Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Early in his coaching tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, before he turned a long-suffering franchise into the greatest organization in professional sports, Bill Walsh once cut a player on the practice field.
Enraged by a cheap shot, Walsh fired the player -- who, to be fair, was not one of the team's major contributors -- right there on the spot, ordering a member of the security staff to escort him out of the building. To underscore his point, Walsh trailed behind as the two men trudged toward the locker room, screaming, "Don't even let him f----- shower!"
This was Walsh, who died today at 75 after a long bout with leukemia, at his most ruthless. Yet there was a calculated brilliance behind his brashness: After he took over in 1979, no Niner dared cross the new man in charge.
Nearly a decade later, as he was losing his grip after having completed the most impressive NFL coaching run since Vince Lombardi's in Green Bay, Walsh sometimes directed his enmity toward members of the local media. He was equal parts paranoid and condescending, and when he stepped down following his third Super Bowl title in January 1989, there wasn't a whole lot of sentimental sadness in either the press room or the locker room.
A few months later, I began covering the team as a beat writer for a Northern California paper, and the horror stories about Walsh's final days circulated with abandon. But he and I hit it off from the start, and over the next 17-plus years, whether I sought his opinion as a television analyst, as the progenitor of an offensive philosophy and unmatched tree of executive and coaching excellence, as a reinstalled Stanford mentor who'd just toyed with Joe Paterno, or a personnel guru who temporarily brought the 49ers back to prominence, he was invariably wise, witty and kind.
When people would ask about my relationship with the white-haired legend, I used to respond jokingly -- well, maybe half-jokingly -- that he and I bonded based on our shared belief of an unassailable tenet: Bill Walsh was a genius.
It wasn't that far from the truth. Growing up in L.A. as an oft-humiliated fan of the hometown Rams' chief rivals, I spent my high-school years watching in awe as Walsh transformed a 49ers team that went 2-14 his first year and 6-10 his second into a first-time champion in his third.
Because of Walsh, the franchise of a thousand choke jobs was now led by a cool, magical quarterback named Joe Montana, whose passes were as picturesque as the Golden Gate Bridge in heavy fog.
Because of Walsh, a group of young hellions led by Ronnie Lott took over a malleable defense that suddenly played with dash and defiance.
Because of Walsh and his innovative offensive schemes, receivers were five yards open, a 10th-round draft pick named Dwight Clark would become an All-Pro and Bay Area legend, and a washed-up running back named Lenvil Elliott would gain many of the key yards on the dramatic drive that produced The Catch.
On a more personal level, because of Walsh, I could wear my ratty, way-too-small 49ers jersey to school on Jan. 11, 1982, and for the first time in my life no one would dare laugh.
So, yes, after I started covering the Niners and thus stopped loving them like a gushy teenager, I was predisposed to think pretty highly of Walsh. But the more I learned of him -- and from him -- the greater my appreciation became.
In an era in which many head coaches callously prohibit their assistants from talking to the media (and, by extension, hurt their profiles and potential for attracting the interests of other employers), Walsh did the opposite, vigorously promoting the virtues of the coaches who worked under him through the press and back-channel diplomacy. This was especially true when it came to minority coaching candidates. Indeed, undoing racial injustices when it came to such hires remained one of Walsh's primary causes long after he stepped away.
Remember that in early January 1989, shortly before Walsh resigned as the Niners' coach, his receivers coach, Denny Green, got the Stanford job -- largely on the strength of his boss's recommendation. Walsh's reaction in the midst of a tense playoff drive? He essentially allowed Green to become the Cardinal's fulltime coach while filling in with the Niners whenever time allowed.
It's not surprising that, unlike Jimmy Johnson and other successful NFL head coaches whose assistants turned out to be substandard bosses, Walsh saw his legacy carried on directly (George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Green) and indirectly (Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden). It was Walsh, after all, who not only revolutionized football strategy with the West Coast Offense, but who also created the organizational blueprint for the modern franchise, from the down-to-the-precise-minute daily schedule to the filming of practices and play-installation meetings.
Give me an hour, and I can go on and on about the other areas in which Walsh made a lasting impact, including his insistence on cutting prominent players a year before their decline, rather than after it, all things being equal. Critics might call this another example of his ruthlessness, and some victims of the policy, such as Clark, would hold a longtime grudge.
But if you paid attention to the 49ers, you eventually understood that Walsh knew best, for he -- more than even Lott or Montana or Jerry Rice or owner Eddie DeBartolo -- was the man most responsible for the franchise's unprecedented run of excellence that included five Super Bowl championships in 14 years.
Manipulative as he might have been -- like all great coaches, really -- Walsh boldly strove for excellence and wasn't averse to risking everything while doing so. Every move he made was meant to create or sustain a dynasty, from the 1987 trade for Steve Young, that triggered a years-long quarterback controversy, to his persuading of Montana, Clark and other veterans not to cross the picket line during the '87 players' strike for fear of the damage to team chemistry it might cause (they nonetheless returned the following week).
