Buck Shaw started with Nevada Wolf Pack, became great after leaving
The Nevada Wolf Pack helped launch the career of one of the greatest football coaches in history.
Lawrence Timothy “Buck” Shaw, the only coach to ever defeat Vince Lombardi in an NFL playoff game, spent six seasons with the Wolf Pack in the Roaring Twenties while Babe Ruth was hitting home runs, Red Grange was scoring touchdowns, Knute Rockne was winning college football games and Jack Dempsey was winning boxing titles.
The Wolf Pack football program, still in its infancy, didn’t win often with Shaw around. The Wolf Pack was just 10-20-3 in four seasons (1925-28) with Shaw as head coach. But the lessons Shaw taught the Wolf Pack (he was also a Wolf Pack assistant in 1922, 1923) in those lean, formative years helped stabilize college football at the university.
Shaw, born (1899) and raised in Iowa, was taught the sport of football by Rockne. After playing just four games in high school and one in college for Creighton in 1918 (Creighton’s season was limited to three games by an influenza pandemic), Shaw transferred to Notre Dame where Rockne was about to start his second year as head coach.
Shaw then helped make Rockne a legend. The Fighting Irish during Shaw’s three seasons (1919-21) helped transform the sport of college football. Notre Dame went 29-1 in Shaw’s three seasons, winning national titles in 1919 and 1920 as Rockne became a coaching icon.
Shaw, one of the best offensive and defensive linemen in the nation, blocked for George Gipp in 1919 and 1920. Gipp would die in December 1920 because of a throat infection and pneumonia and was portrayed by Ronald Reagan (“Win one for the Gipper”) in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All-American.”
“Gipp was a master at football,” Shaw said in 1937. “He could do everything. Kick, pass and lug that pigskin. He just seemed to have winner’s luck at every game, whether it was football, billiards or what have you.”
Shaw became a big man on the Irish campus by the summer of 1921 when he was given a prestigious award. He was named “The Apollo of Notre Dame,” winning a contest against 500 other male contestants for “the best-built man at Notre Dame.” Throughout his coaching career his good looks and prematurely gray hair (he was called the Silver Fox) were often noted on sports pages.
As a lineman it took a while for Shaw’s play on the field (he played the entire game in the trenches) to get him recognition.
“He has never been given the notoriety which he deserves because he is one of the most modest men who ever donned a uniform,” the South Bend (Ind.) News-Times wrote in 1921 of Shaw. “Buck is no grandstand man.”
The South Bend Tribune wrote, “Buck Shaw is the most modest and most unappreciated athlete at Notre Dame.”
Shaw, who played in the days of leather helmets, no facemasks, few substitutions and little padding, was named an All American in 1921.
“There is no better tackle in football than Buck Shaw,” the News-Times wrote in early November 1921. “Shaw plays not for himself but for his team, his coach and his school.”
Professional football, even for one of the best linemen in the nation, was not much of an option as Shaw was about to graduate in the spring of 1922. The NFL was just two years old at the time, paid its players little and was in working-class cities like Akron and Canton in Ohio as well as Muncie, Hammond and Evansville in Indiana and Decatur in Illinois.
“I never thought about coaching until Rockne came to me in the spring of my senior year with a couple of letters from Auburn and Nevada,” Shaw told the Des Moines Register in 1970 when he was named to the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.
Rockne’s players by the spring of 1922 were coveted by programs all over the country. The Fighting Irish won a lot of games in the early 1920s and Rockne became the most glorified coach in the sport. Since other programs didn’t have Rockne they wanted the next best thing. A dozen players in Shaw’s graduating class immediately went into the coaching profession and by 1928 there were 75 former Rockne players coaching in college football all across the nation.
Wolf Pack football head coach Ray “Corky” Courtright, a former star athlete for the Oklahoma Sooners, needed a line coach in 1922.
Rockne had one in mind for him.
“He is the kind of man I can recommend without reservation,” said Rockne of Shaw in 1922. “He has no bad habits, he is a loyal and enthusiastic worker and he is one of the best linemen we have ever turned out.”
