Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty and the popular West Coast offense, died today at 75 after a lengthy battle with Leukemia.
Walsh was 102-63-1 in 10 seasons with the 49ers, including 10-4 in the postseason. But his impact on pro football went well beyond the 49ers and that prolific offense.
Just a couple of months ago, Walsh was enjoying a sandwich and white wine on the patio behind his home, lunching with two sportswriters he has known for many years.
Walsh’s meal was interrupted repeatedly, because his cell phone rang constantly. There were coaches looking for job recommendations, former players, friends, golfing partners or associates from Stanford University, where Walsh worked in recent years.
Even in his twilight years, news of his fight with leukemia no longer a secret, Walsh remained a kingmaker. Nearly 20 years after he coached his final game for the San Francisco 49ers, his influence in the NFL remains strong.
In fact, over the last three decades, including the final quarter of the 20th century, it is quite likely there was not a more significant figure in pro football than Walsh.
His fingerprints are all over today’s NFL. Perhaps his West Coast offense has waned in influence in recent years, but at least a version of it can be found in just about every team’s playbook, and the organizational structure that he created with the 49ers remains the model for most teams in the league.
Walsh’s training camp and practice regimen, which emphasized classroom work and lighter drills than was normal for teams at the time, is now standard practice around the NFL.
And it’s not stretching a point to say the last Super Bowl, which featured the first two African American coaches ever to reach that game, also was a tribute to Walsh’s forward thinking; he was years ahead of the league in recognizing and promoting minority coaches.
Before there was a single black head coach in the NFL, Walsh created a minority fellowship program that brought black coaches to training camps to speed their development. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis was one of the first to go through the program. Tony Dungy, coach of the champion Indianapolis Colts, once played for Walsh in San Francisco.
Walsh, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, coached for only 10 years in the NFL, taking over a down-at-the-heels franchise and transforming it into the team of the decade, if not it’s own era. But even after he left the 49ers, following his third Super Bowl victory at the end of the 1988 season, he never was far away from the league.
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue called on Walsh for several projects, many involving minority coaches and executives. And the 49ers, whenever they had a problem, called on Walsh, too. He turned the team down once and returned two other times, first as a special assistant to the coaching staff for a year in 1996 and later as club president in 1999 following the departure of Carmen Policy to the expansion Cleveland Browns.
There was also a brief turn in broadcasting at NBC and a second run as head coach at Stanford where, more recently, Walsh was the acting athletic director.
As a head coach, Walsh’s strengths were his offensive ingenuity and his foresight. He was a master coach and strategist, but many in the league thought him even better at personnel judgment. Ernie Accorsi, a general manager with three NFL teams and recently retired from the New York Giants, once observed that Walsh would have been a great general manager even if he never coached a single game.
In 1979, Walsh took over a 49ers franchise that was depleted of draft choices following a massive and foolish trade for O.J. Simpson and he built it into a Super Bowl winner in three years. Then he was continually able to re-stock during an era when the draft was the only significant method of adding players.
He developed Joe Montana, a third-round draft choice, into a Hall of Fame quarterback. That came after he helped develop quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Dan Fouts as an assistant coach with Cincinnati and San Diego.
An even stronger sign of Walsh’s vision was his work with Steve Young, also a Hall of Fame quarterback. Hardly anyone in the NFL thought Young would be a capable quarterback in the league, except Walsh. He traded with Tampa Bay for Young and, of course, eventually was proven correct. Young, of course, is in the Hall of Fame along with Walsh, Montana and Fouts.
In 1985, with the 49ers drafting last after winning their second Super Bowl, Walsh traded the final pick of the first round and two later choices to the New England Patriots to move up to the middle of the round. There, he drafted a wide receiver deemed too slow by many scouts. Jerry Rice, of course, developed into arguably the greatest player in NFL history.
A year later, going into the draft without a first-round pick, Walsh made a half-dozen draft-day trades that gave the 49ers additional choices. Then he used them wisely, drafting eight players who ultimately started for San Francisco’s Super Bowl-winning teams in 1988-89 and also coming away with an additional first-round pick for 1987.