As that strike reminded us, Walsh was a tactician whose brilliance shone behind-the-scenes and, most glaringly, on Sundays in front of a rapt, football-watching nation.
Playing his first game with replacement players against the Bill Parcells-coached Giants on Monday Night Football, Walsh, during interviews with the New York media, made a big deal about the presence on the roster of backup quarterback Mark Stevens, who'd run the option in college. Stevens, Walsh suggested, might be inserted in specific situations in which the Phony Niners could utilize his speed and running ability.
Sure enough, before a short-yardage play near midfield, Stevens came sprinting into the huddle, and everyone waited to see Walsh unveil his new toy. The bait successfully lowered, Stevens took the snap, faked a handoff, dropped back in the pocket and calmly delivered a touchdown pass to a wide-open receiver.
On one level, the whole thing was kind of coldblooded. It was also funny and sublime and, yes, genius. That was Bill Walsh, and those of us who got to observe him up close will remember him that way until we, too, are told to disappear without showering.
I only met Coach Walsh three times, and on every occasion he always referred to me as "Lenny" rather than "Zennie" but he never refused to take time to talk to me about his system, and I was into the details of it, like the "hitch step" for example, which is simply the extra step a QB takes just before throwing, and the concept of throwing without a hitch step, which is hard as hell to do -- try it yourself.
The point is that he would always share.
But what really rankled me -- and still does today -- is how many people, reporters, incorrectly describe "The Walsh System." It's always "short, ball control" and left at that.
That's so wrong.
Yes, that was a part of it. But man, that wasn't even the difference. It was the way of thinking.
To illustrate how different Coach Walsh's system was, let me compare it to the Dallas Cowboys passing game concept under Coach Tom Landry.
The Cowboys were known for passing plays that essentially "pulled" a defense into a particular direction and then took advantage of how the defense deployed itself as a result.
For example, one of the most successful plays the Cowboys ran in the 70s -- when Walsh was developing his ideas -- came out of split backs or "Red or Green Formation." The Flanker went in half motion toward the tight-end, and then
released at the snap of the ball.
The play started as a "sweep" running play, with both guards pulling, the fullback lead blocking and the halfback running. Then the QB would fake a handoff to the halfback, and then look down field.
The Flanker who went in motion toward the tight end then ran a crossing pattern 15 - 20 yards. Meanwhile the Split End ran a kind of "mirror" crossing pattern. The offensive play caused both safeties in a standard Cover Two -- which is what the Pittsburgh Steelers played at the time -- to essentially go deep and move wider apart, leaving the Flanker all alone on the crossing route.
That play worked in Super Bowl X, where Drew Pearson caught a 47-yard touchdown pass. But it failed to work later in the same game because Steelers safety Mike Wagner didn't move deep. When Split End Doug Donley ran his crossing pattern, Wagner stayed home rather than move deep or follow him.
The result was an interception, which surprised Dallas QB Roger Staubach -- "It was the first time it didn't work" Staubach remarked later.
Well, let's think about it. That play was designed to throw to one -- and only one -- receiver, the Flanker. The Split End was a decoy and the tight end wasn't even a factor in the play -- the running backs were strictly used for run fakes and then forgotten about.
Coach Walsh's offense didn't have so many decoys. And in his offense, there was always another receiver to go to. It was flexible, which was new at the time. It was so new that Paul Hackett, who was Coach Walsh's QB coach and passing game student, was hired as Offensive Coordinator by the Cowboys under Landry in '83 I believe. It didn't work out because Hackett's learned idea of flexibility conflicted with the "fixed" philosophy Landry held. So Landry was an example of many
coaches who didn't "get" what Bill was doing at the time.
How would Coach Walsh have changed that play? Ha. The fullback that is the lead blocker would have ran an "up" pattern off the run block fake. The Halfback would have ran a swing pattern after the sweep fake.
The Flanker's crossing pattern would remain. The Split End would have ran a fly pattern. So the order of recever progression would have been 1) Split End, 2) Flanker, 3) Fullback, 4) Halfback (hot receiver). The key read would have been the weak (free) safety. The Split End was essentially clearing out for the Flanker, who was clearing out for the fullback.
That's not just an example of how Coach Walsh would have done it, it's an example of how his way is so basic and logical that it can be shown to a guy like me, and I can repeat it with confidence.
That's a pure tribute to the man.
But what I will most miss, Ray, is Coach Walsh as a member of the Bay Area sports community -- don't forget the impact he had on the Big Game rivalry.
You know, we're blessed to be around so many great people in one area of America. What a sad day. I was at JFK Airport in New York when I got the news Monday. The plane ride home -- from CNN -- was hard, so very hard. Reading Coach Dungy's book "Quiet Strength" helped some -- a good book by a great man who -- as one might expect -- was touched
by Coach Walsh.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh dies
NFL.com wire reports
SAN FRANCISCO (July 30, 2007) -- Bill Walsh, the groundbreaking football coach who won three Super Bowls and perfected the ingenious schemes that became known as the West Coast offense during a Hall of Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers, has died. He was 75.