Shaw, like most people in the early 1920s east of the Rocky Mountains, knew little of Reno, Nevada.
“A friend of mine at school (Notre Dame) was from Nevada and he told me American football was new out there,” said Shaw, referring to 1906-14 when the Pack had a rugby team and no football team. “It sounded like an interesting challenge.”
The 22-year-old Shaw helped Courtright and the Pack go 5-3-1 in 1922 with all three losses (California, Stanford and USC) coming against football powers. The Pack then went 2-3-2 in 1923 (two of the losses were to Stanford and USC) but Shaw’s offensive and defensive lines were crucial in a landmark scoreless tie with mighty Cal, which was known at the time as “The Wonder Team.”
The Wolf Pack football program, though, then fell into a state of uncertainty after the 1923 season. Shaw, now just 24, had become a hot coaching commodity on the west coast because of the tie with Cal and Courtright, who had been at Nevada since 1919, was rumored to be looking for a job elsewhere.
“(Shaw’s) success has been broadcast up and down the west coast and several times this winter several colleges were dickering for his services,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote in February 1924.
Shaw was also earning just $1,800 at Nevada, a sum that was raised by the student body’s vaudeville show at the Rialto Theater in Reno.
The Wolf Pack, according to media reports, had already told Shaw that he could take over the football program if Courtright left. But Shaw accepted an offer ($4,000 a year) in late February 1924 to become the head coach at North Carolina State, going from the Wolf Pack (Nevada was also known as the Sage Hens) to the Wolfpack.
Shaw, all of 24 years old, was now a major college head coach. Courtright would also announce at the end of March that he was leaving to coach football at the Colorado School of Mines. The Wolf Pack gave Courtright’s old job to former California Golden Bear quarterback Charlie Erb on May 1, 1924.
Shaw struggled in his first year as North Carolina State head coach, going 2-6-2 in 1924. Erb did slightly better at Nevada, going 3-4-1, losing the last three games to California, St. Mary’s and Idaho without scoring a single point. In January 1925, though, Shaw was headed back to Nevada. Erb resigned, according to the Nevada State Journal, and the Pack grabbed Shaw back from North Carolina State.
“It is like getting back home,” Shaw told the Reno Evening Gazette in the summer of 1925. “It was like being in exile to spend a year in North Carolina.”
Shaw hired fellow Iowan and ex-Notre Dame teammate Bob Phelan as his assistant. The Pack started off well under Shaw, going 7-3-1 over his first 11 games (through the first three games of 1926).
“We want to show all our opponents that Nevada has a fighting chance to win every game and that’s all Nevada ever asks for,” Shaw told Wolf Pack students at a rally in 1925.
Shaw went 4-3-1 in his first season (1925) as head coach, guiding the Pack to its first year over .500 since 1922.
“Our hats are off to Coach Buck Shaw who undoubtedly has developed the most perfect football team that Nevada has ever had on its varsity,” wrote the Reno Evening Gazette.
That statement was hardly true. Courtright’s 1919 and 1920 teams, led by James “Rabbitt” Bradshaw, were a combined 15-4-2. But Shaw clearly had the support of the community as 1925 came to a close.
“He has made a team that is a team that knows how to play not as individuals but as a team,” the Gazette wrote. “Nevada football fans owe him a lot.”
After winning the first three games in 1926 Shaw’s Pack career took a fatal downward slide. Shaw’s Pack, which included future Wolf Pack athletic director and men’s basketball and football coach Jake Lawlor, went 3-17-2 over his final 22 games (0-7-1 in 1928). The Pack lost 60-0 to the Cal second string in the final game of the 1928 season. The 1928 Pack scored just 31 points all season in eight games. The 1927 Pack scored just 16 points combined over its first six games. Shaw’s Pack scored under 10 points in 24 of the 33 games he coached at Nevada.
