Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 2: Buck Shaw
Image Credit: Santa Clara University
A proven winner down the road at Santa Clara University, Buck Shaw was a solid choice to be the first head coach of the brand-new San Francisco 49ers. He helmed the team for nine years, posting a .645 winning percentage, including a 12-2 season in 1948 and an appearance in the AAFC title game the following year.
The legacy of Lawrence Timothy “Buck” Shaw is virtually nonexistent except for his name attached to a field inside a converted football-baseball-soccer facility located on the campus of Santa Clara University.
And that’s a shame.
His name used to be on the building itself, but it was rechristened in 2015 for an alumna, Mary Stevens (class of 1984) and her husband, Mark Stevens, the venture capitalist who is better known as the Golden State Warriors minority owner who got into an altercation with the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry during the 2019 NBA Finals. So now, the outstanding former Santa Clara Bronco and San Francisco 49er coach has been reduced to runner-up billing at what is currently Stevens Stadium – Buck Shaw Field.
Although Shaw is associated with the Bay Area, he was a Midwesterner by birth, having been reared in Iowa before spending a year at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska,then transferring to Notre Dame, where he played on the offensive line for Knute Rockne and was responsible for helping create running lanes for George Gipp (of Ronald Reagan “win just one for the Gipper” fame). Pulling double-duty as a placekicker, Shaw successfully converted 38 of 39 extra point tries, a school record that stood for fifty-five years. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1921.
Shaw began his coaching career three years later, at North Carolina State, and after a single year there he ventured west to the University of Nevada, where he took the reins of their brand-new football program. After four years in Reno, during which he went 10-20-3, Shaw was done with coaching.
Or so he thought.
The head coach at Santa Clara University, Maurice “Clipper” Smith, was an old Domer teammate of Shaw’s, and like Shaw, he was an offensive lineman. Smith reached out to his old buddy and convinced him to move out still further west and take over stewardship of the Broncos’ line. Shaw accepted and would spend the next seven seasons in that role. Then, in 1936, Clipper left Santa Clara to take the head coach job at Villanova, and Shaw was chosen as the successor. The Broncos were mediocre at the time –they finished 3-6 in 1935 – but Shaw turned the program around in short order. Led by quarterback Nello “Flash” Falaschi and halfbacks Bruno Pellegrini and Manuel Gomez, the Broncos finished 7-1, the top record among Western independents. Santa Clara traveled to a muddy Tulane Stadium in New Orleans and proceeded to shock undefeated and second-ranked LSU in the Sugar Bowl, 21-14. The Tigers were startled by what they saw from the Broncos: an aerial attack that was a stark contrast to the traditional ground-and-pound style favored by teams in the South.Santa Clara’s masterful performance earned them a No. 6 ranking in the final Associated Press poll for the 1936 season.
The 1937 Broncos went 9-0, finishing in a ninth-place tie in the AP poll, having dealt LSU another Sugar Bowl loss, this time 6-0. The lone score was a Falaschi halfback pass to Jim Coughlan.
Shaw’s Broncos would not reach a bowl game again, but they also never came close to having a losing record. Owing to World War II, and the fact that so much of the student body was in the armed services, in 1943 athletic director George Barsi announced that the school was dropping football.In his seven seasons at the helm, Shaw had amassed a 47-10-4 record, including a sixteen-game winning streak. He stayed on campus for two more years to assist the U.S. Army’s physical education program. Would he get another opportunity in football?
San Francisco was getting a football team as an entry into the brand new All-America Football Conference, to begin play in 1945 as a direct competitor to the National Football League. Owner Tony Morabito hired Shaw to be the 49ers’ first head coach, but with the war still raging in Europe, the AAFC pushed back its opening to 1946. To pass the time, Shaw accepted a one-year contract to coach at the University of California, up the road in Berkeley. The Golden Bears, competing in what was at the time the Pacific Coast Conference, went just 4-5-1, including 2-4-1 in conference, despite, according to Shaw in one written account, “[having] a good bunch of players.” With Shaw making his jump to the pros, for the 1946 season the Golden Bears replaced him with former Navy All-American Frank Wickhorst.
