David Shaw of Stanford had been a head coach for all of three weeks when he signed quarterback Kevin Hogan out of northern Virginia. Five years, three Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowl victories later, Shaw is considered one of the best coaches in the FBS and Hogan just finished playing in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the elite showcase for the NFL. They matured together in their respective positions, coach and player, mentor and mentee.
Shaw is saying goodbye to the last of his first signing class. Even if Hogan hadn’t won a school-record 36 victories, even if Shaw, who is also the playcaller, hadn’t worked intimately with Hogan throughout his career, the quarterback would hold a special place in the coach’s heart.
It is the part of coaching that we rarely see and hardly notice. Football coaches take in teenagers and send out young men. In the best-case scenarios, without firings and transfers and job-hopping and relationships gone sour, coaches mold and inspire.
Shaw has watched Hogan the quiet boy become a vocal locker room leader. Shaw has seen Hogan withstand the death of his father nearly 14 months ago and gain the perspective found at the intersection of tragedy and maturity. At the close of such a triumphant senior season for Hogan — 12 wins, another league title, a Rose Bowl rout of Iowa — Shaw felt joy and gratitude and pride.
The two of them shared a moment on the dais in the postgame news conference after the 45-16 defeat of the Hawkeyes in Pasadena. Stanford, of course, played the role of the Power 5 champion with its nose to the playoff glass.
“We were asked a question about the four-team playoff,” Shaw said. “I said, ‘Hey, we’re just happy we’re Rose Bowl champions.’
“Kevin said, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.’
“I said, ‘I know what you’re supposed to say,’ and he started laughing,” Shaw said. “I put my arm around him.”
The moment is captured in the photo that accompanies this story. Look at the two of them. You could light the Bay Area with the wattage of their smiles. If the camera hadn’t been there, the import of the moment, of what it represented, might have been left unsaid. When Hogan saw the photo, he downloaded it and texted it to Shaw.
“I thought the camera caught a moment of pure elation,” Hogan said via text. “It was the culmination of a long journey that we shared together with many ups and downs. In the end, he stuck with me and trusted me and it’s something that I truly appreciated.”
Shaw described it as the favorite part of a memorable day.
“Just the fact that he had been through all this — and I had seen all his growth — for him to be able to laugh,” Shaw said. “He’s always been so tense, and so serious, and so self-critical. For him at that moment to be able to laugh, and truly enjoy it, that moment to me, when I put my arm around him and heard him genuinely laugh … gosh, that was probably the best. That moment when it’s all over. He’s finally done. He won the Rose Bowl and gets to go out on top.”
For five years, Hogan pretty much kept his emotions to himself. He never said a word about his father’s four-year battle with cancer to anyone in the football building until the end, a little more than a year ago. By this point, Hogan’s final season, he had become more vocal. He served as a mentor to the younger players, as a leader whom the older players didn’t want to disappointment. Hogan had matured enough to understand the photo depicted so much more than a laugh between a coach and a player.
“I wasn’t sure if he’d seen it,” Hogan said of Shaw, “but I just wanted to share it with him as a final memory after five years.”
“He’s not a big texter,” Shaw said. “Unlike everybody in his generation, he leaves his phone at home sometimes. He’s hard to reach sometimes. He’s not tied to it like most of us are. He actually texted that picture to me. He got the picture and sent it to me on his phone with a little message, and that was a special moment.”
One photo. One coach. One player. Five seasons.