Shaw, though, still coveted in college football because of his association with Rockne, resigned after the 1928 season. The Pack replaced Shaw with George Philbrook, yet another former Notre Dame player. Philbrook, a member of the United States 1912 Olympic track team with Jim Thorpe, lasted just three seasons at Nevada, winning two games each year. The Pack would not finish over .500 until 1939.
Shaw, though, would quickly blossom into one of the best coaches in the nation.
Shaw’s connection with Notre Dame landed him a job after leaving the Pack. He joined the staff of the Santa Clara Broncos as line coach, assisting his former Notre Dame teammate Maurice “Clipper” Smith, who was taking over the program as head coach.
The Broncos, with Shaw as an assistant in 1930 and 1934, faced the Wolf Pack. Santa Clara came to Mackay Stadium in 1930 and played Philbrook’s Wolf Pack to a scoreless tie. The Broncos, though, whipped the Pack 40-0 in 1934 at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium.
Smith left Santa Clara after the 1935 season to become Villanova’s head coach and the Broncos rewarded Shaw by naming him head coach. The Wolf Pack was also looking for a new head coach after the 1935 season and eventually gave the job to Doug Dashiell, a Las Vegas High graduate. Dashiell lasted just three years at Nevada, going 8-13-1.
Shaw turned Santa Clara into a national power.
The Broncos went 17-1 over its first two seasons (1936-37) under Shaw, beating LSU in the prestigious Sugar Bowl each year.
The 1936 Broncos won at Stanford (13-0) and beat No. 16 Auburn 12-0 at Kezar Stadium. The Sugar Bowl that season saw No. 6 Santa Clara stun No. 2 LSU 21-14 in New Orleans.
The 1937 Broncos were a perfect 9-0 and were ranked as high as No. 8. The Broncos gave up just nine points all season long and beat LSU 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl.
Shaw was now one of the hottest young (still in his late 30s) coaches in the country. The Wolf Pack continued to muddle through mediocre seasons and the Reno Evening Gazette questioned whether or not the Wolf Pack did the right thing by letting Shaw go to Santa Clara in 1929.
“In the light of subsequent events,” the Gazette wrote in 1937, “it may have been a mistake that (Shaw) wasn’t asked to stay at Nevada. Shaw, who played a suicide schedule at Nevada, has proven definitely that it wasn’t a lack of coaching which caused Nevada to have a losing ballclub in 1927 and 1928.”
Curly Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner wrote in 1938 that Shaw was on his way to becoming another Knute Rockne.
“The most convincing coaching record in football today is held by Lawrence Timothy ‘Buck’ Shaw of Santa Clara,” Grieve wrote. “It is almost unbelievable.”
Shaw won 23 of his first 24 games at Santa Clara, winning 16 in a row at one point. He started the 1938 season 6-0 by beating Stanford, Texas A&M, Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan State and San Francisco. His Broncos allowed just 35 total points in their 16-game winning streak.
“There is not a critical fan, coach or football writer throughout the country who doesn’t know that fellow Shaw has something. But the country is just awakening to his achievements.
“He never lifts his voice on the practice field. No player is humiliated or browbeaten and made to feel like a day laborer. Not a man is idle during practice, not a fourth stringer trots off the field feeling belittled because he received no attention from the coach.”
On the night before games Shaw would gather his team and show them the latest 1930s Hollywood movies.
“And then he gives them sherbet and a wafer and after the movie they all go on a walk together before bed at 10 p.m,” Grieve wrote. “And the next day every player plays in the game.”
Shaw, according to Grieve, had created football nirvana in Northern California. Shaw would stay seven seasons as Santa Clara’s head coach through 1942 and compile a record of 47-10-4.
Notre Dame came calling after the 1940 season and offered Shaw its head coaching job. Elmer Layden, the Irish coach since 1934 and yet another former Notre Dame star from the state of Iowa, left Notre Dame after the 1940 season to become commissioner of the NFL and the Irish wanted Shaw.
The Silver Fox, though, turned down the Irish and elected to stay in Santa Clara. At the time Shaw was the only coach in history to turn down the Irish top job.
