What We Can Learn from Buck Shaw

A new biography about the beloved Broncos football icon looks back on the legacy of one of the best-known gentleman coaches.

Coach Buck Shaw 760x1000
Buck Shaw during his coaching days at Santa Clara. Photo courtesy SCU Archives.

He was Santa Clara University’s first football coaching hero, then a powerhouse at the San Francisco 49ers, capping off his career with a national championship as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Lawrence Timothy “Buck” Shaw was known as much for his football acumen as his quiet resolve and unruffled approach to building players into winning teams, including his 47-10-2 record at SCU—highlighted by back-to-back Sugar Bowl victories.

A new book, Buck Shaw: The Life and Sportsmanship of the Legendary Football Coach, by author Kevin Carroll is a complete biography of Shaw that should appeal to any SCU or 49ers gridiron fan and history buff. Packed with details from Shaw’s days coaching at Santa Clara to heading up the inaugural San Francisco pro football team—which, of course, was founded by a Bronco alum and assembled with a handful of former Bronco players—the book charts Shaw’s career all the way through his 1960 NFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl era.

Santa Clara Magazine talked with Carroll about his detailed research (the Bronco years got an assist from SCU’s Archives staff) filled with game-day stories filed by on-the-scene reporters chronicling the plays, the personalities, and the passion of fans. The saga traces Shaw’s 12 years at Santa Clara from line coach in 1929 to head coach from 1936-42, his transition to the pros in 1946, as well as a renewed effort to get Shaw named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Santa Clara Magazine: You played football at Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Massachusetts, and went on to become a high school football coach and history teacher in New Mexico. How did you get interested in writing a book about Buck Shaw?

Kevin Carroll: I was always fascinated by a guy named Dr. Eddie Anderson, who was a physician, but also a football coach at four different schools, including Holy Cross. Anderson had played for [College Football Hall of Fame coach] Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. So I researched his life and wrote a book about him. In the process, I kept coming across the name Buck Shaw. They had played right next to each other at Notre Dame, and they both went on to highly successful coaching careers. What really piqued my interest was that at Santa Clara, with a student enrollment of less than 500, Shaw’s Broncos consistently beat schools such as Oklahoma, Stanford, Michigan State and Purdue.

SCM: Kind of a David vs. Goliath story?

KC: Larger schools with larger student bodies had more money, especially if they were state-sponsored universities. With more money, schools could often times go out and get great players. Santa Clara didn’t have that ability. The administration didn’t care what one’s performance was like on the gridiron; you had to study and get good grades, or they’d show you the door. The academic demands were very strenuous. So that was tough in many ways, and of course this was during the Depression—players often left school for financial reasons. But Shaw still managed to overcome those hurdles.

Buck Shaw Broncos
The Santa Clara football team, coached by Buck Shaw (bottom right), won two consecutive Sugar Bowls—in 1937 and 1938, both against the Louisiana State University Tigers. Photo courtesy SCU Archives.

SCM: When Shaw arrived as the Broncos line coach in 1929, he’d led college teams in Nevada and North Carolina. How did he learn to become such an effective player’s coach?

KC: Growing up in the Midwest on a farm, he had certain values, a work ethic, and he was humble. I think playing at Notre Dame for Knute Rockne had a tremendous influence on him because Rockne was a great motivator. He had a way of making his players feel good about themselves, and I think Shaw learned that from Rockne, when to push players and when to take the foot off the pedal. Shaw hadn’t had an abundance of talent, so he really had to develop players, and I think he learned that he could really relate well to young men. By the time he took the reins as the Broncos head coach in 1936, he’d built teams that went on to win the 1937 and 1938 Sugar Bowls, both against Louisiana State.

SCM: College football, especially during the 1920s into the ’50s, captivated local Bay Area sports fans. Ironically, the arrival of a pro football team began an exodus from college games. What happened?

KC: In many ways, pro football was a death knell for a lot of the small, independent colleges playing football on the West Coast. Santa Clara, and of course St. Mary’s, USF, and Gonzaga—all of these schools had really strong rivalries going but they just couldn’t keep up with the 49ers cutting into some of their attendance. People who weren’t alumni and didn’t have connections with the schools seemed to bond with the 49ers, and that hurt college attendance.

SCM: Who is this book for?

KC: I dedicated it to all of my football players at Albuquerque Academy, and the coaches and trainers during the time I worked there from 1985 to 2018. But it’s really a book for anybody who is a 49ers or Santa Clara fan. First and foremost, Buck Shaw was a gentleman. And a real sportsman. He wanted to win, and he was a fierce competitor—but he kept it in perspective. I wrote in the preface that he was an overall model coach, even for coaches today. He’s the kind of man you’d want your son or daughter to play for.

SCM: What lessons might today’s coaches take from Buck Shaw?

KC: A common thread echoed by Shaw’s former players, both pro and college, was the sense of team camaraderie he fostered.

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The debut photo of the first San Francisco 49ers team in 1946. First head coach Buck Shaw is seen in the top row, middle. Photo courtesy SF 49ers.

Guys often played harder because they didn’t want to let their teammates down. Perhaps the late Pro Football Hall of Fame legend and Eagles receiver Tommy McDonald expressed it best: “He (Shaw) knew plenty of football… But he knew how to put players together, to make ’em feel like a family. I played for lots of coaches in the NFL, but Buck Shaw is the man at the top of the ladder, for me the best of ’em all.” That’s quite a compliment considering McDonald also played for Tom Landry and George Allen.

The sports world has changed dramatically since Shaw’s coaching days. With the advent of cable television, 24-hour sports talk radio, and Twitter, players today are seemingly caught up in all the media glitz—gaining individual celebrity status. This is manifested on game-day by choreographed end zone celebrations, sack dances, and gesturing to the crowd, often after a routine play. It may be tougher to achieve today, but if coaches could generate that “family feeling” McDonald described, today’s participants would leave the game with a greater sense of satisfaction and reward.

Related

Legend

SCM: Some believe that Shaw’s 12-year pro coaching record of 90-55-5 is more than enough to get him inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s been nominated before, most recently for the Class of 2023, but didn’t make the cut this July. What’s the hold up?

KC: He should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His first few years were with the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), where teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns were the creme de la creme—they could play with anybody. Shaw’s years in the AAFC shouldn’t be a hindrance to his induction into Canton. The so-called “Silver Fox” has a higher winning percentage than a half dozen coaches who are in the Hall of Fame, and Sports Illustrated’s Clark Judge wrote an article to that effect in 2020. Perhaps this biography might support Shaw’s case.

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