Bill Walsh (1931-2007) was one of pro football's most successful and innovative coaches. Walsh, whose ability to pinpoint and develop talent was uncanny, led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl championships and created the “West Coast offense,” which many teams have adopted. “Walsh's general thinking process was so far outside the box, the box was a $30 cab ride away,” Scott Ostler wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.
William Ernest Walsh was born on November 30, 1931, in Los Angeles. His father, a laborer, moved the family around California. Walsh was a running back at Hayward High School, near the San Francisco-Oakland area, but had neither the athleticism nor the grades to obtain a college scholarship. He played quarterback for two seasons at the College of San Mateo and wide receiver at San Jose State, though injuries limited his play. He received his bachelor's degree in 1955; that year he married Geri Nardini of Walnut Creek.
After briefly serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Ord near Monterey, California, Walsh returned to San Jose State as a graduate assistant under Bob Bronzan. According to Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle, Bronzan was so impressed that when Walsh completed his studies for a master's degree in education in 1959, he wrote in Walsh's placement file, “I predict Bill Walsh will become the outstanding football coach in the United States.”
In 1957, Walsh inherited a losing program at Washington Union High School in Fremont and took the school to a 9-1 record and a conference championship. He also drove the team's bus. He spent his next 18 years as an assistant, all the while moving up the ladder. Walsh's first major college job came in 1960 when Marv Levy—who coached the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s— named him defensive coordinator at the University of California. In 1963 Stanford hired him as an administrative assistant, recruiting coordinator, and defensive backfield coach.
Began as Professional Assistant
In 1966 Walsh took on his first pro football job, as an offensive backfield coach with the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League (AFL). (The upstart AFL merged into the National Football League [NFL] in 1970). He spent two seasons in Oakland, working Super Bowl II as the Raiders lost to the Green Bay Packers. Walsh later credited Raiders' owner Al Davis, a maverick thinker who micromanaged his coaches, as one of his mentors.
Paul Brown, a renowned innovator who had coached the Cleveland Browns to three NFL titles in the 1950s and before that, four in the since-defunct All-American Football Conference, hired Walsh in 1968 as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the expansion Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh implemented an offense designed to compensate for the Bengals' lack of talent, and essentially planted the seed of the West Coast offense. It consisted primarily of passes so short they were effectively extended handoffs; runners, meanwhile, approached the line in slants rather than straight ahead.
“We couldn't control the football with the run; [opposing] teams were just too strong. So it had to be the forward pass, and obviously it had to be a high-percentage, short, controlled passing game,” Walsh told FitzGerald. “The old-line NFL people called it a nickel-and-dime offense. They, in a sense, had disregard and contempt for it, but whenever they played with us, they had to deal with it.”
Became the Face of 49ers
Walsh left the Bengals when Brown, who gave up coaching to become team president full-time, bypassed him for the head job for another assistant, Bill Johnson. Walsh became a San Diego Chargers assistant in 1976 and returned to college football as head coach at Stanford University in 1977 and 1978. He led the Cardinal to a 17-7 record over those two seasons and victories in the Sun and Bluebonnet bowls.
After the 1978 season, meanwhile, 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. purged coaching and front-office personnel. San Francisco struggled to a 2-14 record in 1978, its fifth losing season in six years. In came Walsh, and three years later the 49ers won their first Super Bowl. “It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent sports history,” FitzGerald wrote. The road there, however, was rocky for Walsh, who almost quit to pursue management, as San Francisco recorded another 2-14 record his first year there. The 49ers, though, improved to 6-10 in 1980, and pulled off the biggest comeback in NFL history, overcoming a 35-7 halftime deficit to defeat the New Orleans Saints at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, 38-35.
Things fell into place in 1981, after the 49ers lost two of their first three games. They went 15-1 the rest of the way, and reached the Super Bowl with an enthralling 28-27 comeback victory at Candlestick over the Dallas Cowboys. The winning touchdown pass came with 51 seconds remaining, on what San Franciscans called “The Catch,” Dwight Clark's gravity-defying snare of Joe Montana's sixyard pass under heavy pressure. In Super Bowl XVI at Pontiac, Michigan, in January of 1982, the 49ers defeated Walsh's former team, Cincinnati, 26-21, largely on a goal line stand in the second half with San Francisco up 19-7. San Francisco would win two more Super Bowls under Walsh—following the 1984 and 1988 seasons—defeating the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati, respectively.
Professorial, Yet Brutally Competitive
The 49ers, long an afterthought in their own city, became one of the most visible pro franchises under Walsh. “It was the Walsh-Eddie DeBartolo relationship that sealed the deal,” Mark Kreidler said on the ESPN.com Web site. “It was that relationship, with the brash young owner hiring the utterly self-confident coach—a hiring settled over a bottle of wine at a landmark San Francisco hotel—that altered the fortunes of a franchise for nearly a quarter century.”
Walsh's methods included a professorial exterior that earned him the moniker “The Genius,” and differed sharply from those of his peers. The exterior masked his fiercely competitive side, however. “He handled NFL drafts adeptly and polished his management style by studying the leadership of Civil War and World War II generals,” FitzGerald wrote. “When it came to cutting veteran players whom [sic] he thought were on the way downhill, he could be ruthless.”
He assembled a team that included Montana, a quarterback who had led Notre Dame to a comeback victory in the 1979 Cotton Bowl after the Fighting Irish trailed the University of Houston by 22 points with eight minutes remaining. Montana had 31 fourth-quarter comebacks as a pro, including Super Bowl XXIII, Walsh's last. He led the 49ers to a 92-yard drive in the final 3:20, and fired the winning pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left in a 20-16 win over the Bengals.
