By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
When David Shaw was announced as Jim Harbaugh's successor as Stanford's head football coach last season, the first question regarding Shaw's new job was inevitable.
How could a rookie coach improve upon a 12-1 season that included a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the BCS Orange Bowl?
Shaw's answer? Actions speak louder than words and Stanford proved that with an 11-1 record heading into Monday's showdown with Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Kickoff is 5:30 p.m. on ESPN.
"It was weird after the (Orange) bowl game," offensive guard David DeCastro said Wednesday as the Cardinal continued preparations for the Cowboys. "We didn't know that was going to happen. Was Harbaugh coming back or was he leaving? It was kind of like 50/50, kind of a toss-up.
"We weren't surprised when he left, but with Coach Shaw coming in it was good. It was natural. He's a good coach and he did an awesome job with the transition period, getting the new coaches in. He kept a lot of the same staff, same strength staff. I had a new O-line coach, but he's done a great job. It was pretty seamless. The transition has worked out pretty well."
Having All-American quarterback Andrew Luck returning for a final season, of course, made Shaw's job all the more easier. Still, Harbaugh took a few key coaches with him to the San Francisco 49ers, including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
There were also the usual key losses to graduation, like All-American lineman Chase Beeler, so Shaw didn't get the key to his new car without first filling it with gas and kicking the tires.
The fact Shaw didn't have to move his family and only had to switch offices in the Stanford Athletic Department also made the transition easier for him and his players.
"It was kind of weird having a guy that wasn't the head coach go to head coach," said DeCastro. "But, he's done a fabulous job. He's done nothing wrong. He's take the head coaching job like he's always had it, almost. It's been really good."
Harbaugh stayed four years, finally providing consistency and success (29-21) after Walt Harris (2005-06) and predecessor Buddy Teevens (2002-04) went a combined 16-40 in a five-year span.
Stanford went seven years without a winning season until Harbaugh turned things around in 2009 with an 8-5 mark and appearance in the Sun Bowl.
Thus, there was concern when Harbaugh left. Would Stanford return to its losing ways, especially after losing linebacker Shayne Skov to a season-ending injury early in the season?
Shaw answered that with a school-record 15 straight victories, the longest such streak in the nation this year before Oregon ended it. The Cardinal bounced back from that loss, finished the season strong and earned its highest BCS ranking (No. 4) and most prestigious bowl game since playing in the Rose Bowl in the pre-BCS days.
So, why has Shaw done so well so quickly?
"He must have been born for this," DeCastro said. "You can just ell. He doesn't miss a beat. It's like he's had that role for a while."
It could be reasoned that Shaw was groomed for the job during his playing days as a wide receiver at Stanford from 1991-94.
"I think it's huge," DeCastro said of that fact. "Any alumnus from Stanford is pretty proud of it, especially being a football player and coming back to coach his alma mater. I think it's important he has a lot of pride in it, as well.
"He'll always tell us stories about him catching passes when he was a player here. When we have honorary captains, he'll talk about them when they come back."
Senior tight end Coby Fleener is also a big fan of Shaw, who dramatically increased the team's offensive production while working as the offensive coordinator the four previous seasons under Harbaugh.
"I would saw it was a very smooth transition," said Fleener, ranked among the top tight ends in the nation this season. "Coach Shaw was on our staff, so he understood the offense. And, keeping a lot of the staff together really made a smooth transition for all the players."
Equally important was how the team culture changed after Stanford reached the 2009 Sun Bowl and lost to Oklahoma while Luck missed the game with an injury.
"I think there's been huge strides since then," Fleener said. "I'd say the culture has been the biggest thing. We went from a team that was happy to be winning and where winning was an unexpected turn of events, to a team that is expected to win, and if we didn't win we are sorely disappointed.
"I think in years past it was okay for Stanford to be very good at academics and mediocre at athletics, at least from a football realm. Coach Harbaugh and now Coach Shaw have pushed us to the point where we are expecting to win every game, or know that we will prepare to win every game, as opposed to prepare to give the other team a good game. That's a huge change from four or five years ago when we could be the underdogs. Now, it's to the point of where we have a bulls-eye on our back."
It's a target Shaw and his players will gladly wear, because it means Stanford has arrived as a contender.
It was only five years ago that Stanford went 1-11 under Harris. The Cardinal was 2-9 under Teevens in 2002 and 3-8 under Tyrone Willingham in 1998.
Now, Stanford has produced the Heisman Trophy runner-up three straight seasons, earned back-to-back bids to BCS bowl games, compiled a 23-2 record since last season and is bringing in a recruiting class that Luck says rivals his own.
The days of just hoping to be bowl-eligible are gone. The talk is now about winning Pac-12 titles and, perhaps some day, a national championship.
"It's amazing," said Jonathan Martin, regarded as one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. "When I sit down and think about it, I almost can't even believe it. Being recruited, our expectations were to make bowl games. As a freshman, I don't think the expectations were to make back-to-back BCS bowl games. You always have the goal of making BCS bowl games and winning the national championship, but to actually see it come to fruition is really amazing."
And that's why David Shaw is smiling these days, as are his players.
"It's exciting," said Fleener. "It's exciting to have had a small part in helping to turn around the Stanford football program."