Don’t say we don’t listen.
For the second time this year, I’m acting on a suggestion from reader and loyal Talk of Fame Network follower Brian Wolf – this time promoting former 49ers’ and Eagles’ coach Buck Shaw for Hall-of-Fame consideration.
I didn’t say induction. I said consideration. Big difference.
Nevertheless, as Wolf pointed out in a recent post, Shaw checked enough boxes to gain the attention of Canton’s voters. He won an NFL championship. Better yet, he beat Vince Lombardi. He was an AP and UPI Coach of the Year (1960). He reached two title games, one in the NFL and one in the All-America Football Conference. In 12 years of pro coaching, he had only two losing seasons. And his .621 regular-season winning percentage (90-55-5)? It’s better than Tom Flores (.527) and Jimmy Johnson (.556) and virtually identical to Bill Cowher (.623).
Johnson and Cowher are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of this year’s Centennial Class, and, as the coaching candidate for the Class of 2021, Flores is expected to join them. But Buck Shaw? Not only isn’t he in Canton; he’s never been mentioned.
Except, that is, by Brian Wolf.
Nevertheless, his record is worth dissecting. A star lineman on Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame teams, Shaw went on to coach Santa Clara University, where he was 47-10-4 (an .803 winning percentage) and won 18 of 19 games his first two seasons. In each of those years he beat favored LSU in the Sugar Bowl, even though he couldn’t travel to one of those games because of illness. No problem. Shaw coached the game by telephone.
Shaw was the San Francisco 49ers’ first head coach, working with stars like Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson and Frankie Albert. When the 49ers joined the All-America Football Conference in 1946, Shaw led the team to four second-place finishes in that league’s Western Conference … which doesn’t sound like much until you realize the team ahead of them was the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns won all four AAFC championships, including the 1949 title game where they held off Shaw’s 49ers, 21-7. From 1946-49 Cleveland lost only four games in the AAFC. Two of them were to Shaw's 49ers.
In nine years with San Francisco, Shaw was 71-39-5, with only one losing season.
In 1958 Shaw took over a dreadful Philadelphia Eagles team and within three seasons had it on top of the NFL. The key: A trade Shaw engineered in 1958 where he acquired 32-year-old quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams for two players and a first-round draft pick.
It was Van Brocklin who would author the Eagles’ 17-13 defeat of Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960 championship game, the only title-game loss for Lombardi at Green Bay.
Afterward, the 61-year-old Shaw retired, saying, “I wanted to get out while I was ahead.” Mission accomplished. His victory made him the oldest NFL coach to win an NFL championship, a record that would stand for 39 years -- or until Dick Vermeil (then 63) came along in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Shaw passed away in 1977, but his legacy did not die with him. Santa Clara University named its football stadium after him. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame. He’s in the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame … and the San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame … and the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame … and the Santa Clara University Hall of Fame.
But he’s never been as much as a blip on the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame radar, and, OK, so he split his career between the AAFC and the NFL. I get it. But this is not the NFL Hall of Fame we’re talking about. It’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the last time I checked the AAFC qualified.
In fact, eight of the Cleveland Browns from their AAFC days – including Centennial Class inductee Max Speedie – are in the Hall. Yet Buck Shaw is on nobody’s radar.
Maybe it’s because he never looked like a head coach. Tall and slender with silver-white hair, he appeared more professorial than a head football coach in his dark sports coats, white shirts and horn-rimmed glasses. Then again, his appearance wasn’t all that far removed from Lombardi.
But Shaw’s manner was. Where Lombardi was assertive and intimidating, Shaw was mild-tempered and, well, professorial. Dubbed “The Silver Fox,” he was as much a teacher as coach, and he persuaded rather than bellowed.
“He’s the first guy I ever played for who didn’t curse his players,” one of his former Eagles; players told the New York Times. “He’s a substitute alma mater for a lot of us. I don’t know if we’d go out and die for him – but he never asked us.”
My guess is that Shaw didn’t win enough NFL games to satisfy Hall-of-Fame voters, was forgotten and simply disappeared from the Canton screen, which is unfortunate. Because, as Brian Wolf reminded all of us, his record speaks for itself.
And his record says he deserves to be remembered.