When Stanford began its search for a successor to the deposed Tiny Thornhill, the talent scouts were surprised to learn in what special regard Shaughnessy was held by his coaching colleagues. For a man who had enjoyed only occasional success at Tulane, Loyola of New Orleans and Chicago, he was looked upon as a sort of mad scientist who might yet rule the football world if his experiments could ever be made to work. The notion of hiring such an eccentric was not without appeal at a university that prided itself on innovation.
True, Shaughnessy's Spartan life-style seemed a bit severe for the West Coast. It was his practice to go to bed as early as seven o'clock of an evening and arise, chipper and refreshed, at three or four in the morning, ready for work. To the lasting grief of his subordinates, it was his conviction that they, too, should observe such a regimen. Shaughnessy neither drank nor smoked and looked upon those who did with disfavor. "When he said, 'Let's go have a drink,' he meant, 'Let's go drink a milk shake,' " recalls Marchie Schwartz, Shaughnessy's backfield coach and his successor as head coach. "He disappointed a lot of newspapermen that way."
Shaughnessy proved to be extremely sensitive to criticism, so his relations with the press would never be defined as warm, milk shakes or no. At one meeting of the Northern California Football Writers' Association, he demanded that an offending columnist leave before he would consent to speak. The meeting was abruptly adjourned. At a time when coaches were as much public-relations men as field bosses, Shaughnessy held himself apart; he was an ascetic among hucksters. Roger Treat, the football historian, said of Shaughnessy when he later joined the Bears' staff full time, "I always looked upon Clark Shaughnessy as a conscientious idealist who might better have followed the trail of Father Flanagan of Boys Town. He may never be entirely happy in the jovial thuggery of pro football, where every man has a little assassin in him." "The world," said Coach Bob Zuppke of Illinois, "lost the greatest undertaker when Clark Shaughnessy decided on football coaching."
Shaughnessy was so addicted to theory that he may have looked upon his players more as X's and O's than as flesh and blood. It was a failing that would eventually bring him to grief. He frequently did not recognize friends or acquaintances on the street, so preoccupied was he with the diagrams spinning in his head. When an interviewer asked him, innocently enough, what his hobbies were, Shaughnessy tartly replied, "Hobbies? Why, football is my hobby." Chuck Taylor, Wow Boys guard and later both football coach and athletic director at Stanford, has said he was never certain Shaughnessy knew his name on the field. "He knew my position and everything about it and he knew my jersey number, but my name...I just don't know."
Not only was Shaughnessy's appointment as head coach regarded with suspicion by some influential Stanford alumni organizations but it was also viewed with outright hostility. Their favorite candidates had been Dud DeGroot, an alumnus who was coaching just down the highway at San Jose State, and Buck Shaw, who at equally proximate Santa Clara University had taken two teams to the Sugar Bowl. Why had the university reached so far beyond the fence for a bad apple when it had two plums in its own backyard?
It was even suggested in some quarters that Shaughnessy had been hired to preside over the demise of Stanford football. Had not his previous employers, Loyola and Chicago, both dropped the game? "If the school is really going to deflate football," one alumni chapter cutely advised the Stanford Board of Athletic Control, "then there is no need of assisting in any way the athletes in the fold." The alums were not about to foot the funeral expenses.
For its part, the Bay Area press looked upon Shaughnessy's hiring as an occasion not so much for dirges as high hilarity. Stanford, that pillar of academe, had quite obviously made a fool of itself. Columnists Prescott Sullivan of the San Francisco Examiner and Jack McDonald of the Call Bulletin proposed that since the austere coach apparently had no nickname, he be called, "Soup," the diminutive, they insisted with sledgehammer irony, of "super." Sullivan, cleverest of the local sportswriters, delighted in reminding his readers of Chicago's losing scores in 1939, protesting all the while that doing so was against his principles and in the worst conceivable taste. "We have heard it said," he wrote, "that Shaughnessy has developed the knack of losing to the point where, with him, it is an exact science. In light of his record, we aren't at all surprised at this."
If Shaughnessy was a certified loser, so then were the players he inherited from the benighted Thornhill, a coach who had achieved the heights with the "Vow Boys" Rose Bowl teams of the mid-'30s (so called because they vowed never to lose to USC, which they did not) but who had fallen into disgrace in 1939. Thornhill had reason to believe he was about to receive the Stanford ax when, with his team trailing Dartmouth 3-0 in New York's Polo Grounds, he reluctantly stepped forward to deliver his final half-time address of the 1939 season. It would be, in fact, his last halftime address ever. As he stood before his downcast charges, it occurred to him that words were inadequate to express his displeasure, so he turned to his assistants for succor. They, too, were speechless. Finally, he called upon Bones Hamilton, a star Vow Boys halfback who had traveled with the team for the last game of the season. Hamilton did have something to say: "You are by far and large the worst group of players who have ever worn the Stanford red."
Stung by this depressingly accurate appraisal, the players rallied to score 14 points in the second half and win their only game of the season. Says Tackle John Carl (Jack) Warnecke, now an internationally renowned architect. "That was the making of the 1940 team."
The hero of that solitary victory was a left-handed, 170-pound tailback who had wavered between first and third string all season and who seemed, in fact, to be facing extinction under the grueling demands of the single and double wing formations. Frankie Albert had led Stanford's 1938 freshman team to an undefeated season but he had been inconsistent in his first year with the varsity. Still, of the seven touchdowns Stanford scored in '39, he had passed for four and run for two. As a boy growing up in Glendale, Albert had seen the Vow Boys play in Pasadena and had followed the adventures of USC Scatback Cotton Warburton in the Coliseum. Like Warburton, he insisted upon wearing jersey No. 13, although when he had first reported for football at Glendale High School the coaches could find no uniform, bearing whatever number, small enough to accommodate his 118 pounds. Albert played lightweight football for two years, then, at a strapping 145 pounds, led the varsity to the Southern California high school championship in 1937, his senior year.