Zimmerman: Shaw fills Harbaugh’s shoes, and then some

Oct. 21, 2011, 1:45 a.m.

One year ago today, gun to your head, you’re forced to make a decision: Andrew Luck or Jim Harbaugh? The one you pick stays, while the other ventures into the depths of the NFL, destined to appear only on Sundays and in Ugg commercials.

I would have chosen Jim. You would have, too.

I’m smart enough to know that you don’t go to the Vatican and criticize the pope, nor do you admit to the Stanford community that you would choose any tangible thing in the universe over Andrew Luck. So let me explain.

One year ago, I was drunk off the Harbaugh Kool-Aid. I was fully on board with the hard-nosed approach, the yelling, the rescuing the team from a 1-11 season, the domination of USC, the sweater, etc. So were you. Keeping Jim away from the NFL was (at the time) undoubtedly the only way to sustain Stanford’s success. You could hear a pin drop in Stanford Stadium during 2009, the Cardinal’s first winning season in years. If Harbaugh left and the team subsequently imploded, pins would be able to hear pins drop.

Luck was, to me, more of a short-term luxury because he had to leave. There was no option, no contract negotiation, no $50,000 bathrooms. With Luck, there was the potential for a national championship the following season. I wanted the potential for multiple national championships. Harbaugh could provide that. Luck could not.

One year later, it took the lifting of a shirt and an aggressive handshake to remember that Stanford had actually lost what was once called the best thing to have ever happened to the football program. And as much as that has to do with the magical work of Luck, it has even more to do with new head coach David Shaw.

Have you heard of him?

Maybe not, but he’s answered every lingering question and then some with very few words.

The offense? It lost three linemen, its two best receivers and the best fullback in the nation. This season, it’s averaging nearly 46 points per game, good enough for fifth in the country. But Shaw was the offensive coordinator and inherited the best player in the nation, so it’s not that impressive.

The defense? It just ranks fifth in the nation, second behind only Alabama against the run. Remember when Harbaugh brought Vic Fangio, Stanford’s defensive architect, with him to San Francisco? Remember when Shayne Skov, the team’s star middle linebacker and arguably second best player next to Luck, went down with a knee injury less than three games into this season? Remember how this was the ultimate derailment to the Card’s championship aspirations? How quickly we forget.

Shaw, in what he calls his dream job, says all the right things and makes all the right adjustments. At halftime against Washington State this past week, after 30 minutes of the worst football that Stanford has played in well over a season, a vicious hit that sidelined Chris Owusu and a slew of questionable calls, Shaw collected his team and redesigned the offensive game plan. Stanford won by 30.

Harbaugh did great things for this school, don’t get me wrong, but there were always whispers of discontent among his players that his intentions weren’t always the best. I’m not sure I disagree. He has always been an NFL coach from an NFL family, and I’m thrilled he used Stanford as the platform from which to launch his career.

But witnessing a new style of coaching, one that prefers to be seen rather than heard, has brought with it the realization that Harbaugh’s methods aren’t suitable for the college ranks. Shaw’s are, and it’s why Stanford is poised for sustained success. Recruiting hasn’t taken a hit, another BCS run is in order and concern is back where it belongs: life after Luck.

The clincher for me happened after the game against Wazzu. Shaw was asked about the hit on Owusu, a play he intensely contested on the sidelines. His response?

“A couple of years ago, he probably would have been listed as a mild concussion because he wasn’t unconscious. Back in the old days, he would have gone back in the second half. We’re not in that era anymore.”

Such simple, overlooked responses like this provide such great insight into his coaching priorities. Players first, winning second, career a very distant third.

Today, no gun in sight, I’m choosing David Shaw, and it’s not even close.

Zach Zimmerman will never forget the day he was thrown out of Harbaugh’s $50,000 bathroom. Send him the location of an equally luxurious toilet at zachz “at” stanford.edu.

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