The San Francisco 49ers have had an illustrious history of excellent coaches. Some of these coaches have been innovators of the game while others have left their mark in a more subtle tone.
A coach who is often forgotten is their first coach, Buck Shaw. He arrived in San Francisco to build a team the city could be proud of and worked hard to establish a winning tradition. As a result of his dedication to the 49ers, other professional sports leagues felt more comfortable with expanding to the West Coast. Professional sports would look immeasurably different without the dedication of Shaw.
The Forgotten First Coach Of The 49ers
Shaw was born on March 28, 1899 in Mitchellville, Iowa to cattle ranchers. He only played four football games in high school when the game was reinstated in his city. He initially played for Creighton University but transferred to Notre Dame and there his life changed forever.
This was during the heyday of Knute Rockne and he drilled into Shaw the nuances of the game of football and how to lead a team to victory. He started at both left and right tackle in his three-year career (1919-1921) and was also a kicker during that time. He was named to the All- America team after his senior season as well as Notre Dame’s all-time team.
Upon graduating from Notre Dame, he became the head coach at North Carolina State. He stayed there for a season before moving on to the University of Nevada. as an assistant.
After leaving that job in 1928 he briefly considered leaving the coaching profession and going into the oil business. He was convinced by a friend to accept an assistant coaching position at Santa Clara University.
Thus began a golden era for the Broncos. After he became the head coach in 1936, Santa Clara won back-to-back Sugar Bowls against heavily favored Louisiana State University. Shaw’s success at the college level impressed the professional ranks and he became the 49ers head coach in 1946.
The 49ers resided in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) and were viewed as a second-tier league compared to the NFL. Shaw immediately added to the roster local favorites from universities such as Stanford and Santa Clara.
The biggest addition was quarterback Frankie Albert who had starred for Stanford and he quickly proved to be a true leader for the team. Other local favorites included Norm Standlee, Jesse Freitas, and Bruno Banducci. With additions such as these, the 49ers quickly gained favor in the eyes of the people of San Francisco.
During Shaw’s reign in San Francisco, the 49ers were always in the hunt for the AAFC championship but could never get past the rival Cleveland Browns. Upon entering the NFL in 1950, they struggled to get beyond third place in their division.
It took years for the 49ers to collect the talent required to compete for an NFL championship. Shaw was fired after the 1955 season. While the 49ers never won a championship under his tutelage, he did a masterful job in whetting the appetite for professional football in San Francisco.
After leaving the 49ers he had a brief stint with the Air Force Academy before becoming the head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958. He left a mark in NFL history in 1960, his final year coaching. It was that year that he finally won an NFL championship. It would be the last NFL championship the Eagles would win until the 2017 season.
He was named both the AP and UPI NFL coach of the year in his final campaign and retired as a champion. He returned to California to live out his remaining years and passed away from cancer in 1977. While he only won a single championship, his legacy lives on to this day.