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Buck Shaw

Throughout NFL history, there have been numerous coaches that have struggled mightily to become a champion. For some, they would never even have a whiff of a championship moment. For others, it is a lifelong pursuit that culminates in triumph. Buck Shaw of Santa Clara College, the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles was one of those coaches.

The Early Years

Lawrence Timothy "Buck" Shaw was born to cattle ranchers on March 28, 1899 in Mitchellville, Iowa. His family moved to Stuart when he was 10 years old and while he found other sports to bide his time, football was not one of them. Due to several fatalities, football had been abolished in the town before the Shaw family had even arrived.

Young Buck found a great appreciation for track and field and began to see a possible future in the sport. But football was reinstated in the middle of his senior year and he was able to get a feel for the sport, playing in just four games.

From there, he enrolled in Notre Dame with his eye on the track. But second-year coach and campus legend Knute Rockne saw potential in the young freshman and urged him to try out for the football team. He was building a winning program and relentlessly pursued the unknown freshman who had next to no experience playing the sport.

As a sophomore in 1919, he started at left tackle for the Fighting Irish, opening holes for fabled running back George Gipp. They went undefeated and won the national championship that year, but times were different back then. As an Independent, the Irish could freely chose who they wanted to play, but teams were few and far between in those days.

As a result, they beat teams such as Kalamazoo (14-0), Mount Union (60-7), Western State Normal School (53-0) and Morningside (14-6). Arguably their biggest wins of the year were against in-state rival Indiana (16-3), Army (12-9) and in front of the season's largest crowd of 10,000 at Nebraska (14-9).

Notre Dame repeated the feat the following year, but there was one change, Buck Shaw moved to right tackle. Much like the year before, they beat future powerhouses Nebraska, Army, Purdue and Indiana. The Irish's bid for a three-pete was derailed in 1921 with a 10-7 loss at Iowa in the third game of the year.

Despite winning the rest of their games with ease (a seven point win over Nebraska being the lone exception), Notre Dame fell short of a third straight national title. Despite the disappointment, Buck Shaw graduated the University of Notre Dame as an All-American, brimming with pride, potential and confidence. With his diploma in hand, he had but one question: Now what?

Santa Clara

Shortly after graduation, Buck Shaw got into coaching. By 1924, he had his choice of jobs between Auburn and North Carolina State. He chose NC State, thus starting a 36 year career. After spending a year in Raleigh, he moved on to Nevada where he coached from 1925 through 1928. Shaw's teams rarely won in his four years coaching in Reno, going just 10-20-3.

Fired after a winless 1928, Shaw left for Santa Clara College in 1929 to regroup and coach the Bronco's line. Under the guidance of head coach Maurice Smith, the Broncos were a good group of players on a yearly basis, enjoying winning seasons for much of the early 1930s. Along the way, Buck Shaw coached up several future NFL linemen such as Frank Cope, Dick Bassi and Bob McGee. By 1936, the college administration had turned their gaze upon Shaw as a candidate to be their new head football coach. After a disappointing 3-6 1935 season, it was time for a fresh voice to fill the locker room with guidance and motivation.

Much like his time in South Bend, Buck Shaw saw immediate success as the head coach of the Broncos, going 8-1 and earning a surprise berth in the Sugar Bowl. No one saw it coming. The Santa Clara College Broncos didn't belong on the same field as the mighty LSU Tigers. To think that they stood a chance at victory was laughable. But somehow, someway, the boys from the Mission City did what no one thought they could do. They beat the second ranked team in America on the national stage.

The 21-14 final score hardly did their effort any justice as it covered the guts and determination of the young men like ivy on a well painted wall. Still, it drew the attention of many and as the Broncos celebrated like kings and rode around in a parade in their honor, teams from across the country took notice of their coach.

After such a turnaround, it didn't quite seem possible that Santa Clara could keep the momentum, but somehow they did, going 9-0 in 1937. Incredibly, they gave up just nine points all year and again beat LSU in the Sugar Bowl, shutting out the Tigers 6-0 and earning another victory parade in downtown Santa Clara. But the naysayers were still in full force, ranking the Broncos ninth in the country at season's end.

If the first two years were a honeymoon, then 1938 reminded everyone involved that all good things must come to an end. the Broncos lost two games that year, squeakers to St. Mary's (7-0) and Detroit (7-6).

But that letdown of a season didn't hinder Shaw's program from flourishing. Far from it! In 1939 and 1940, they combined to lose two games while finishing in the top 15 and beating Oklahoma 33-13 in the last game of 1940. The following year, the Broncos were on fire until making a three game tumble in the middle of the season, losing to Oklahoma, Stanford and Oregon to sink their hopes for that elusive national title. After going 7-2 and finishing 15th in the nation, football was suspended at the school in order to support the war effort.

The 49ers

Athletically speaking, the war years were pretty boring for Buck Shaw. He spent the first two years of SCU's hiatus of football assisting in the Army's physical education program at Santa Clara. In 1945, with the war waning to an explosive close, he took the head job at Cal. While the season ultimately proved to be a wash, one good thing did come out of it: he found his next quarterback.

