David Shaw ensures Stanford believes in the process

If you hang around Stanford's Dan Elliot Practice Field long enough, you're bound to hear football coach David Shaw say something about “believing in the process,” “worrying about what we do” and “never staying the same.”

You'd probably think he's a walking, talking sports cliche if he hadn't proved that he's a master of instilling successful mindsets in small armies of young men.

In two years, Shaw achieved what Bill Walsh, Dennis Green and Jim Harbaugh couldn't do during their tenures on the Farm: he won the Rose Bowl. As a result, the Cardinal kicked off fall camp this week ranked No. 4 in The Associated Press poll and Yahoo! Sports published an article entitled: “Is Stanford college football's new dynasty?”

This is unfamiliar territory for Stanford, which is no longer the hunter but the hunted, to borrow another cliche.

Over the past six years, Stanford has relished the ability to sneak up on teams. It did it with Harbaugh and, once he left, many assumed the program would spiral back into anonymity. Then, Andrew Luck graduated and, once again, the forecast predicted imminent demise.

But now Stanford is America's sweetheart, the Sandra Bullock of college football. How will it manage expectations living in the national spotlight?

Again, if you're familiar with the program, the answer is easier than fourth grade math: nothing will change.

If Shaw is a genius in one facet of the game, it's getting his players into the right mindset to be successful. Cliches are cliches for a reason — they're true.

When Shaw tells his players to, “believe in the process,” he is teaching them how to prepare one day at a time (another cliche) and compartmentalize without getting caught up in rankings, what Oregon's doing or who is projected to go where in the draft. It's about executing the tasks in front you, perfecting the details and having faith that those steps will put you in a position to be successful on Saturday.

Good teams fall apart under great expectations for two reasons: pressure and complacency.

Pressure is a result of focusing too heavily on the ends rather than the means. Prioritizing the big picture over the small task, whether it's setting a block, studying the playbook or eating properly. This isn't a problem at Stanford, where students manage serious pressure every time they take a test.

Complacency, on the other hand, is abandoning the process because overconfidence tells you that improvement is unnecessary, which is why Stanford coaches say, “Never stay the same.”

The Cardinal have another guard against complacency: Shayne Skov.

By now, everyone knows that the fifth-year senior is, cliche alert, the team's “emotional heartbeat” and he returned to win. He isn't going to let anyone sit around and pat themselves on the back because of their ranking.

This isn't to say that Stanford is immune from defeat. It is playing a tough schedule and opponents, like No. 3 Oregon, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 21 UCLA — all will be eager to trip them up. But if the Cardinal lose one, two or even three games, it'll be the result of something that happens on the field, not because they lost faith in the process.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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