Walsh died at his Woodside home following a long battle with leukemia, according to Stanford University, where he served as coach and athletic director.
"This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers," said Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the player most closely linked to Walsh's tenure with the team. "For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him."
Walsh didn't become an NFL head coach until 47, and he spent just 10 seasons on the San Francisco sideline. But he left an indelible mark on the United States' most popular sport, building the once-woebegone 49ers into the most successful team of the 1980s with his innovative offensive strategies and teaching techniques.
The soft-spoken native Californian also produced a legion of coaching disciples that's still growing today. Many of his former assistants went on to lead their own teams, handing down Walsh's methods and schemes to dozens more coaches in a tree with innumerable branches.
Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles. He was named the NFL's coach of the year in 1981 and 1984.
Few men did more to shape the look of football into the 21st century. His cerebral nature and often-brilliant stratagems earned him the nickname "The Genius" well before his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Walsh twice served as the 49ers' general manager, and George Seifert led San Francisco to two more Super Bowl titles after Walsh left the sideline. Walsh also coached Stanford during two terms over five seasons.
Bill Walsh turned the struggling 49ers into the Team of the '80s.
Even a short list of Walsh's adherents is stunning. Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh's San Francisco staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. Most of his former assistants passed on Walsh's structures and strategies to a new generation of coaches, including Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher.
Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program in 1987, helping minority coaches to get a foothold in a previously lily-white profession. Marvin Lewis and Tyrone Willingham are among the coaches who went through the program, later adopted as a league-wide initiative.
He also helped to establish the World League of American Football -- what was NFL Europe -- in 1994, taking the sport around the globe as a development ground for the NFL.
Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and underwent months of treatment and blood transfusions. He publicly disclosed his illness in November 2006, but appeared at a tribute for retired receiver Jerry Rice two weeks later.
While Walsh recuperated from a round of chemotherapy in late 2006, he received visits from former players and assistant coaches, as well as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Born William Ernest Walsh on Nov. 30, 1931 in Los Angeles, he was a self-described "average" end and a sometime boxer at San Jose State in 1952-53.
Walsh, whose family moved to the Bay Area when he was a teen-ager, married his college sweetheart, Geri Nardini, in 1954 and started his coaching career at Washington High School in Fremont, leading the football and swim teams.
Walsh was coaching in Fremont when he interviewed for an assistant coaching position with Levy, who had just been hired as the head coach at California.
"I was very impressed, individually, by his knowledge, by his intelligence, by his personality and hired him," Levy said.
After Cal, he did a stint at Stanford before beginning his pro coaching career as an assistant with the AFL's Oakland Raiders in 1966, forging a friendship with Al Davis that endured through decades of rivalry. Walsh joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 to work for legendary coach Paul Brown, who gradually gave complete control of the Bengals' offense to his assistant.
Walsh built a scheme based on the teachings of Davis, Brown and Sid Gillman -- and Walsh's own innovations, which included everything from short dropbacks and novel receiving routes to constant repetition of every play in practice.
Though it originated in Cincinnati, it became known many years later as the West Coast offense -- a name Walsh never liked or repeated, but which eventually grew to encompass his offensive philosophy and the many tweaks added by Holmgren, Shanahan and other coaches.
Much of the NFL eventually ran a version of the West Coast in the 1990s, with its fundamental belief that the passing game can set up an effective running attack, rather than the opposite conventional wisdom.
Walsh also is widely credited with inventing or popularizing many of the modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of plays held by coaches on almost every sideline, to the practice of scripting the first 15 offensive plays of a game.
After a bitter falling-out with Brown in 1976, Walsh left for stints with the San Diego Chargers and Stanford before the 49ers chose him to rebuild the franchise in 1979.
The long-suffering 49ers went 2-14 before Walsh's arrival. They repeated the record in his first season. Walsh doubted his abilities to turn around such a miserable situation -- but earlier in 1979, the 49ers drafted quarterback Joe Montana from Notre Dame.
Walsh turned over the starting job to Montana in 1980, when the 49ers improved to 6-10 -- and improbably, San Francisco won its first championship in 1981, only two years after winning two games.
Championships followed in the postseasons of 1984 and 1988 as Walsh built a consistent winner and became an icon with his inventive offense and thinking-man's approach to the game. He also showed considerable acumen in personnel, adding Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Roger Craig and Rice to his rosters after he was named the 49ers' general manager in 1982 and the president in 1985.
Walsh left the 49ers with a profound case of burnout after his third Super Bowl victory in January 1989, though he later regretted not coaching longer.
He spent three years as a broadcaster with NBC before returning to Stanford for three seasons. He then took charge of the 49ers' front office in 1999, helping to rebuild the roster over three seasons. But Walsh gradually cut ties with the 49ers after his hand-picked successor as GM, Terry Donahue, took over in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, Geri, and two children, Craig and Elizabeth.
Walsh's son, Steve, an ABC News reporter, died of leukemia at age 46 in 2002.