PASADENA — Forget Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Coach Khaki, who says his 10-3 revival at Michigan was “the best year I’ve had in football.” The question is whether Stanford, after shaming the cornstalks off Iowa in a magnificent testament to power and speed, could beat the NFL team based 14.2 miles south of Palo Alto in a new stadium with mostly empty red seats.
Think I’m kidding about this? Who wouldn’t love to see David Shaw’s team come to Levi’s and whip the dreadful, disillusioned 49ers, mocking them with the same sort of fake-fumble trickery — “Hawkeye,” Shaw merrily termed the play — that made a nation wonder if (1) the Cardinal are the true No. 1 team and (2) Christian McCaffrey would win a Heisman Trophy revote in a landslide?
Then, who wouldn’t love to see Shaw walk upstairs to Jed York’s office, sign a five-year contract for $40 million, wave goodbye to Trent Baalke as he packs his boxes, and assume complete control at Dysfunction Junction? With Shaw’s coaching stature never loftier and the 49ers’ place in football life never lower, this is a union that makes perfect sense.
Which means it won’t happen.
It won’t because decisions that make perfect sense to the rest of us, such as managing Jim Harbaugh’s idiosyncrasies instead of cold-cock-firing him, never carry similar logic with York. If he had any grasp of the swirling tumult, after one of the truly horrendous years a sports CEO ever has delivered, Jed would acknowledge his error in compounding Harbaugh’s ouster with Jim Tomsula’s hiring, make sure today is Tomsula’s final game as head coach and move forward with the wooing of Shaw. But for that to happen, York would have to commit top dollar — the least he can do after convincing Santa Clara to help build him a stadium, while charging hideous prices for a poor product — and relinquish all football power to Shaw. That would mean dismissing general manager Baalke, who has struggled with recent drafts and free agency, and then getting the hell out of the way himself.
Neither the pay nor the power is going to happen. And without both essential elements, Shaw isn’t coming, particularly when he can have his choice, if he wants, of possibly 10 NFL coaching openings — most of which are better jobs than the mess inside The Zipper. The Rose Bowl served as a Super Bowl-style media opportunity in which coaches had to sit for an hour and answer every imaginable question. Shaw’s most revealing answers, as they pertained to a possible NFL future, involved why he has been successful on The Farm.
Control, he said.
“The biggest thing is that I’m in charge of the environment. I’m in charge of who is in the environment,” Shaw said. “Our coaching staff is outstanding. The [athletes] that we have found fit Stanford University as a football team and as a university also. And the culture we’ve developed is a culture of excellence. It’s a culture of achievement. It’s not a culture of wanting to get patted on the back all the time. It’s a culture of ‘what do I need to do to achieve my goals’ and how hard do I have to work in our guys understanding that? For me, it’s surrounding myself with great people and letting them do their jobs.”
He wouldn’t have that freedom in Santa Clara. Jed would be in his grill, every day, and Shaw knows it. When he raves about what “a great job I’m blessed to have,” he mentions NFL coaching friends who are miserable and have told him they’ll be mad at him if he leaves Stanford. Aren’t some of those friends on the 49ers’ staff? Say, offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, father of Keller Chryst, expected to replace Kevin Hogan as the program’s next quarterback. Hasn’t Shaw spoken at length to Harbaugh, who originally hired him at Stanford and recommended him as his successor upon leaving for the 49ers?
Still just 43, Shaw talks like a man who wants a national championship as his Stanford legacy, proving a university can meld academic preeminence and football greatness in the 21st century. When he professes deep and abiding love for The Farm, it isn’t negotiating-leverage b.s. He bleeds Cardinal red, spending his first date with his eventual wife giving her a campus tour. They married in Memorial Church, and he speaks of the school with such reverence, you assume he has regular seances with Leland Stanford Jr. Does he sound like someone who wants to work for Jed York … or any NFL boss?
“There’s a puzzle cutout, and there’s only one piece that kind of fits in there, and when it fits, you put it in there and you leave it in there. That’s how I feel,” Shaw said of Stanford. “My wife and I love the area and all the things we do with our family. As far as being an alum and being in line with the pursuits of the university, I love what the university has to offer. I’m not one of those guys that tries to fight the administration, trying to get more of this or that. I love what we stand for and how we do things. I know that not everybody that we recruit is going to get admitted into school, and I appreciate that fact. Because our admissions has been right, the people that they’ve admitted.”
The administration lets him do his job and allows him to the build a roster within academic requirements. Under the current structure of the York/Baalke Niners, Shaw would take orders, as Tomsula has done to a 4-11 tune. “It’s hard for me to think that I would have that connection anyplace else,” Shaw said.
He always says he’s not leaving, period. Will it be any different this time? Remember, Shaw has been an NFL assistant coach and watched his father, Willie, work in the league as an assistant. At some point, he will leap. But it would have to be an almost perfect opportunity right now. You’d think a job 14.2 miles away, letting his family stay put, would appeal to him. Seems he wants to finish his mission, then go anywhere but Santa Clara. Remember, this is a man who thinks so highly of Stanford as a spiritual experience, he negotiated his own contract with then-athletic director Bob Bowlsby in 2012, which may be why his $2.3 million annual salary ranks outside the national top 40 in college coaching. “I let [Bowlsby] know the thing I’m looking for is longevity, however we need to accomplish that. So it’s not just about maxing out my contract and getting the most money I can. That’s not what this can be about,” he said.
“There are a lot of places that you can go do that, and this is not the place that I want to try to do that. This is the place I want to set my assistants up so they can be successful and hopefully guys can move on and be coordinators and head coaches. It’s a place I want to make sure that I put some roots down and continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is winning football games and graduating our players.”
“Being a coach’s kid, I looked up to Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno. I looked up to Bobby Bowden and Bo Schembechler. Those guys were the coaching icons. For me, that’s what college football should be.”
We’ll know starting today, with the season finale against St. Louis, if York actually wants to give Tomsula another season — so he can set back the 49ers another two or three years. He is overmatched, period, and if York has any respect for fans who’ve wasted money on Stadium Builder’s Licenses, he will try to find a serious football man to kickstart his dead jalopy, make sure Jared Goff winds up here and point a once-iconic franchise toward respectability.
That man is not Chip Kelly, who would clash with Jed and wouldn’t revive Colin Kaepernick, who needs a new address. But maybe it’s Sean Payton, who would be worth the draft pick in required compensation. Or maybe it’s Steve Young paired with Mike Holmgren and Adam Gase.
David Shaw should be the target, starting at 5 p.m. today. Alas, what clicks in my mind and your mind turns to vapor in Jed York’s mind.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.