Walsh left a loaded franchise for his successor, George Seifert, to win a Super Bowl in the 1989 season, Seifert’s first year as the 49ers’ coach. And while many of the key pieces were replaced in subsequent years, the 49ers remained strong until Young suffered a career-ending injury in 1998.
His offensive concepts were ahead of their time, essentially replacing a lot of running plays with short passes. This earned Walsh a reputation as a finesse coach but, in fact, he believed in physical football at the right time. At the time he took over the 49ers, the general wisdom in the league held that it was necessary to run to set up the pass. Walsh turned that on its head. He believed in passing to set up the run, to get ahead early and then wear an opponent down with a second-half rushing game.
Along with that, he considered the importance of the pass-rushing specialist to be vital, particularly in the fourth quarter to protect a lead. Early in the 1981 season, he traded with San Diego for defensive end Fred Dean, a superlative pass-rusher who was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Chargers.
Dean, who made 7.5 sacks in his first three games with San Francisco, proved to be the final piece of the 49er championship team.
Walsh ruled the 49ers with a strong hand, but he always encouraged his assistant coaches and personnel department executives to voice strong opinions. Ultimately, he would have the final say, but he wanted to hear everyone’s opinions.
He also knew how to present a gruff demeanor to outsiders when he wanted to deflect the pressure off the players, such as a time during the 1981 season, San Francisco’s first championship year, when he went on a tirade because ABC, which then televised Monday night games, failed to include the surprising 49ers among their highlights package.
Better known was Walsh’s sense of humor. He was a regular presence in the locker room, around the players, and he knew when they needed to be kept loose. One well-known story occurred when the 49ers arrived in Detroit for their first Super Bowl appearance; Walsh, who had flown ahead of the team to attend an awards banquet, borrowed a uniform from a bellman and met the team at the hotel. He disguised himself so well that he actually got into a tug of war with Montana, who did not want to yield his briefcase.
A week later, when the team’s bus to the Super Bowl was trapped by traffic on a snowy road, Walsh managed to keep his players loose by cracking jokes while they fretted frantically over when they’d arrive at the Silverdome. They got there late, as it turned out, but ready.
Walsh didn’t just keep his eye on the field or the sidelines. He helped set up a program at the Stanford University business school to train budding football executives and he authored, with Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, a lengthy tome that in essence is a primer on how to put an organization together.
Billick, a 49ers draft choice who actually got his start with the team as a public relations assistant, is just one of a large group of NFL head coaches who worked under Walsh. This group includes Super Bowl winners Seifert and Mike Holmgren, whose first NFL job was as Walsh’s quarterbacks coach. Sam Wyche, who coached Cincinnati to its last AFC title in 1988 and its last winning season before Lewis, also coached under Walsh. Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet were also among future head coaches on Walsh’s San Francisco staffs.
Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher, Pete Carroll, Jim Mora Jr. and Gary Kubiak all were San Francisco assistant coaches under one of Walsh’s successors before going to success elsewhere.
Although he chose football, Walsh would have been an intriguing personality no matter what he did. He was always fascinating, a master of surprise who managed the neat trick of keeping his distance while keeping close.
He could be, alternately, thin-skinned and self-deprecating. He usually managed to turn press conferences around so he could discuss whatever he wanted to discuss. He was a master of creative tension and even occasionally, invented phony enemies for his team.
Once, during the 1981 season, Walsh posted billboards around the locker room with quotes, negative of course, allegedly from coach Sam Rutigliano of Cleveland, that week’s opponent. The quotes were made up but were designed to aggravate the 49ers. The tactic backfired; the 49ers lost that week, but it was their final loss of the season. They then won their final five regular-season games and three in the playoffs on the way to capturing the Super Bowl XVI championship.
Other Walsh targets included the so-called “New York media elite”, in fact, the media in general. He loved to start a sentence with something like, “Everyone said we couldn’t do this,” or some such phrase.
Yet there was also a raging insecurity about Walsh, perhaps justified because Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers owner, was such a mercurial figure.
Walsh sometimes was not sure people recognized him. Once, at Pebble Beach, he introduced himself to Jack Nicklaus by saying, “Hi, I’m Bill Walsh. Of course, Nicklaus, a big football fan, knew exactly who was Walsh was. Eventually, everybody did.
Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is the national columnist for The Sports Xchange.