While Cal beat the St. Mary's Pre-Flight 6-0 late in the year, Shaw noticed the natural talents of quarterback Frankie Albert. As he watched the young signal-caller weave his way around Shaw's defense time and again, Buck Shaw filed away that memory for future use.

Months later, the San Francisco 49ers and the All American Football Conference were born and Shaw took over as San Francisco's first coach. As their coach, he signed that elusive quarterback that had given him fits on that crisp November day months earlier. He knew that they could win together.

Considering the fact that they resided in a league consisting entirely of expansion franchises, the 49ers played well in their inaugural season, going 9-5 and splitting their series with the Cleveland Browns. But at season's end, they would finish second behind Cleveland in the standings. It was the beginning of a frustrating trend.

The following season was much the same, with the 49ers finishing 8-4-2 and being swept by the Browns, watching as their midwest counterparts stood just a bit taller in the standings. While those first two years were filled with triumph and misery, 1948 bore a special mix of the two. That year, the 49ers won every game except the two contests against the Browns. It was like looking in a reversible mirror for the Browns as they won every game that year, earning their third straight AAFC crown.

By 1949, enough of the conference had crumbled due to financial pressures to force the league into one entity, meaning that there would be one conference, not two. As a result, the 49ers made the playoffs that year and made it all the way to the title game in what would be the final game of the doomed league.

Fittingly, their opponents that day was none other than the rival Browns in Cleveland. the Browns opened the scoring with Edgar Jones' two-yard plunge in the first quarter and Marion Motley's 68-yard scamper in the third. Unwilling to go down quietly, the 49ers fought back, finally finding the endzone on a Frankie Albert-to-Paul Salata connection in the fourth quarter. But alas, victory over their hated foes would slip through the 49ers' fingers once again as Dub Jones capped off Cleveland's championship effort with a four-yard touchdown late in the final quarter of the AAFC's lifetime.

Along with the Browns and Colts, the 49ers moved to the NFL the next year, hopeful for a prosperous future. But this was a much more established league with much tougher opponents and the 49ers struggled to find their footing that first year, going 3-9. Things got better from there though as they went 7-4-1 and finished second in their conference in 1951.

But as the seasons dragged on, it became apparent to 49ers management that perhaps their coach was not the answer for the more established league. It didn't matter that they sported winning records of 7-5 (1952), 9-3 (1953) and 7-4-1 (1954), all that mattered was that they couldn't get over the hump. So after finishing third in their division in 1954, Buck Shaw was fired. Time was ticking on his championship window.

The Eagles and Later Life

After a four year hiatus, Buck Shaw returned to the coaching ranks in 1958 for the woeful Eagles. Since winning their last title in 1949, the Eagles had fallen on hard times and were circling the league's cellar by the time Shaw arrived. Like most coaching vacancies, this was not an ideal situation and Buck Shaw set out to make the most of what was likely his last opportunity at a championship.

It wasn't easy. In his first year at the helm, the Eagles went 2-9-1, third to last in the league. While they were better the following year, going 7-5, age was starting to become a serious factor for Philadelphia. Mainstays such as quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and center/linebacker Chuck Bednarick were well into their thirties and gazed longingly at retirement the past couple of offseasons.

But this was a resilient group, one that refused to quit. It was an ethos that the City of Brotherly Love would come to wholeheartedly embrace a decade later. It wasn't easy. But then again, nothing worthwhile ever is and the Eagles had to remember that after opening 1960 with a 41-24 drubbing to Cleveland and barely beating the expansion Cowboys 27-25. But they regrouped, losing just once more (Steelers, 27-21) in mid-December and earning a berth in the NFL Championship Game at Philadelphia's Franklin Field against Vince Lombardi's surging Green Bay Packers.

The game was a classic, with both teams giving their all every single minute. After Paul Hornung gave the Packers a six-point lead off of two field goals, the Eagles responded with a Norm Van Brocklin-to-Tommy McDonald connection in hte second quarter and extended their lead with a Bobby Walston field goal.

But the Packers refused to go down quietly as Max McGee caught a seven-yard strike from Bart Starr to take a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter. All his professional life, Buck Shaw had struggled to win "the big one". Now was his last chance at glory and he could see it slipping away into the frigid air of Franklin Field.

His players refused to let him down. Not on this day! After Ted Dean scampered into the endzone from five-yards out to give Philadelphia a 17-13 lead, Shaw could only watch as the Packers stormed down the field for one last chance at glory. Chuck Bednarick refused to surrender, tackling the great fullback Jim Taylor and holding him on the ground until the last seconds ticked away. At long last, Buck Shaw was a world champion!

And with that he retired. He spent his remaining years in California. In 1962, a group came together to collect funds for a football stadium to be built in Shaw's honor at Santa Clara University. By the Fall of 1962, it was completed and Buck Shaw Stadium (since renamed Stevens Stadium) remains there to this day. It's namesake died on March 19, 1977.

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