07.30.07 Bill Walsh Died At
The Age Of 75
Bill Walsh (American
football coach) - Wikipedia
Former 49er head coach Bill
Tom FitzGerald, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007
(07-30) 16:47 PDT -- Bill Walsh, the imaginative and
charismatic coach who took over a downtrodden 49ers team
and built one of the greatest franchises in NFL history,
died Monday morning at his home in Woodside at the age
of 75, after a three-year struggle with leukemia.
A master of using short, precisely timed passes to
control the ball in what became known as the West Coast
offense, he guided the team to three Super Bowl
championships and six NFC West division titles in his 10
years as head coach.
It took far more than an innovative offense for Walsh to
become one of the most revered figures in Bay Area
sports. He handled NFL drafts adeptly and polished his
management style by studying the leadership of Civil War
and World War II generals. When it came to cutting
veteran players whom he thought were on the way
downhill, he could be ruthless.
The 49ers had been wrecked by mismanagement and unwise
personnel decisions under former general manager Joe
Thomas when owner Ed DeBartolo Jr. cleaned house in
1979. Walsh, who had led Stanford to two bowl victories
in two seasons as head coach, took a 49ers team that had
finished 2-14 in 1978 and built a Super Bowl champion in
three years. It was one of the most remarkable
turnarounds in professional sports history.
His teams would win two more Super Bowls (following the
1984 and 1988 seasons) before he turned the team over to
George Seifert, who directed the 49ers to two more
championships ('89 and '94). Walsh set the foundation
for an unprecedented streak in the NFL of 16 consecutive
seasons with at least 10 wins.
He had a knack for spotting talent and then developing
that talent to its fullest. His touch was particularly
deft when it came to quarterbacks. He drafted Joe
Montana in the third round in 1979 and acquired Steve
Young, then a backup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in
1987 for second- and fourth-round draft choices. Both
were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At his own Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, in
1993, Walsh revealed he nearly didn't make it to the end
of his second season in San Francisco.
"In those first three years, we were trying to find the
right formula," he said. "We went 2-14 that first year
(1979). The next year we won three and then lost eight
in row. I looked out of the window for five hours on the
plane ride home from Miami after the eighth straight
loss, and I had concluded I wasn't going to make it. I
was going to move into management."
He changed his mind and finished the season, a 6-10
year. The 49ers gave notice of things to come in a
late-season game against the New Orleans Saints at
Candlestick Park. Trailing 35-7 at halftime, they
thundered back to win 38-35 in overtime. At the time, it
was the biggest comeback in NFL history.
But the real magic was yet to come. After losing two of
their first three games in 1981, the 49ers would win 15
of their next 16 in a methodical yet astonishing march.
Behind Montana and wide receivers Dwight Clark and
Freddy Solomon and a defense led by linebacker Jack
"Hacksaw" Reynolds, pass rushing whiz Fred Dean and a
secondary that started three rookies -- Ronnie Lott,
Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson -- they became the
first NFL team in 34 years to go from the worst record
to the best in just three seasons.
To do it, they had to shock the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in
the NFC Championship Game. They won it on Montana's
scrambling 6-yard pass to a leaping Clark with 51
seconds left. The play, dubbed "The Catch," is the most
celebrated moment in Bay Area sports history.
"That was a practiced play," Walsh said. "Now, we didn't
expect three guys right down his throat. That was Joe
who got the pass off in that situation, putting it where
only Clark could come up with it."
Walsh showed his zany side two weeks later in Pontiac,
Mich. Arriving before the team, he borrowed a bellman's
uniform at the hotel and collected the players' bags at
the curb, even holding out his hand for tips. His
players didn't immediately recognize him, including
Montana, who got into a brief tug-of-war with him when
Walsh tried to grab his briefcase.
In Super Bowl XVI, the 49ers built a 20-0 lead but
needed a memorable goal-line stand in the fourth quarter
to hold off the Cincinnati Bengals and win 26-21.
Pro football in San Francisco would never be the same.
Walsh and his players were stunned by the reception they
received when they returned to San Francisco. "There was
a suggestion of a parade for us," Walsh said years
later, "and I remember thinking that with the general
fatigue, I was reluctant to put the players through
something that might be just a few people waving
handkerchiefs on the street corner."
Instead, the city had basically been shut down for a
celebration by more than half a million people, cheering
San Francisco's first NFL champions as they were driven
down Market Street.
"It was just an overwhelming experience, the realization
that millions and millions of people had been following
us," Walsh said. "That's when I realized what an
accomplishment, what an historic moment for the city, it
was to win a professional championship."