His decision to decline Notre Dame’s offer in 1940 appeared to be a mistake by 1942 when Santa Clara dropped the sport. Shaw then went to work in the lumber business for a company owned by the Morabito family of San Francisco. Tony Morabito then became the founder and first owner of the San Francisco 49ers in the new All-America Football Conference and signed Shaw to become head coach more than a year before the first game in 1946.
Morabito, however, allowed Shaw to become the head coach at California in 1945 for a year until the AAFC began in 1946. Shaw’s Golden Bears went 4-5-1 in 1945, beating the Wolf Pack 19-6 at Cal on Oct. 27.
Shaw’s 49ers were highly successful and entertaining, though they never won a championship. Shaw had a record of 71-39-5 with the 49ers over nine seasons (the first four in the AAFC, the last five in the NFL) and finished second six times. Some of the greatest players in 49ers history played for Shaw, namely Y.A. Tittle, Frankie Albert, Hugh McElhenny, Bob St. Clair, Joe Perry, Gordie Soltau, Leon Nomellini and Billy Wilson.
Shaw, though, was fired after a 7-4-1 season in 1954. “The failure to win a title must be blamed on Shaw,” Tony Morabito said.
“It’s just one of those things,” Shaw said. “It’s the first time I’ve been fired in 32 years.”
No other football team would fire Shaw again.
Shaw became a consultant for the new Air Force Academy football program in 1955 and was named its second head coach in 1956. The Falcons did not have a stadium on campus and had to play their home games in Denver but Shaw won his first six games and finished 6-2-1 in 1956 and 3-6-1 in 1957. One of the losses in 1957 was a season-opening 47-0 defeat at UCLA. Florida was originally scheduled to play UCLA that day but the Gators’ program was ravaged by a flu epidemic and had to cancel the game. Shaw and Air Force stepped in, took a beating and gained the respect of UCLA. The Bruins’ team voted Shaw as the best coach they faced in the 1957 season.
Despite coaching a new program against small schools, Shaw remained in the national spotlight in both 1956 and 1957. He coached all star teams at the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco in 1956 and in the Hula Bowl in Honolulu the following year.
“He got the biggest hand during the pre-game introductions and a tremendous cheer when the final gun sounded,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote the day after the East-West Shrine game at Kezar Stadium. “Perhaps the crowd was showing the Morabito brothers what it thought of the coach the San Francisco 49ers fired.”
Shaw returned to the NFL in 1958, signing a three-year contract at $20,000 a year to be the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the Eagles to a 10-2 record in 1960, beating coach Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers 17-13 in the NFL title game. Lombardi, who beat Shaw a month later in the NFL Pro Bowl game in Los Angeles, coached in nine other NFL playoff games during his career and won all nine, winning five NFL championships.
Shaw announced his retirement from coaching after the championship game. The Pro Bowl was the last game he coached.
“At 61 years old I believe I’ve had it and it is nice to leave on a pleasant note and quit while you’re ahead,” said Shaw, who three years before was named the vice president of Royal Container, a company located in Santa Clara.
By 1960 Shaw was one of just two remaining active coaches who had played for Rockne at Notre Dame. The other was Eddie Anderson, who would coach Holy Cross until 1964.
In 1962 Santa Clara announced it was building a new football, baseball and rugby stadium on campus and would name it Buck Shaw Stadium. Shaw returned to Northern Nevada in the summer of 1970 at the second annual Wolf Pack Governor’s Dinner. Also at the dinner was former Pack coaches Jake Lawlor, Joe Sheeketski, Doc Martie, Silas Ross, Gordon McEachron and Shaw’s old boss, Corky Courtright.
Shaw said at the dinner, “Corky asked me to not tell my salary around town. I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m as ashamed of it as you are.’”
The Silver Fox would die from cancer just seven years later in 1977 at the age of 77. The lessons he taught his players from the 1920s to the 1960s still ring true today.
“The prime requisite in football is still its oldest element. Enthusiasm,” Shaw said in 1960.