Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh, genius

The man I knew was better than a mere dictator

By Michael Silver


Posted: Monday July 30, 2007 4:17PM; Updated: Tuesday July 31, 2007 12:36AM

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.

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