The 1984 team was probably Walsh's finest, an 18-1
powerhouse with a record-setting offense and the
league's stingiest defense. It pounded Dan Marino and
the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford
Stadium. The following spring, Walsh drafted a receiver
from Mississippi Valley State named Jerry Rice, and the
offense would get even better.
A last-ditch catch by Rice on a pass from Montana stole
a victory over the Bengals in 1987. The play was
memorable not only because it won the game but because
it prompted a bizarre reaction by the head coach: Walsh
joyfully skipped off the field.
One of the most thrilling Super Bowls (XXIII) followed
the 1988 season. Rice was voted the game's Most Valuable
Player after making 11 catches for a Super Bowl-record
215 yards. But the 49ers needed a 92-yard drive
engineered by Montana in the final minutes and a
last-minute, 10-yard TD pass from Montana to John Taylor
to beat Cincinnati 20-16.
A few minutes later in the locker room, Walsh hugged his
son Craig and, to the surprise of others in the raucous
celebration, burst into tears. A week later, he revealed
why he was so emotional: He had decided he'd had enough
earlier that season. He was stepping down. "This is the
way most coaches would like to leave the game," he said.
Clearly that last year was a strain on Walsh, who was
often at odds with DeBartolo and the media. The team
struggled to a 6-5 start that year, and Walsh later said
his intensity was waning, partly because he was "weary
of the daily press-sparring."
Ever sensitive to criticism, he said during the playoffs
that year, "You become the victim of your success.
Everybody expects nothing but wins. They ignore that 27
other franchises have equal desires and opportunities,
and that so-called parity gives winning teams tougher
schedules and poorer positioning in the draft.
"Owners demand high production. Fans get to where they
can't understand why you lost, even if the team makes
the playoffs before bowing. And the media, they always
want to know how you lost, who screwed up, why it wasn't
done differently and every detail about your personal
He later second-guessed his decision to step down,
telling the San Jose Mercury News in 2002, "I never
should have left. I'm still disappointed in myself for
not continuing. There's no telling how many Super Bowls
we might have won."
In his decade as the 49ers' coach, Walsh won six
division titles and had a 102-63-1 record, a mark made
even more striking by the fact his teams won only 10 of
their first 35 games.
There were bitter disappointments during those years.
The 1982 team couldn't handle success, suffered from
drug problems and went 3-6 in a strike-shortened season.
The 1983 team went to the NFC title game, only to lose
at Washington 24-21, thanks in part to a couple of
debatable calls that set up the winning field goal.
Walsh criticized both calls, one of them a pass
interference call on Wright. By the rules, if the
officials determine that a pass could not have been
caught, even without interference, no penalty is called.
Walsh protested that the ball "could not have been
caught by a 10-foot Boston Celtic."
Before the championship 1988 season, there were three
straight years of first-round playoff defeats. Even
though the 49ers compiled the NFL's best regular-season
record in 1987, their playoff loss caused DeBartolo to
strip Walsh of his title of team president. In the
ensuing years, Walsh and DeBartolo patched up their
differences, and DeBartolo was Walsh's presenter at the
Hall of Fame.
He was named the "Coach of the '80s" by the selection
committee of the Hall of Fame. His impact on the NFL was
evident in the number of his assistants who went on to
head coaching jobs, including Seifert, Dennis Green,
Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Sam Wyche, Bruce Coslet, Mike
White and Paul Hackett. Those coaches in turn spawned a
host of other coaches, all imbued with Walsh's
distinctive offensive schemes.
He was an expert in developing quarterbacks, including
Ken Anderson, Virgil Carter and Greg Cook with the
Bengals, Dan Fouts with the San Diego Chargers, Guy
Benjamin and Steve Dils at Stanford and, of course,
Montana and Young with the 49ers. He said he looked for
resourcefulness, creativity and passing accuracy in his
quarterbacks; arm strength was far down the list.
"We spent hours on everything a quarterback does: every
step he takes, the number of steps he takes, how he
moves between pass rushers or to the outside, when he
goes to alternate receivers," he wrote in his 1989 book,
"Building a Champion" (with former Chronicle columnist
Glenn Dickey). "It's similar to a basketball player
practicing different situational shots."
He told an interviewer that the West Coast offense
started with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he was
quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under coach
Paul Brown from 1968-75. Walsh borrowed on the
principles of Sid Gillman, the legendary San Diego
coach, and others.
"It was born of an expansion franchise that just didn't
have near the talent to compete," he said. "That was
probably the worst-stocked franchise in the history of
the NFL. ... The best possible way to compete would be a
team that could make as many first downs as possible in
a contest and control the football.
"We couldn't control the football with the run; 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. So through a series of
formation-changing and timed passes -- using all
eligible receivers, especially the fullback -- we were
able to put together an offense and develop it over a
period of time."