Walsh's short passing game put the ball into the hands of such speedy receivers as Jerry Rice and Freddy Solomon, and opened up the running game for the likes of Roger Craig. The underrated defense featured hard hitters such as linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and defensive back Ronnie Lott. Walsh scripted the game's first 25 plays, freeing players of decision making under extreme game-day stress. “His coaching style called for singular authority,” Nancy Gay wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The head coach, he believed, was the pre-eminent power broker. And the ultimate fall guy, if things went sour.” Walsh's 1984 team lost only once in 19 games, and shredded Miami 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX in Palo Alto, California, on Walsh's old Stanford field.
Fred VonAppe, who coached under Walsh with the 49ers and Stanford, told FitzGerald: “He's a complex man, somewhat of an enigma. I gave up trying to understand him a long time ago. In a way he has the kind of personality that creates a love-hate relationship.” Walsh did exhibit a wacky side, even in serious moments. He dressed as a bellboy when the team checked into the Pontiac hotel for Super Bowl XVI—one player did not recognize the coach and got into a tug of war over his bags. He also had his assistant coaches dress up as a hooker, pimp, and drug dealer in an effort to steer his players away from narcotics.
Walsh also launched the Minority Coaches Fellowship program designed to open up coaching opportunities for minorities. Art Shell became the first black NFL coach in the modern era, taking over the Raiders in 1989. “Walsh noticed that being colorblind meant being blind to the fact that all the colors were white,” Ostler wrote.
Quit after Super Bowl Victory
Disappointment and bitterness intermingled, despite the three championships and a 102-63-1 record at San Francisco. Drug problems beset the 49ers during a strike-truncated 1982 season that followed the first title, and the 49ers missed the playoffs altogether. In 1983 San Francisco rallied from a 21-0 hole in the National Football Conference title game at Washington, only to lose to the Redskins 24-21 on some calls late in the game that Walsh considered questionable. And after the 49ers lost their only playoff game in 1987, at home, despite having sported the league's best record, DeBartolo stripped Walsh of his title as team president.
Tired of DeBartolo's ways, Walsh quit as coach after the 1988 season, breaking into tears in the dressing room after that Super Bowl victory. He gave up his vice presidency in the organization to announce games on the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) with Dick Enberg. Walsh, though normally glib, sounded tentative in the booth. Walsh returned to Stanford and coached the Cardinal from 1992 through 1994. In his first year of the comeback, the Cardinal won ten of 13 games, defeating Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl. It prompted ESPN analyst Beano Cook to say, as quoted by FitzGerald, “If Walsh was a general, he would be able to overrun Europe with the army from Sweden.”
In his later years Walsh served as a consultant and was a frequent public speaker. He returned to the 49ers in that capacity in 1996 and then became the team's general manager, but found the organization in shambles amid a revolving-door management and a federal investigation of DeBartolo's application for a riverboat casino license in Louisiana. He surrendered the general manager's title to Terry Donahue in 2001. Tragedy struck Walsh around the turn of the decade; his wife, Geri, was recovering from a massive stroke she suffered in 1998; his mother died in 2002; and his son, Steve, a radio announcer for KGO in the Bay Area, died at age 46 of leukemia.
He returned to Stanford yet again in 2004 to assist athletic director Ted Leland on special projects and fundraising. As interim athletic director, he oversaw the rebuilding of Stanford Stadium, which was completed in 2006. Later that year he resigned as athletic director.
Coaching Tree Extended Far, Wide
Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and died on July 30, 2007. “For me, personally, outside of my dad, he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him,” Montana, a Hall of Famer, told the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers in an article published in the Seattle Times.
The “coaching tree,” assistants who became successful head coaches on their own, included George Seifert, who succeeded Walsh in San Francisco; Mike Holmgren, who led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl championship; and Dennis Green, who became one the league's few minority coaches when he took over the Minnesota Vikings. In addition, several NFL coaches use Walsh's trademark West Coast offense.
John Madden, a longtime network announcer who coached the Oakland Raiders to the 1977 Super Bowl title, said of Walsh, as quoted in the Seattle Times, “Bill's legacy is going to be that he changed offense. What offense is today is what Bill Walsh was. Offense before Bill Walsh was … run on first down, run on second down, and if that doesn't work, pass on third down. Bill Walsh passed on first down, passed on second down and used that to set up the run.”
“Bill Walsh, 1931-2007: Coach Was Called ‘The Genius,’ ”Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/seahawks/2003813728_walsh31.html (October 25, 2007).
“Bill Walsh, 1931-2007: Important Dates in the Life and Times of the 49ers Coach,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/seahawks/2003813728_walsh31.html (October 25, 2007).
“Bill Walsh Was More than Just a Coach,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/2007-08-02-4240183605_x.htm (October 25, 2007).
“Former 49er Head Coach Bill Walsh Dies,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/30/BAG57LR8OK21.DTL (October 25, 2007).
“Top of the Line: A Legacy Likely to Go Unmatched,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/31/SP6TRA0KU2.DTL&hw=Top+of+the+line+Bill+Walsh&sn=010&sc=441 (October 25, 2007).
“Top of the Line: Weird Ways and Times of a Football Icon,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/31/SP6TRA0KT3.DTL (October 25, 2007).
“Walsh a Treasure in Bay Area,” ESPN.com, http://www.sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=kreidler_mark&id=2954718 (October 25, 2007).