The 49ers under Shaw wasted no time in establishing themselves as one of the AAFC’s better teams, finishing 9-5, good enough for second place in the Western Division behind the 12-2 and eventual league champion Cleveland Browns. Frankie Albert, a left-handed quarterback from Stanford (whom Shaw knew quite well from their Santa Clara-Stanford clashes), threw 14 touchdown passes but was also picked off 14 times. Fullback Norm Standlee racked up 651 yards rushing, and wideout (or “end,” as they were called in those days) Alyn Beals posted 586 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. The 49ers won their final three games of the season by a combined score of 51-21, including a 48-7 beatdown of the Los Angeles Dons, a team co-owned by Don Ameche, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. “We played our best game of the year,” Shaw effused afterwards. “We played a completely team game, without any outstanding individual performers.”
That prompted Eddie Forrest, an offensive lineman who had played for Shaw at Santa Clara, to shout in response, “Sure, we were playing for next year’s contract.”
The 49ers certainly hoped that the season-closing win streak would give them some momentum going into 1947.
That it did. The 49ers won their first three games and lost just once through 1947’s first seven weeks. San Francisco lost to the powerhouse Browns after their Week 8 bye, which sent them into a bit of a tailspin, as they lost two of their next three games before finishing with two victories and a draw. Once again, they finished behind the Browns, who went on to capture their second AAFC title.
Shaw’s 1948 team was his best yet. The 49ers finished 12-2, and if it had not been for those damned Browns, why, they might have gone undefeated.
The first 49ers-Browns tilt ended with a 14-7 score. In that game, Shaw elected to start Forrest Hall, a speedy rookie halfback drafted from the University of San Francisco, in the event the 49ers were to receive the opening kickoff, and despite the fact that Hall, as San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Bruce Lee testified, “is a highly-strung nervous man who is often extremely jittery under pressure.” The kickoff came Hall’s way, he fumbled it, “and then froze. It seemed impossible for him to move.” A Browns player recovered the ball, and two plays later, Cleveland scored the first touchdown of the game.
After the fumble, a disconsolate Hall jogged back to the sideline. “Don’t worry, Forrie,” Buck Shaw calmly said to him. Most coaches would have flipped out after such a mistake. Instead, an empathetic Shaw sent Forrest Hall back into the game at halfback, at the expense of the veteran Len Eshmont. In the second half, Shaw gave Hall another crack at a kickoff return. Hall rewarded his coach with a 39-yard run-back.
“The 49er ball players [sic] swear by him – many a man says he wouldn’t play for anybody but Shaw,” Lee wrote. “And, of course, these character references are in addition to his reputation as a shrewd, canny strategist and professor of football. His record carries that testimonial.”
Despite their runner-up status, the 1948 San Francisco 49ers were a team that flashed elements of dominance. They led the AAFC in points (495), total yards (5,767), passing touchdowns (30), rushing touchdowns (35), and they finished second in first downs gained (227, behind Cleveland) and in fewest points allowed on defense (248; the Browns allowed just 190). At the same time the Niners were also flagged the most, drawing 89 penalties for 794 yards. But the 1948 season was best known for the emergence of the first member of what would later become the “Million Dollar Backfield”: Joe “The Jet” Perry, a twenty-one-year-old rookie fullback who had played a season at Compton Community College before being spotted playing for a U.S. Navy team at Naval Air Station Alameda. Upon his discharge from the military, Perry accepted the team’s contract offer. In 1948, The Jet led the league with 10 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Albert threw for 1,990 yards – the most in the AAFC’s short history – with 29 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions and was named co-MVP, along with Cleveland QB Otto Graham.
Image Credit: Bill Young/Chronicle File
San Francisco made its first postseason in 1949.
Before the season could get underway, however, the AAFC underwent a massive realignment. The Brooklyn Dodgers merged with the New York Yankees to form the Brooklyn-New York Yankees, the Chicago Rockets were sold and renamed the Hornets, and the Baltimore Colts also underwent an ownership change. With now just seven teams, the AAFC reduced the schedule from fourteen games to twelve and ditched the two-division West-East format and went with just a single division, consisting of the Buffalo Bills, the Browns, the Colts, the Dons, the 49ers, the Hornets, and the Yankees. The top four teams would qualify for the postseason, with the first-place team matching up with the fourth-place team, and second place hosting third place.
