Printer Friendly

San Francisco's gridiron guru.

It was a typical awards banquet. The San Francisco 49ers players Joe Montana, John Ayers and Randy Cross were enjoying their fried chicken, cold beer and the applause of fans at the Rocklin Bar and Eatery, Rocklin, California, when three strangers suddenly sashayed into the room.

One, a California biker, wore nightshade sunglasses and questionmark sideburns. A second, equally rough-looking, resembled a bearded mule skinner. The third, a grizzled prospector apparently down on his luck, wore wire rims and shabby garb. As the bar's employees drew straws to decide who had to throw the bums out, a player yelled out, "Hey, those guys are our coaches!"

Sure enough, when the giggling trio had peeled off their disguises, the "biker" turned out to be Sherm Lewis, San Francisco's running-backs coach; the "mule skinner" was a tough former marine, Bobb McKittrick, the coach of the offensive line; and the "prospector" was none other than the San Francisco head coach, Bill Walsh. Later, Walsh explained he had hired a Sacramento make-up artist to outfit the coaches especially for the banquet.

This costumed escapade was not the first for Walsh. A few days before the 1982 Super Bowl, he shocked Joe Montana at the team's hotel by dressing in a bellhop's uniform and offering to fetch the quarterback's bags. And before a meeting to discuss a long losing streak, he donned a cabby's outfit and facetiously told the Niners he was working a job on the side.

The costumes are part of Walsh's coaching strategy. Occasional high jinks by a usually serious leader are good for team morale, he says. "Humor is just another way to communicate with other human beings. I've never seen anything accomplished without communication," Walsh stresses. "Players must work in an atmosphere where they feel free to exchange ideas with their coaches. Players have to be able to communicate what they are trying to accomplish with each other and their coaches."

Walsh's son Craig agrees with his father. The coach's success, he notes, comes from his ability to coexist with his players and his assistant coaches. "Dad's always been a great communicator," Craig says. "That's always been his forte. I think communication is essential to becoming a great football coach or real-estate salesman or parent. When you can effectively communicate your feelings and ideas, people look up to you. You instantly gain respect. A poor communicator is often lost."

Bill Walsh needed all his gifts for communication when, in 1979, he became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the laughingstock of the National Football League. It took Walsh only three seasons to reverse the team's fortunes. The Niners' 16-3 record was the NFL's best in 1981, and the team closed out the season by declawing the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI. After a disappointing 1982 season, Walsh took his team to a Western Division championship in 1983; only a 24-21 loss to the Washington Redskins in the NFC championship game kept the 49ers from wearing brand-new Super Bowl rings.

Last year the Niners simply overpowered their NFL competition. Walsh's men won a league-record 15 straight regular-season games, including all 8 matches on the road; they broke or tied 30 of the club's team and individual records; and they earned victories in all 4 postseason contests, including a 38-16 rout of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. "Without a doubt, this is the best team in pro football today," Walsh boasted following a congratulatory phone call from President Reagan after the Super Bowl win.

Bill Walsh's greatest strength as a coach is his tactical genius. The 49ers offense is the most complicated system in the NFL, and Walsh has worked hard to teach his quarterback, Joe Montana, how to execute it.

One of the difficult things, Walsh says, is learning when to be flexible and when not. "It's very difficult to play the game of football as it has developed and be inflexible" Walsh notes. "You must find a way to adapt to circumstance, to conditions, to the opposition, and to such factors as the dynamics of the game and officiating. But when it comes to the standard of play, and the standard of concentration, and your commitment to your squad and coaching staff, you find yourself inflexible."

Next to Tom Landry, the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Bill Walsh is the most recognizable coach in the pros. His longish white hair and iron-rimmed spectacles give him the look of a college professor; on the sidelines he possesses the chilly calm of a high-stakes poker player. Considering Walsh's impact on the game, it's hard to believe that just eight years ago, his only head-coaching job had been at a high school. In part, the reason for Walsh's late start was that he himself never played pro ball, which for decades prejudiced many big-league team owners against entrusting him with a head-coaching job.

As a boy he possessed only average athletic skills. The blond California native accompanied his father throughout the Sunshine State as his dad took any laborer jobs available. "They were working-class people," recalls Walsh's 30-year-old son,

Steve. "Grandfather worked in railroad yards and in a brickyard."

Bill Walsh changed schools frequently but stayed long enough at Hayward high School in northern California to win a running-back job. His skills, unfortunately, were insufficient to attract a scholarship from a "name" college. He instead played quarterback for two years at the College of San Mateo and finished his playing career as an oft-injured receiver at San Jose State University.

Walsh has no regrets about his missed opportunity to play pro ball. "It's escaped me now, so I don't give it very much thought," he says with a shrug. "I went into coaching with the resolve that my coaching career wouldn't be a disappointment to me, so I worked doubly hard at it."

