Genius and a Gent: Bill Walsh Remembered
By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2007
When Bill Walsh took over the head coaching job of the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1970s, the team was among the worst in the National Football League. In just a few years, Walsh transformed them into the dominant franchise of the 1980s and early 1990s. No wonder Walsh – who died at the age of 75 in late July – came to be called “the genius.”
The Irish-American coach, whose snow-white hair made him an instantly recognizable figure on the sidelines, won three Super Bowls during the 1980s with the 49ers, before retiring. The team went on to win two more Super Bowls using many of the same tactics and players Walsh had established.
Legendary quarterback Joe Montana, who guided the 49ers during Walsh’s tenure, was quoted as saying: “This is just a tremendous loss for all of us … because of what he meant to the 49ers. For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him.”
Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and died at his home in Woodside, California. He had been working as a coach and athletic director at Stanford University.
Walsh’s major innovation was on the offensive side of football, where his style came to be called “the West Coast offense.” It focused heavily on using the quarterback to pass the ball, rather than rely strictly on running the football.
“Bill’s legacy is going to be that he changed offense. Offense before Bill Walsh was run, run defense, establish the run. Run on first down, run on second down, and if that doesn’t work, pass on third down. Bill Walsh passed on first down, passed on second down and used that to set up the run,” famous coach and broadcaster John Madden said. “People use the word genius and we usually scoff at that. In his case, I don’t think you can scoff at it.”
It would have been difficult to predict success for William Ernest Walsh, who was born November 30, 1931 in Los Angeles at the height of the Great Depression. Walsh’s father could earn only menial wages as a day laborer, forcing his family to move around California. Walsh attended Hayward High School, where he played football as well as track and field. He then played two seasons at San Mateo Junior College before transferring to San Jose State, where he remained on the coaching staff upon graduation.
Walsh once said: “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 a sign of things to come, Walsh turned things around drastically when he got his first head coaching job at California’s Washington Union High School. The team had a record of 1 win and 26 losses before Walsh took over and turned the program around.
He became an assistant coach with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in the mid-1960s, and moved on to Cincinnati where he worked until 1975, before returning to California for good.
He left the NFL for two years to lead the Stanford University football team, before being hired by the 49ers. In 1979 he made sure the team drafted Joe Montana out of Notre Dame, and the foundation for a dynasty was established. Walsh remained humble, despite all of his success, and was unorthodox in his calm demeanor and approach to the game.
“I know there were coaches who were certainly more intelligent than I was,” Walsh was quoted as saying late last year. “There were firebrand coaches who fired up their teams and all that kind of thing. But we basically understated everything publicly. We never talked about, ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl,’ or ‘We’re the best; come and get us,’ all that kind of thing. We just quietly went about our business.”
Walsh is survived by his wife, Geri, a son Craig and a daughter Elizabeth. Another son, Steve, an ABC News reporter, died of leukemia in 2002 at the age of 46. ♦