Record-wise, Shaw’s 1949 squad didn’t fare quite as well as the previous year’s team, but they did go 9-3, good enough for another second-place finish and a spot in the playoff tournament. In the first round, San Francisco defeated the Yankees 17-7, as halfback Verl Lillywhite recorded a touchdown on the ground and rookie backup halfback Don Garlin fetched one through the air. Meanwhile, the Browns struggled early against the fourth-place Bills but overtook them in the game’s latter stanzas, winning 31-21.
That set up a Browns-49ers championship matchup on December 11, 1949, at Cleveland’s cavernous, cold, and messy Municipal Stadium. Two days earlier, the AAFC and the NFL had reached a peace accord: the 49ers, Browns, and Colts would join the NFL, while the Dons merged into the L.A. Rams. The remaining teams would fold and the AAFC would cease operations. This championship game represented the league’s last hurrah.
Despite leading the AAFC with a 34.7 points-per-game scoring average, the Niners’ offense struggled mightily moving the ball, and managed just one touchdown. The Browns, on the other hand, had little such trouble, and their 21-7 victory over the 49ers gave them their fourth AAFC title in as many seasons. As usual, Shaw had nothing but kind words and encouragement for his men. “You’ve come a long way on spirit, further than many may honestly have believed possible,” he said during the team’s after-game dinner. “You deserve congratulations, not sympathy.” The players presented Standlee, the fullback and team captain, with a pocket watch and a wristwatch to owner Morabito.
Unlike the Browns, who found immediate success after their jump to the NFL, the 49ers struggled to adjust. And it would ultimately cost Shaw his job.
The 49ers went 3-9 in 1950, their first year in the NFL. They improved after that, posting 7-4-1, 7-5, and 9-3 records over the ensuing three seasons, but they never finished higher than second place. By 1954, a season in which San Francisco again went 7-4-1 and finished third for the second time in three years, rumors were circulating that Shaw could be fired, especially as the team went through a stretch of losing four of five games. After getting shellacked 48-7 by the Lions in Detroit, Shaw was blunt. “I’ve never seen the 49ers look so bad […] They just outplayed us all day. There’s really no use in pointing out the details. Our pass protection was terrible and we couldn’t put enough pressure on [Lions quarterback Bobby] Layne.
“We did nothing right and they did nothing wrong […] The Lions completely outcharged us […] And I’ve never seen a worse looking 49er team.”
The Chronicle contacted Tony Morabito about the Shaw rumors. “Would you like to stop those rumors by giving Shaw a vote of confidence?”
“No comment,” the owner responded.
It didn’t help Shaw’s cause that the 49ers’ locker room resembled a MASH unit, with several key players, including quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe Perry, center Bill Johnson, linebacker Don Burke, and defensive lineman Art Michalick, spending time injured and on the mend. Nonetheless, on December 13, 1954, Morabito’s axe fell upon Buck Shaw. The only head coach that the 49ers franchise had ever known to this point was no longer in charge. It was the first time in his career that Shaw had ever been fired.
Morabito was blunt in his assessment. “Shaw has been head coach of the 49ers for nine years,” he said. “He has had 100 percent – not 99 per cent. Four of the last five years, the club has folded completely, or has lost the big one. I think it’s time we tried something new.
“This year,” the owner continued, “in spite of injuries, the 49ers’ record should have been better.”
“I felt as if the rug were pulled out from under me,” Shaw would recall years later, shortly before his death in 1977 from cancer.
Buck Shaw would not be done coaching after his dismissal. He hired on with the Air Force Academy, leading them to a winning season in 1956 and a losing one in ’57. Then, he returned to the NFL for what would be his last hurrah as a coach. His Philadelphia Eagles sputtered to a 2-9-1 record in 1958, then improved to 7-5 in ’59, and finally, a 10-2 mark in ’60, punctuated by a 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFL championship game.
After the game, Shaw announced his retirement. He was sixty-one years old. “I wanted to get out while I was ahead,” he said.
He went out a winner.
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