Bill Walsh, Hall of Fame football coach, loses fight with leukemia
BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN
Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame football coach and visionary who guided the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles and inspired hundreds of student-athletes during his tenure as head coach at Stanford, died of leukemia at 10:45 a.m. on July 30 at his Woodside home with his family by his side.
He was 75.
A public memorial service for Walsh will be held at 11 a.m. Friday August 10, at Monster Park in San Francisco. The program will include a special video presentation tribute prepared by NFL Films, along with former players and coaches sharing their thoughts. Parking will be free.
Walsh, one of only 21 coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the only one nicknamed "The Genius," disclosed in late 2006 that he was battling the disease. He was known for his revolutionary offense, "cerebral practice regimens" and keen eye for talent, among many other things.
"Bill was blessed with one of the greatest gifts you can have, which is the ability to see the future potential of another human being. It just so happened that football was his expertise," Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said in a recent interview. "He saw in me much more than I ever saw in myself, well before I ever had a chance to understand it. That is the ultimate compliment to the word 'coach.' There's nothing more a coach should be than to see the full potential of a player unfolded. I am eternally grateful to Bill Walsh."
At Stanford, three generations of student-athletes called Walsh "coach." He served as an assistant coach in the in the mid-1960s, and as head coach in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s.
"Like the rest of the world, Stanford knew Bill Walsh as a great coach," said university President John Hennessy. "But we also knew him as much more than that: a true leader to his colleagues and a role model for the young men and women he worked with. His loyalty to Stanford was absolute, and he returned again and again to support the university long after he moved beyond his head coaching duties. Stanford is fortunate that he chose to give so much to the university and we will long remember his integrity, dedication and sense of values."
Former Stanford running back Darrin Nelson laughed when he was asked about his first practice with Walsh, whom he met in 1977, the first year Walsh served as head coach.
"He was installing the offense, which was pretty complicated—the same offense the 49ers ran, we did," said Nelson, who still holds several Cardinal records.
"Bill put all the freshmen in and said, 'OK, for comic relief, let's see if the freshmen can do it.' He wanted to see if we were paying attention."
Nelson, a senior associate athletic director at Stanford, said Walsh had a rule against hazing freshmen. But the rest of the team was allowed to tease and laugh at them. It was OK for Walsh too.
"Bill met with the entire freshman class of football players to talk about coming to college and being a college person," Nelson recalled. "One of the things he said was: 'Don't worry about your high school girlfriend. She's probably out with your best friend right now.'"
Walsh will be remembered as one of the greatest offensive minds in football history, particularly when it came to tutoring quarterbacks. He coached three Hall of Famers—Dan Fouts, Joe Montana and Steve Young—as well as former Cincinnati All Pro Ken Anderson.
"Walsh made me," Anderson said.
"Bill Walsh made all the difference in the world," said Fouts, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with Walsh, in 1993.
At Stanford, the novel offensive strategies that would later come to be known as the "West Coast" offense originated as the "dink and dunk" offense, said former Cardinal quarterback Steve Dils, '78, who played for Walsh in 1977 and 1978.
Dils said Walsh emphasized the positive—what players could do to get better—instead of dwelling on what they were doing wrong. Still, Walsh was an exacting coach.
Dils said many coaches cared only if a quarterback completed a pass during practice—not how they did it. That wasn't good enough for Walsh, who scrutinized every aspect of a throw—timing, body mechanics, footwork, trajectory—and made Dils run the pass pattern five or six times until it was perfect, then said, "OK, that's right, now do it again."
Dils, who later played professional football in Minnesota, Los Angeles and Atlanta, said he played for some very good coaches. But none compared to Walsh.
"I learned more in two years from Bill about being a quarterback than I did in the rest of my 10 years in the NFL," said Dils, who now works in Atlanta for Grubb & Ellis, a commercial real estate advisory firm. "He taught me so much about the game."
In 1978, in a column in the San Francisco Examiner about the Stanford team, Frank Blackman described Walsh as the "life of the party" on the football field.
"His Stanford team, and the teams he directed as offensive coordinator in the pros at Cincinnati and San Diego, all have one thing in common," he wrote. "They're fun to watch."
It was a winning strategy for Walsh, who led Stanford to two bowl victories—the Sun Bowl in 1977 and the Bluebonnet Bowl in 1978.
The following year he left Stanford for an opportunity he had long coveted—head coach of an NFL team. In this case, he took over the then-woeful San Francisco 49ers and orchestrated one of the greatest success stories in the history of professional sports. In 1979, he took over a team that went 2-14 the previous season and transformed it into a Super Bowl champion in just three seasons. Under Walsh's direction, the 49ers won three Super Bowl titles (1982, 1985 and 1989), made seven NFC postseason appearances and claimed six NFC West Division Championships. In 1981, Walsh was named NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press, Sporting News and Pro Football Weekly. In 1981 and 1984, United Press International chose Walsh as coach of the year in the National Football Conference. He resigned as head coach in 1989.
"When I came here [in 1979], I just wanted to build a team that would win more than it would lose," Walsh told the late Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough. "I never envisioned the 49ers of the past three decades would become one of the greatest franchises in the history of sports. I'm proud that I played a part in it. I walk away knowing I orchestrated it, but also having a special feeling for everyone who worked and played here. We bonded together. It was like Camelot."
