Walsh, William ("Bill")

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WALSH, William ("Bill")

(b. 30 November 1931 in Los Angeles, California) college and professional football coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl victories and who is credited as the primary creator of the "West Coast offense."

Walsh, the son of a manual laborer and his homemaker wife, lived in Los Angeles until the family relocated to the East Bay area of San Francisco when he was fifteen. He was an outstanding multisport athlete at Hayward Union High School, from which he graduated in 1949. Walsh attended San Mateo Junior College for two years, then moved to San Jose State University; he graduated in 1954 with an M.A. in physical education. Walsh was a member of the football team at San Jose but played sparingly as quarterback and end due to a succession of injuries. He served a brief stint in the armed forces during the Korean War and married his wife, Geri, in 1955; they had three children.

Walsh's coaching career also began in 1955, when his college coach Bob Bronzan hired him as a graduate assistant. Bronzan later recommended Walsh to his next employer, Washington Union High School in Fremont, California, predicting that someday Walsh "will become the outstanding football coach in the United States." Walsh later identified Bronzan as the person who had most greatly influenced his own development as a coach.

In his two years at Washington Union, Walsh developed an innovative passing offense that enabled the team, which had won only once in the three previous seasons, to win a conference championship. In 1960 he became defensive coordinator at the University of California, Berkeley. Over the next seventeen years Walsh worked with some of the best college coaches of his era, including Marv Levy at California (1960 to 1962), and John Ralston at Stanford (1963 to 1965), where he was defensive and recruiting coordinator. Walsh moved to the professional ranks in 1966 as backfield coach for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders in the National Football League (NFL). After working on his M.B.A. degree at Stanford for a year, which he earned in 1967, Walsh became quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for the legendary coach Paul Brown of an NFL expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Walsh's eight seasons with the Bengals were among the most important in terms of his maturation as a professional coach, but also some of the most frustrating of his career. He developed two All-Pro quarterbacks, Greg Cook and Kenny Anderson, and installed a new offensive system for backup Virgil Carter when Cook was seriously injured. This system would eventually evolve into the "West Coast offense," a philosophy emphasizing quick reads of the defense by the quarterback, intricate crossing patterns involving three to five receivers, precision timing between quarterback and receiver, extensive use of running backs as receivers, and meticulous pregame planning, including the scripting of a game's first twenty-five plays. During Walsh's eight years in Cincinnati, the Bengals made the playoffs three times. By the early 1970s Walsh was widely hailed as a future head coach; at one point Brown even denied him an opportunity to interview with the Houston Oilers, apparently planning to make Walsh his own successor. But when Brown announced his resignation on 1 January 1976, he selected another assistant, Bill Johnson, as his replacement instead. Walsh has refused to speculate publicly about the snub that left him frustrated and embittered, but others have theorized that Brown feared being overshadowed by an innovative successor.

At age forty-five Walsh worried that his coaching career had reached a dead end. Some observers felt that Walsh's cerebral, innovative style intimidated owners; others speculated that owners hesitated to put him in charge because the legendary Brown had passed him over. Walsh joined the San Diego Chargers in 1976 as an assistant coach and helped Dan Fouts develop as a star quarterback while further refining his offensive concepts under head coach Don Coryell. He accepted the head coaching position at Stanford University in 1977, where in two seasons he produced a 17–7 record. At age forty-eight Walsh finally landed a head coaching position in the NFL in 1979, but with the San Francisco 49ers, the worst team in the league. He inherited a San Francisco team with a dismal 2–14 record. The franchise was in total disarray, having had six head coaches in five seasons.

Walsh, who was named head coach, general manager, and president by 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, immediately launched a long-term plan to revitalize the team, beginning with their porous defense. He demonstrated a superb talent for making astute player evaluations, successfully drafting Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Randy Cross, Roger Craig, and Jerry Rice. Bolstered by DeBartolo's willingness to spend vast sums for much-needed talent, Walsh also lured a number of high-profile free agents to San Francisco. In 1979 the 49ers record was once again 2–14, but the team had been revamped and Walsh's system installed. In 1980 the team's record improved to 6–10, even though a promising start was undercut by key injuries. In 1981 the 49ers shocked the sports world with a 13–3 regular season record, including a dramatic, last-minute 28–27 victory in the conference title game over the Dallas Cowboys. Finally, Walsh vindicated himself with a convincing win over the Bengals in the Super Bowl.

Under Walsh, the 49ers became the "Team of the 1980s," winning a second Super Bowl in 1984 by demolishing the Miami Dolphins 34–16, and a third in 1989, defeating the Bengals 20–16 with a dramatic last-minute touchdown drive. Walsh retired after the 1989 Super Bowl with an NFL coaching record of 102–63. Coaching, Walsh said, had become for him "a very stressful occupation." The team that he built, now coached by his longtime defensive assistant George Seifert, won two more Super Bowls in 1990 and 1995.

Walsh spent the 1990–1991 season garnering mixed reviews as an NBC game-day analyst, and in a surprising move, returned to Stanford for a two-year coaching stint in 1992. He rejoined the 49ers in an advisory capacity in 1994, and in 1999 once again became general manager, implementing a top-to-bottom rebuilding program for a team that had fallen on hard times in the era of free agency and salary caps. Walsh retired at the age of seventy in the spring of 2001.

Walsh's reputation as a head coach is often compared to that of Vince Lombardi. He will be remembered for his creation of the "West Coast Offense," his ability as an evaluator of talent, and his success as an administrator in building a solid organizational foundation for his teams.

For insight into Walsh's complex approach to coaching as well as building and managing a professional football team, see his intriguing manual, which he cowrote with Brian Billick and James A. Peterson, Finding the Winning Edge (1998). A biography of Walsh is in Current Biography (1990). Walsh is also the subject of countless articles, including Timothy Nolan, "Walsh's Urgent Creativity," Scholastic Magazine (Jan. 1997); "Back to School," Sports Illustrated (Nov. 1992); and an in-depth interview by Richard Rapaport in which Walsh discusses his ideas on professional football management, "To Build a Winning Team," Harvard Business Review (Jan./Feb. 1993).

Richard O. Daviesm