In 1956, after a hitch in the army at Fort Ord, he gained a graduate assistantship in physical education at San Jose State and rejoined his old coach, Bob Bronzan, who even then recognized his pupil's aptitude for coaching. Bronzan, now retired, used Walsh as his right-hand man on the field. He was the first to recognize Walsh's genius for drawing up complicated offensive (and defensive) plays. When his disciple completed his studies at San Jose, the head coach wrote an impressive recommendation for Walsh's placement file: "I predict Bill Walsh will become the outstanding football coach in the United States."

At San Jose State, Walsh's personal life blossomed as well when, swimming one day in the Pacific, he met a lovely California girl named Geri. Shortly after, he successfully proposed. From the union of 30 years have come a daughter, Elizabeth, and their sons, Steve and Craig. "I think we probably deserve some gold stars up in heaven for lasting this long," Geri, an interior designer, jokes.

The young family spent nearly two decades wandering before Bill's big break with the Niners. "I look back at it now, and I think some of the greatest things we ever did were because of moving so much," says Steve, a Bay-area radio broadcaster.

Walsh coached at Washington Union High School in the San Francisco Bay area and took his team to a conference championship in 1957 with a 9-1 season. His apprenticeship advanced a giant step when he accepted a position in 1960 as a defensive coordinator on the staff of Marv Levy at the University of California at Berkeley. He moved up a notch in 1963 to administrative assistant and recruiting coordinator at Stanford and assumed defensive-backfield coaching duties, too.

In 1966, he was hired as an offensive-backfield coach by the Oakland Raiders. A year later, when the legendary coach Paul Brown was given a franchise with the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh became quarterbacks and receivers coach and in the next few years developed the talents of Greg Cook, Virgil Carter and Ken Anderson. He calls the development of Anderson, a late-round draft choice from Augustana College, one of the "most gratifying experiences of my coaching career--after his fourth and fifth years in the league, he was the No. 1 passer statistically in NFL history."

Walsh stayed eight years at Cincinnati but remained homesick for California. "We used to go over to a neighbor's house that had pine trees in the front yard and smell the needles," he recalls. Confident the Cincy head-coaching job would be his upon Paul Brown's retirement, he turned down several promising jobs.

Stunned and stung when Brown retired and named another successor, Walsh quit the Bengals and hooked on for a year with the San Diego Chargers as an assistant coach. Just when he was wondering if he should have chosen another vocation, opportunity knocked. In 1977 Stanford University offered him a head-coaching opportunity, and he snatched the job immediately, determined to show the football world he could command a team.

He regards college coaching as a worthy challenge. "The college game is very scientific," Walsh says. "It presents as much challenge from the technical standpoint as pro football does. There's more involved in college coaching because of the varying stages of development of your players. Teaching is more comprehensive in college because there is a dramatic range of abilities. Sometimes you can depend on the players' inherent abilities. Other times, the coach's ability to teach and develop a player is more crucial."

Molding Stanford into a football power overnight was not the simplest of jobs, but Walsh succeeded during his two years as head coach. The Cardinals had not participated in a bowl game for five years, but Walsh guided them to Bluebonnet Bowl and Sun Bowl wins.

Those two seasons at Stanford convinced The San Francisco 49ers owner, Eddie DeBartolo, that Walsh was the man to revive a team that had gone 2-14 in 1978. But Walsh, the 11th head coach in 49ers history, worked no overnight miracles after moving up the peninsula to San Francisco. His first season was another 2-14 disaster, and his second a 6-10 flop. Unheralded and unnoticed prior to the 1981 season, Bill Walsh had earned the sobriquet of "genius" by season's end.

The fans and the media expect Walsh to win in 1985. He possesses, after all, one of the best quarterbacks in pro football, Joe Montana; the most accurate field-goal kicker, Ray Wersching; an awesome defensive end, Fred Dean; and the league's best receiving corps: Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, Renaldo Nehemiah and the tight end Russ Francis.

One other 49ers position still in doubt is Bill Walsh's. During the season he hinted several times that he might retire. Steve Walsh, for one, doesn't agree with speculation that his father would remain with the 49ers merely as team president. "I think he'd go stir-crazy if he goes into administrative work 100 percent," Steve says. "I think he's a little too active to sit behind a desk."

Walsh is mum on the subject, but he pooh-poohs any notion he is out to improve upon 1984's phenomenal 18-1 season. "Going undefeated in the National Football League is virtually impossible," he insists. However, he does concede that his team will be a prime contender.

It's unfortunate Bill Walsh's career started so late. Fifty-four next November, he stands no chance to accumulate the career wins of Landry or of Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is, however, the best coach in the game right now, and for a drifting laborer's son, that's an accomplishment.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Bill Walsh
Author:Kinnley, Ben
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1985
Previous Article:Turning the damper on Mr. Franklin's stove.
Next Article:Alabama: hitting home.

Related Articles
Saving the last Walsh ...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters