Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Ray Ratto: The Legend of Bill Walsh
TOP OF THE LINE
A legend like Halas, Lombardi
San Fransisco Chronicle
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Bill Walsh's legacy as a football man was always outsized, especially in these parts. He didn't make the Bay Area a football-first geographic zone, he didn't invent the 49ers as an important cog in the local culture and he didn't create the West Coast Offense out of whole cloth. We did mythologize him nearly to the point of caricature, just as we mythologized Al Davis and Buck Shaw and Pappy Waldorf and Andy Smith and all the other great football innovators in Bay Area history.
But if any of the others deserved it, so did he. He defined a three-decade era of football thought, characters and results, which renders his achievements extraordinary, and makes his passing all the more visceral.
Walsh had been in poor health for some time, fighting leukemia mostly in private. Thus, he is remembered as he was at his apex - the leonine head, the professorial voice that hid a coach's gift for ruthlessness, the pride in the ideas that bore his name, and the coaching tree that led back to Davis and Paul Brown, and forward to Brian Billick, Mike Holmgren and Tony Dungy. He was an epochal figure in the history of the game, he looked every bit the part, and he took care to leave that as the world's lasting memory.
His story has been told down to a fine gray dust - as a player who wasn't quite as good as he'd hoped he could be, as an eager coach who worked for and learned from the grandest minds of the '50s and '60s, as a middle-aged man who feared he would be stuck on an assistant's track for life, as the coach who jump-started Stanford, revivified and then immortalized the 49ers of the '80s, as the man who nurtured the next generation of coaching talent.
He was also a complex man, well-read, solicitous, and curious about things beyond the 6,400-square-yard box in which he made his living and his reputation. Yet, at his core, he was the prototypical man of combat. He loved boxing, he was an avid reader of books about generals, and believed in the inherent truths of competition. That flew in the face of his reputation, largely unfair, that he was an effete, ethereal poser, not made of true coach's cloth.
Bill Walsh and Ronnie Lott at annual MS fundraiser.
Well, truth is he did like to cast the image of the grander thinker, the great conceptual artist, the whistled humanitarian, even the wry comedian. But he was very much a coach, with a coach's eye for skills, both ascendant and waning; for personalities, dominant and compliant; for the separate pieces and the greater whole; for strategies and tactics, for grace and brutishness - all the things that separate football from a bar fight. He built, dissembled and rebuilt with cold, remorseless precision, and his ruthlessness did not always sit well with those pointed toward the door.
It's what George Halas did, and Curly Lambeau, and Brown (his original mentor), and Vince Lombardi, and Davis, and Chuck Noll, and John Madden, and Tom Landry, and Jimmy Johnson, and Bill Parcells, and Bill Belichick. It's what they all do, and if there is another way to be successful at the football game, it hasn't been tried long enough by anyone of enduring consequence. Bill Walsh was driven to succeed, and he did it the way he'd been taught by his forbears, and passed along to his descendants.
He will be remembered for many things by many people, and his story will be told in shards and vignettes that when assembled point out his complexities, but everyone has a central ethos, and his was the art of an often artless game.
His acme was the 49ers years, when his creativity and pragmatism meshed with Eddie DeBartolo's no-check-left-unwritten approach to make the 49ers first relevant and then honored as one of the Teams Of The Decade, like the Bears of the '40s, the Browns of the '50s, the Packers of the '60s, the Steelers of the '70s, and then the Cowboys of the '90s. He filled a room, and a full chapter of a game's history, and there really isn't much more a football man can do.
And the wisdom of the years allowed him to minimize his missteps, like the network analyst role he shared with Dick Enberg, his second tour as Stanford coach and his uncertain role with the 49ers under the York Family regime. Just as he knew when it was right, he also knew when it wasn't, a skill that should not be glossed over or minimized.
His death, at age 75, didn't end the Walsh Era. Just as he refined old ideas, the next generation of coaches refined his. But his life, told and retold by a thousand authors with a million recollections, was one of grand and sweeping gestures. He was not a man to be ignored or taken lightly, and if he came to his moment later in life than our youth culture demands, he left deep imprints on his game, and on his adopted home.
Bill Walsh is linked to and embedded in San Francisco as deeply and surely as Herb Caen, and toward that end, his passing changes nothing. He lived a big life, and left nothing undone or unsaid. He got the full measure of years to do what he wanted most to the best of his ability, which is as good as it gets.
E-mail Ray Ratto at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle