Stanford Cardinal Comes Up Roses, No Luck Needed

By Justine Hendricks
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports


When the Stanford Cardinal won its first Rose Bowl since 1972, it wasn’t with the fiery coach that had turned the academic powerhouse into a top football school. It wasn’t with the No. 1 draft pick quarterback, the two-time Heisman finalist often mentioned in the same breath as Cardinal legends John Elway and Jim Plunkett.

This year’s Stanford team won the Pac-12, and the Rose Bowl, with a second-year head coach and a quarterback who started the year on the bench.

When Jim Harbaugh left after the 2010 season to coach the San Francisco 49ers, offensive coordinator David Shaw, a Stanford alum, became the new head coach. In his first season, the team was 11-2, earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl – but he had one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Andrew Luck.

What would happen when Luck when to the Indianapolis Colts as the first overall pick?

More of the same – but even better.

As tight end Zach Ertz said after the game: “We’ve been in BCS games the past two years, but neither of those mean as much as this one did. This is the one we play for every year. It shows Stanford is here to stay.”

The Cardinal’s success this season proved the program’s ascent to the top of the BCS ranks wasn’t a fluke. Harbaugh and Luck helped build the foundation, but it was Shaw who maintained the high level of performance. Harbaugh brought a bruising brand of smash-mouth football to Stanford, and former athletic director Bob Bowlsby was smart enough to keep the team on track by promoting Shaw.

Even after his first year’s success, there was no guarantee the Cardinal would continue to be as good under Shaw. He was still relatively unproven, the team was coming off an overtime loss in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, and the quarterback position was wide open.

Stanford answered any lingering questions about Shaw’s coaching chops with their win in the 99th Rose Bowl Game, which made Shaw the first African-American head coach to lead his team to a victory in “The Grandaddy of Them All” (yes, it really did take that long).

Coaching was key throughout the year. The Cardinal’s first big win of the season in an ugly victory over preseason No. 1 USC, the team’s fourth-straight victory over the men of Troy, because Shaw thoroughly outcoached USC’s Lane Kiffin (not such a difficult feat, as it turned out).

After a loss to Washington in a game that neither team played well enough to win, Shaw had enough confidence in his struggling offense to stick with starting quarterback Josh Nunes, who responded with his best performance of the year in a 54-48 overtime win over Arizona. A few weeks later, Shaw wisely used the game against the floundering Colorado Buffaloes to give redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan more playing time, and he had the pluck to re-assess his commitment to Nunes when Hogan proved he deserved the starting role.

The Cardinal didn’t lose another game, and Hogan finished the season 5-0 as a starter, including yesterday’s Rose Bowl win. Hogan was also under center for the team’s huge upset of then-No. 1 Oregon that knocked the Ducks out of contention for the conference and national titles. Oregon and Stanford, two new-era Pac-12 powers, have drastically different playing styles: Stanford couldn’t hope to keep up with the Ducks in a footrace, but excellent coaching and a stout rush defense held Oregon to its fewest points (14) since 2009.

From Harbaugh’s first season in 2009, through the Andrew Luck era, until this year’s Rose Bowl, the one constant has been David Shaw. He was the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, he was the head coach in Andrew Luck’s final season, and this year, the team was all his.

After the Cardinal’s big BCS bowl win, Shaw acknowledged Luck’s role in the team’s success but pointed out that the real credit goes tot Stanford’s style of play, their game plan, and their team unity:

Andrew Luck deserved and deserves a lot of credit…But the thing that we knew is that we had a good team, and the thing that Andrew knew is that he had a good team around him…And our guys knew if we played smart and played together and played hard, we’d give ourselves a chance to be right here.

With that philosophy, and with Shaw at the helm, the Stanford Cardinal will have plenty of chances to be right back there in the Rose Bowl again.

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