 2015 and the Bryce that graduated in 2019 were much the same. It was just oh-so-much better. Oh-so-much more mature. Oh-so-much more wise and thought-provoking. I attribute all of that to the four years he had there, specifically Coach Shaw.’

“The Bryce that left [home] in 2015 and the Bryce that graduated in 2019 were much the same in that his overall qualities, the person, was the same,” Love says. “It was just oh-so-much better. Oh-so-much more mature. Oh-so-much more wise and thought-provoking, and he saw the world through a totally different lens. I attribute all of that to the four years he had there, specifically Coach Shaw, because that was a lot of where he spent his time, in football.” 

Love’s final season, 2018, may have been the season that best illustrated Shaw’s temperament. As Shaw was leading Stanford to a 9–4 season, his younger brother, Eric, was near death from a rare form of T-cell lymphoma. Shaw had previously been told he wasn’t a suitable bone marrow donor, but, after two transplants failed, Eric’s physicians decided to try an unusual procedure. Shaw slipped away from work to Stanford Hospital for five days so doctors could stimulate and extract his bone marrow—bone marrow that would save his brother’s life. By the end of the treatment, Shaw could barely walk, but he never mentioned his joint pain or fatigue to the team. He just continued to coach.

Shaw came home with the mementos from that coaching life in a half-dozen or so boxes. “I haven’t been to IKEA in probably more than 15 years,” he says. “Been there twice now in the last week. That’s different. I put together a desk and a file cabinet with only one thing that didn’t work. Instead of taking it back, I’m just hiding it.” In other words, there will be no upgrade to the hutch.

There will, though, be some travel and some being an in-person husband and father. There may be some television work. Shaw has enjoyed being a member of the NFL Network’s crew covering the past few NFL drafts. If he decides to return to coaching—he interviewed with the Denver Broncos in January—he will look first to the Sunday game. “I’ve always looked at myself as an NFL coach who adjusted to college because he loves Stanford,” Shaw says. He will not be shy about being on campus, even if it feels weird to walk past the football complex just east of Campus Drive and realize he doesn’t work there any longer.

“I would have loved to have won more games at the end,” he says. “At the same time, knowing that we had an amazing run, a historic run, a historic run for Stanford, a historic run for college football? That a high academic institution can have not just a winning program but, for a good chunk of time, a top-20, top-15, top-10, top-5-a-couple-of-times program? With All-Americans and draft picks? It was a great, great run.”

Ivan Maisel, ’81, is the vice president of editorial and a senior writer at Email him at 

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