Shaw's mission: Sustain Stanford's success

STANFORD, Calif. -- There is no one in the world who would disagree with this statement: "New Stanford coach David Shaw is very different from former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh." Where Harbaugh was boisterous, eccentric and often moody, Shaw is measured, polished and mellow.

Whatever his personality, Harbaugh proved he's a heck of a college football coach by rebuilding Stanford into a national power, one that finished 12-1 in 2010 with a final No. 4 ranking. The question for Stanford fans is whether Shaw can sustain that success.

Shaw has repeatedly said he's going to be his own man and not try to reinvent himself as the second-coming of Harbaugh. That said, it's clear that Harbaugh's tenure, which Shaw was a key part of as offensive coordinator, created a culture that worked on the Farm, one that both took advantage of the school's high academic standards -- read: smart players -- while also going against type -- read: a bullying, in-your-face style.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities, but when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

It's clear that this has been Shaw's message this spring. The man out front has changed, and that means some things will be different, but foundational values have not. The motto first articulated last season by center Chase Beeler -- 'We're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty" -- remains in place.

And just because Shaw is a smooth operator unlikely to head-butt players wearing helmets -- as Harbaugh did -- doesn't mean there's no killa' inside.

"Coach Shaw may seem a little more laid back on the surface, but I guarantee you he's just as passionate as Coach Harbaugh was," quarterback Andrew Luck said.

Luck, of course, is a good starting point for any first-year coach. Having the best quarterback in the nation shepherding your offense helps a coach sleep at night. Further, the Cardinal is loaded at running back and might be the nation's most talented team at tight end (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are going to play on Sundays). The offensive line lost three starters but welcomes back two first-team All-Pac-10 performers in tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. The defense is strong at linebacker and solid in the secondary. The big questions are receiver and defensive line.

Beyond personnel, Shaw and Stanford will need to adapt to their new place in the college football firmament: Front-runner. The Cardinal will be ranked in the preseason top-10 and are expected to battle with Oregon for the top spot in the new Pac-12. In fact, when you look at the schedule and the talent returning, it's not a stretch to note that every game is winnable. The Cardinal likely will be underdogs only once this fall -- the Ducks visit on Nov. 12 -- and even that game might be a pick 'em.

It's clear the Cardinal is eyeballing Oregon, which overcame a 21-3 deficit to stun Stanford 52-31 in Eugene last year.

Said Luck, "Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here."

Said defensive coordinator Derek Mason, "The team we have to go get is the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is king of the hill."

Of course, there are 11 other opponents on the schedule who Stanford won't sneak up on. Know that coaches across the conference have spent plenty of time thinking about Stanford's complicated offense and hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme this offseason. No doubt hey will muster up some counterpunches this fall. Shaw and company will need to maintain the edgy attitude while continuing the scheme creativity that seemed to keep foes off balance on both sides of the football in 2010.

In any event, the glory of 2010 and its blowout Orange Bowl victory against Virginia Tech won't win any games in 2011.

"Andrew [Luck] put it best one time. He said, 'Football is a meritocracy,' and that's what he loves about it," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Every week you have to prove yourself. It doesn't matter what you did the week before."

For Shaw to sustain success, he's going to have to maintain what works, while developing an eye for quickly ascertaining what needs to change. He's going to have to continue to recruit elite athletes who can get into Stanford. And he's going to have to do it his way.

There's considerable momentum, but it's also not easy being the man-after-the-man. There are plenty of potential pratfalls when taking over leadership from a larger-than-life person. Yet Shaw isn't fretting that philosophical big picture.

"To me, going down that track, that gets you off focus, off of what is important," he said. "Every single year, every single team is different. What won for us last year isn't necessarily going to win for us next year. We went through this two years ago with Toby [Gerhart]."

Ultimately, Shaw won't be measured by whether he matches those colorful, Harbaugh-ian moments ("What's your deal?"). He'll be measured by whether he matches Harbaugh's winning.