The West Coast offense meant the ball could be thrown on
any down or distance. It meant having the quarterback
get rid of the ball quickly, to limit the risk of sacks
or turnovers. It didn't mean ignoring the running game,
but it could make up for a weak rushing attack. For
example, the 49ers' leading rusher in their first
championship year was Ricky Patton, who had just 543
"The old-line NFL people called it a nickel-and-dime
offense," Walsh said in his book. "They, in a sense, had
disregard and contempt for it, but whenever they played
us, they had to deal with it."
He pioneered the idea of scripting a game's first 25
plays, a habit he started with the Bengals. At first it
was just four plays, then six. When he went to the
Chargers, it was 15, then 25. He refined the script at
Stanford, and it later was a staple with the 49ers. The
script was never a hard and fast list; he would stray
from the list if the situation warranted, then return to
"The whole thought behind 'scripting' was that we could
make our decisions much more thoroughly and with more
definition on Thursday or Friday than during a game,
when all the tension, stress and emotion can make it
extremely difficult to think clearly," he wrote.
Practices under Walsh were not the bruising sessions
they were under most other coaches. "We didn't beat guys
up," he said in an interview in Football Digest. He
preferred to save the contact for the game and
concentrate instead on preparing for every situation
that might come up in a game.
"The format of practice and contingency planning --
those, to me, are the biggest contributions that I've
made to the game," he said.
Another contribution was the Minority Coaching
Fellowship, a program he created in 1987 to help African
American coaches improve their job prospects in the NFL
and Division I colleges by inviting them to an up-close
look at the 49ers' training camps. Among those who took
advantage of the program were Tyrone Willingham, former
Stanford head coach and current head coach at the
University of Washington; Bengals head coach Marvin
Lewis and several NFL assistants. The NFL later turned
the fellowship into a league-wide program.
When he quit as coach of the 49ers, Walsh moved into a
vice president's position in the organization. He wasn't
there long. He joined NBC Sports in 1989 and teamed with
Dick Enberg for three seasons as the network's top
analyst on NFL and Notre Dame telecasts. Although Walsh
could be very glib, his TV work was cautious, and he
didn't seem to enjoy it.
Walsh maintained his strong ties with Stanford and, in a
decision that surprised the football world, returned as
head coach in 1992. He immediately led the Cardinal to a
10-3 record, including a victory over Penn State in the
Blockbuster Bowl. "If Walsh was a general," said ESPN
analyst Beano Cook, "he would be able to overrun Europe
with the army from Sweden."
After three years at Stanford and a 17-17-1 record
overall, he left coaching for good. "It was time to move
on," he said.
To him, diagramming plays and getting players to execute
them exactly represented an art form. "I am a man who
draws pass patterns on his wife's shoulder," he said.
He fostered the image of the articulate, white-haired
professor who cracked jokes at news conferences and
devoured biographies and history books in his spare
time. In reality, his cool shell hid a feisty
Fred VonAppen, who coached with him on the 49ers and at
Stanford, told an interviewer in 1993, "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.
He's not always the distinguished, patriarchal guy
television viewers are used to seeing on the sidelines.
He's a very competitive guy, and he can be scathing,
especially in the heat of battle. There have been times
when I would have gladly split his skull with an ax.
Then again, he's the greatest."
Over the years, Walsh has served as a consultant in
various NFL ventures. In 1994, he helped create the
World League of American Football, which became NFL
He returned to the 49ers in 1996 as a consultant, but
the organization was in turmoil. DeBartolo was under a
federal investigation into his pursuit of a riverboat
casino license in Louisiana. Walsh clashed with team
president Carmen Policy, personnel director Dwight Clark
and some of the coaches. He felt he couldn't get
anything done. Meanwhile, salary cap problems were
He left but came back two years later. Policy and Clark
had left for the Cleveland Browns. Walsh helped
extricate the team from its cap difficulty and get it
through the ownership change from DeBartolo to his
sister, Denise York, and her husband, Dr. John York. He
had a strong influence in restocking the roster and
signed Jeff Garcia, a former San Jose State quarterback
then starring in Canada. His faith in Garcia would pay
off; the quarterback was elected to the Pro Bowl three
times with the 49ers.
Walsh turned the general manager's position over to
Terry Donahue in 2001, but continued to serve as a
consultant. This was a tragic time in his life. His
mother died in 2002. A week later his son Steve, a KGO
radio reporter, died of leukemia at the age of 46. His
wife, Geri, was still enduring the debilitating effects
of a stroke in 1998.
He went back to Stanford for a third time in 2004 to
work with then-athletic director Ted Leland on special
projects and fundraising initiatives, as well as serving
as a consultant for coaches and athletes. He also was in
demand as a public speaker.
