Walsh, William Ernest
William Ernest Walsh
PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL COACH
Bill Walsh was the coaching genius behind the successes of the San Francisco 49ers football team during the 1980s. Walsh combined technological advances such as computer assisted play development to script an entire game, with his deep understanding of how to maximize effectiveness of the most important offensive player, the quarterback. These innovations were a part of the style of play pioneered by Walsh later known as the West Coast offence.
Like many successful coaches in any sport, Bill Walsh was a good but not outstanding athlete in his own competitive athletic career. As a high school and as a college quarterback, he was never regarded as a professional football prospect, and Walsh, a realist, secured his university degree in physical education.
Bill Walsh was one of the many successful NFL head coaches who served a lengthy and somewhat tortured apprenticeship before landing his desired place. Walsh began his coaching career at Monterey Peninsula College in 1959, an otherwise undistinguished California junior college program. He served in a succession of NFL assistant coaching positions before being named head coach at prestigious Stanford University.
Walsh had been pegged as a specialist assistant coach as a result of his work with various NFL quarterbacks, particularly as a result of his coaching with the Cincinnati Bengals staff. In Cincinnati, Walsh had the opportunity to serve under one of the greatest minds to ever coach in football at any level, Paul Brown. Walsh stayed in Cincinnati hoping to be appointed head coach there when Brown retired in 1975; he was passed over and Walsh was bitterly disappointed with the NFL, prompting his search for a suitable college head coach position.
Walsh's acceptance of the head coaching position at Stanford was an important bridge in his ultimate NFL success. Stanford was a major college program in the Pacific Athletic Conference that had fallen on difficult times in its football program. Walsh served for two successful years at Stanford, commencing in 1977. Walsh guided a previously lackluster Stanford team to a 9-3 season in 1977 and an 8-4 season in 1978. He also won the 1977 Sun Bowl and the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl, further endearing him to the Stanford administration. Walsh was in a position to remain for an extended tenure at Stanford.
Walsh moved into the NFL with San Francisco in 1979, in the dual capacity of coach and general manager. Walsh's reputation in NFL circles as developed from his various assistant coaching stints around the league was that Walsh possessed a highly developed intelligence for football, that he was a thinker and a teacher, qualities that were not always held in high regard in the fast paced, results driven world of NFL football. Walsh had one advantage inherent in this new coaching position—the 49ers had been so bad for so long that very little was expected of Walsh.
The installation of Walsh as the head coach coincided with the most fortuitous player event in the history of the 49er organization, the arrival of future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. Walsh began to assemble players who complimented Montana's controlled but aggressive quarterbacking style, and by 1981, Walsh had built the first of his three Super Bowl champions. His 49ers were a threat to win every year, and the subsequent Super Bowl victories in 1985 and 1989 cemented Walsh's reputation as one of the NFL's greatest coaches.
The West Coast offence implemented by Walsh at San Francisco has been imitated by many coaches and teams in subsequent years, at both the NFL and collegiate levels. Walsh, using first Montana and later Steve Young at quarterback, endeavored to control the ball with a short, precision passing game where the quarterback was given specific options once the ball was in play; both Montana and Young, Hall of Fame performers, were brilliant in this role. Walsh employed computer technology to assist in the breakdown of an opponent's defensive tendencies. Once the tendencies were determined Walsh endeavored to ensure that his quarterback had defined options available on every play. With pre-determined options, Walsh could limit the risks of the quarterback being sacked or otherwise forced into a decision that was not supported by the game plan.
Walsh purported to retire from football in 1989, the highest paid coach in the history of the NFL. He returned to the head coach position at Stanford in 1992 for two seasons. Walsh rejoined the 49ers as the club's General Manager from 1999 to 2001, without achieving the same level of success as he did as a coach.
Walsh was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.