GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Jim Harbaugh wasn't so highly visible, leading the San Francisco 49ers back to the NFL playoffs, you might think he was still coaching at Stanford.
The transition to David Shaw has been that fluid.
“That was the plan,” Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said, “to maintain the continuity from our 2010 season.”
No, not much has changed in Palo Alto, even with Harbaugh moving his office up the road to Candlestick.
The Cardinal went to a BCS game a year ago, destroying Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl. It's again back in one, tonight's Fiesta Bowl against No. 3 Oklahoma State here in suburban Phoenix.
Harbaugh kickstarted the stalled program. And Shaw has kept it running.
“I think it was a very natural fit,” all-conference tight end Coby Fleener said. “For him to just kind of step in, it wasn't an issue with us at all.”
Shaw joined Harbaugh in 2006 at the University of San Diego, working as the Toreros' receivers coach and passing coordinator.
When Harbaugh took the Stanford job the following year, he took Shaw with him – and made him the offensive coordinator.
So, it was natural that Shaw would get the job when Harbaugh left for the NFL.
“He always had a big presence on the staff, as it was,” said Andrew Luck, Stanford's All-America quarterback and two-time Heisman finalist. “He made it comfortable for everyone. So much has been the same. It's been very, very smooth.”
Didn't hurt that Shaw is a 1994 Stanford grad, a former Cardinal receiver. He also played basketball and ran track.
“I'm very proud of my school,” Shaw said this week.
Shaw is able to relate to his players on a different level, because of his playing experience at the school. It's something he references often, several players said.
“You call him a Stanford man,” Luck said. “You can tell he has a lot of respect for the university and really loves it.”
The common denominator in coaching success at Stanford has been, oddly enough, professional football. Going all the way back to Bill Walsh, for whom Shaw played, the Cardinal has always been linked to the NFL.
It figures, then, that a former pro quarterback would again get the program going – and Shaw would sustain and continue that momentum.
Shaw worked with the Eagles, Raiders and Ravens before hooking up with Harbaugh. His father, Willie, spent time with the Lions, Chiefs, Vikings, Saints, Raiders, Chargers and Rams. He was also at Stanford from 1974-76, and then from 1989-91.
Shaw said he developed his offensive scheme through a variety of NFL experiences. He was Rich Gannon's quarterbacks coach in Oakland. Later, he learned how to take advantage of having a versatile tight end in Baltimore, with Todd Heap.
Those elements have come into play again. Luck is a mobile quarterback, like Gannon. The role of Heap is played by Fleener.
Luck was a consideration, too, in promoting Shaw. The once-in-a-generation passer had interest in staying for another year, and the fact that he would be running the same system with the same offensive coaches – with the obvious exception of Harbaugh – had an impact in his choice to stay.
“Obviously,” Luck said, “it's worked out very well with Coach Shaw.”