When Leland left, Walsh served as interim athletic
director for seven months and was instrumental in
planning for the rebuilding of Stanford Stadium, which
was accomplished with breathtaking quickness in 2006. He
gave up the athletic director position when Bob Bowlsby
took over last summer.
William Ernest Walsh was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 30,
1931, the son of a day laborer who worked at various
times at an auto factory, a railroad yard and a
brickyard. When Walsh was 15, his father got him a job
in a garage near the Los Angeles Coliseum. The family
moved around California frequently.
He had only average athletic skills but was a running
back on the football team at Hayward High. Unable to
attract a scholarship offer, he played quarterback for
two years at the College of San Mateo and went on to an
injury-hampered career as a receiver at San Jose State.
In college, he met a pretty woman from Walnut Creek
named Geri Nardini during a day at the beach. Shortly
thereafter he proposed, and they married in 1955, the
same year he earned his bachelor's degree.
After a hitch in the Army at Fort Ord, he became a
graduate assistant at San Jose State under his old coach
Bob Bronzan. When Walsh completed his studies for his
master's in education in 1959, Bronzan wrote a
recommendation for Walsh's placement file: "I predict
Bill Walsh will become the outstanding football coach in
the United States."
He took over a struggling team at Washington Union High
School in Fremont -- the team had lost 27 straight games
-- and took it to a conference championship in 1957 with
a 9-1 season.
"When you went to a game, you or one of the guys you
worked with had to drive the team to the game," he said.
"That was just part of the job, so I learned to drive
one of those big school buses."
He took a big step forward in 1960 when he was hired as
defensive coordinator by Cal coach Marv Levy. In 1963,
he moved up to administrative assistant, recruiting
coordinator and defensive backfield coach at Stanford
under John Ralston.
When he left Washington High at 27, he had hoped to be a
college head coach by the time he was 30. Instead, he
spent the next 18 years as an assistant.
In 1966 he took his first pro job with the Raiders and
made the switch from defense to offense, coaching the
backfield. Although John Rauch was the head coach, Walsh
later called owner Al Davis one of his mentors. Another
was Paul Brown, who was awarded an expansion franchise
in Cincinnati and hired Walsh as an assistant coach for
the first Bengals team in 1968.
Brown gave Walsh free rein to refine his sophisticated
passing game, but when Brown retired in 1976, he named
offensive line coach Bill Johnson as his successor. Had
Brown named Walsh, it's conceivable that the Bengals,
rather than the 49ers, would have been the Team of the
Walsh, who had turned down several promising jobs
because he was sure he was Brown's heir apparent, was
devastated. Miffed that "nobody would take me
seriously," he considered leaving football. "It was
beginning to look as if I would never make it as a head
coach," he said.
Instead, San Diego coach Tommy Prothro hired him as
offensive coordinator, and he guided the Chargers'
high-powered aerial attack around Fouts. A year later he
finally got a head coaching job, at Stanford at the age
of 45, and quickly proved he was up to the task of
leadership. Two years later, he was the 49ers coach.
Three years after that, he was The Genius of San
He disclosed his illness in 2006 after undergoing many
months of treatment and blood transfusions.
Besides his wife, he is survived by two children, Craig
and Elizabeth; his sister, Maureen, and two
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Walsh's Coaching History
1956 -- Graduate assistant coach, San Jose State
1957-59 -- Head coach, Washington Union High School,
1960-62 -- Defensive coordinator, Cal
1963-65 -- Defensive backs coach, Stanford
1966 -- Offensive backs coach, Raiders
1967 -- Head coach, San Jose Apaches (semipro),
Continental Football League
1968-75 -- Offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
1976 -- Offensive coordinator, San Diego Chargers
1977-78 -- Head coach, Stanford
1979-88 -- Head coach, 49ers
1992-94 -- Head coach, Stanford
Year W L
1977 9 3 Won Sun Bowl
1978 8 4 Won Bluebonnet Bow
1992 10 3 Won Blockbuster Bowl
1993 4 7
1994 3 7 (1 tie)
Total 34-24 (1 tie)
1979 2 14
1980 6 10
1981 16 3 Won Super Bowl XVI
1982 3 6
1983 11 7 Lost NFC Championship Game
1984 18 1 Won Super Bowl XIX
1985 10 7 Lost wild-card game
1986 10 6 (1 tie) Lost playoff
1987 13 3 Lost playoff
1988 13 6 Won Super Bowl XXIII
Total 102-63 (1 tie)
Notes: Won-lost records include postseason games. NFL
regular seasons in 1982 and 1987 were shortened to nine
and 15 games, respectively, by player strikes.