At the end of his first summer conditioning period in July 2015, Stanford freshman running back Cameron Scarlett took his turn on one end of a 30-foot rope, desperately pulling hand over hand while a group of veteran players pulled back on the other end. He held on for 20 minutes, dropping it only after his teammates decided he’d put up a sufficient fight.

Taking the Rope, as the drill was called, was an annual rite of passage for Cardinal players.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but once you did it, you felt so accomplished,” said Scarlett, now with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers. “That’s how Stanford got to the pinnacle. We pushed ourselves so hard in the offseason that the season was easy.”

That fall, Stanford won its third Pac-12 championship in four years under head coach David Shaw. After taking over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011, Shaw led Stanford to heights never before seen in the program’s history: 11 wins in four of his first five seasons, the school’s first Rose Bowl win since the 1971-72 season and two Heisman Trophy runner-ups in Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love. Along the way, Stanford popularized the phrases “Intellectual Brutality” and “Party in the Backfield” for the rough, rugged way the Cardinal won games. First under Harbaugh, then under Shaw, Stanford had a clear, successful identity.

That feels like a long, long time ago now.

On Saturday night, in a two-thirds empty Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal lost 35-26 to BYU to finish a second consecutive season 3-9. At his postgame news conference, Shaw nonchalantly told a smattering of reporters: “I just informed the team that I just coached my last game at Stanford.” He said he’d arrived at his decision only in the previous days. “This one phrase just kept coming to me: ‘It’s time.’”

There was immediate speculation that Shaw was exiting before the school fired him, but The Athletic spoke with two top administrators in the days leading up to the BYU game and they insisted that the school’s all-time winningest coach was in no danger of being dismissed. Early last week, Shaw met with school president  Marc Tessier-Lavigne and athletic director Bernard Muir about the future of the program. He came back from Thanksgiving and told them he’d decided to step down.

Stanford lost at least eight games in three of Shaw’s last four seasons, fielding one of the nation’s worst rushing offenses and a defense ranked in the 100s for four straight seasons. Former players and staffers described a gradual deterioration of the identity that once made the Cardinal so successful.