It’s probably too late, but Jim Harbaugh might want some advice on how to manage a quarterback controversy from his old friend David Shaw.
The Stanford football coach is facing the unenviable task of replacing Andrew Luck this season and so far he’s managed his own dilemma with minimal drama.
With redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan under center for his second NCAA start last week, the Cardinal beat the No. 1 team in the country and now Shaw’s squad is in a position to achieve what it couldn’t with Luck: Win a conference championship.
If Stanford (9-2) beats UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, they’ll host the Pac-12 Conference championship game next week, a fate that seemed highly improbable a few weeks ago as Josh Nunes struggled through a 24-17 win against lowly Washington State.
Shaw was without a clear-cut replacement for Luck heading into fall camp this year and he kept the quarterback contest behind closed doors to avert a media circus.
While this annoyed the local press (yours truly included), it reinforced his team’s us-against-the-world identity while allowing Hogan to grow and develop without the pressure of public scrutiny.
“The Internet is insane with, ‘This guy should be playing, that guy shouldn’t be playing,’” Shaw said. “I would rather have that just be on me — I’ll take all those arrows. I didn’t want to subject those guys to, ‘OK, today you went 3-for-7, the other guy went 2-for-4.’”
With seven Pac-12 wins this year, it’s obvious that Shaw’s team is buying in. But the second-year coach faced criticism as Nunes underperformed in losses at Washington and Notre Dame.
Some questioned why redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham wasn’t getting a chance, others lobbied for Hogan, who was starting to see a few read-option plays in the Hogan package.
Throughout the ordeal, Shaw kept the debate between he and his staff.
“Nobody looks at football the way football coaches look at football,” he said. “You could see a couple of completed passes that look good and say, ‘That should be the guy who starts.’ But we as coaches could be saying, ‘That quarterback went through the wrong progression and threw the ball to the wrong guy. He made a hell of a throw, but everything else about it was wrong.’”
Shaw knew Hogan had the mobility and accuracy his offense needed, but he didn’t want to hurt his confidence by throwing him into the fire before he’d mastered the details. Instead, he eased him in and named him the starter once he supplied the visual evidence against Colorado on Nov. 3.
“The worst thing you can do is try to speed up that process because you can only damage the quarterback,” Shaw said.
Some would argue that Shaw’s patience with Nunes cost Stanford a chance to play in the BCS championship game; he missed several routine throws in both losses. But it’s hard to second-guess a coach who’s still in contention for a Rose Bowl berth despite losing Luck, Jonathan Marin, David DeCastro and Coby Fleener.
Say what you will about Shaw’s veil of secrecy, his team found an identity and the program is moving forward.
Now, Harbaugh could be taking a different approach. He might be trying to ignite competitive fires with his “hot hand” comments. But if he wants a second opinion, the guy down the road appears more than qualified.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PGackle.