In a March 2007 article in Sports Illustrated, columnist Michael Silver described Walsh as the "most influential football man of his era" and a "transcendent ringmaster.''
"With his meticulously crafted organization and cerebral practice regimens, to his daring personnel decisions and his visionary offensive schemes, he created an enduring model," Silver wrote. "Today, the West Coast, with its reliance on short passes, precisely timed routes and intricately planned progressions, is the NFL's preeminent scheme. But in the early 1980s it merely drove opposing coaches nuts."
"What really made Bill special is that he understood that the game was bigger than him," Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said. "His genius was not centered around X's and O's, it was centered around his ability to create a platform that made the game inclusive to others. He will forever be cemented with the likes of George Halas, Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi as the best ever."
Aside from transforming the 49ers into one of the NFL's most dominant teams, Walsh was equally influential and innovative off the field. In 1987, Walsh launched the first minority coaching fellowship program to create more opportunities for minority coaches. The first two participants were Jerry Brown and Tyrone Willingham, now the head coach at the University of Washington. Marvin Lewis, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, was selected by Walsh as a coaching fellow the following year in 1988. The league later implemented the program with all of its teams.
"I don't know if people realize the innovation he has brought to this game on so many levels," Steve Young said in the March Sports Illustrated profile. "From a business perspective, I'd compare it to Silicon Valley, where Andy Grove, Steve Jobs and some of the other pioneers really changed business. Bill Walsh, around that same time, brought the same kind of mentality to football. In terms of how you deal with people and the kind of environment you create, his was a very enlightened approach."
For a time, Walsh worked as a football analyst for NBC. But he couldn't stay off the field for long. In 1992, he returned to Stanford as head football coach. Lowell Cohn, author of the 1994 book Rough Magic: Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football, compared the press conference in Burnham Pavilion to a coronation of the blue-eyed, white-haired Walsh, who was cheered by 600 people—fans, alumni and staff—and more than six dozen reporters from around the country.
"Walsh walked past them, got up to speak on a makeshift platform and, quoting Joseph Campbell, said, 'This is my bliss,'" Cohn wrote. "His face glowed. He was in his element. He had come home."
Former Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland, who hired Walsh in 1992, said Walsh was known for his dry sense of humor. He cited the time Walsh got into hot water after making disparaging comments about the University of Washington football team—comments that were published in the Sacramento Bee and picked up by newspapers across the country. Walsh apologized publicly and privately to UW officials, but the next time the Cardinal football team flew to Seattle for a game, the media were there to greet him.
"When Bill got off the plane he was wearing fake glasses with a fake nose and mustache—as if to say, 'Here I am,'" Leland said, laughing at the memory. "He had the ability to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and still joke about the human condition."
During the 1992 season, the Cardinal team achieved its first 10-win season since 1940, earned its first top-10 ranking in more than 20 years and won the Blockbuster Bowl. The next two years Stanford stumbled, with a 4-7 record in 1993 and a 3-7-1 record in 1994.
Leland said the losses took a toll on Walsh, a proud man who wanted to win more for the students than for himself. By then, Walsh had been coaching football for 30 years.
"When you're young, the euphoria of winning balances out the heartache of losing," Leland said. "When you get older, the euphoria isn't as high, but the heartache is just as big, so the euphoria is tempered. Bill wasn't having fun winning and he was really struggling with the losses. So he stepped down."
In 2002, Walsh began teaching a course on sports business management with Professor George Foster at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 2003, Walsh, Foster and former Stanford wide receiver Gene Washington combined to create the annual NFL-Stanford Executive Education Program, designed to develop and deepen the core business skills of league executives. Later, with a Harvard professor, Walsh and Foster wrote The Business of Sports: Cases and Text on Strategy and Management, published in 2005.
Walsh rejoined the Stanford Department of Athletics in early 2004 as special assistant to the athletic director, a position he held until his death—first under Leland, then Robert Bowlsby. Walsh helped with fundraising, gave coaching seminars and helped recruit athletes.
His reach in college athletics had extended beyond Stanford in recent years. In 2004 Walsh helped restore strength to the San Jose State University athletic department and football program by leading the committee to hire Thomas Bowen as director of athletics. Less than a month later he recruited Dick Tomey to become head football coach. Tomey has turned the moribund program into a winner, posting a 9-4 record and New Mexico Bowl crown in 2006. It was the university's first bowl game appearance in 17 years.
Walsh shared the secrets of his coaching philosophy and winning strategies in books. In 1990, he teamed up with sportswriter Glenn Dickey to write Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers. Seven years later came Bill Walsh: Finding the Winning Edge.
He also took a lead role in expanding the sport globally. In 1994, Walsh was instrumental in the establishment and management of the World League of American Football, which later became known as NFL Europe.
Walsh's impact on the coaching industry is apparent by the rise of former assistants, players and people who have come under his influence, including Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes, Jeff Fisher, Sam Wyche, Rod Dowhower, Bruce Coslet, Sherman Lewis, Brian Billick, Gary Kubiak, George Seifert, Jon Gruden, Paul Hackett, Tom Holmoe, Dwaine Board, Bobb McKittrick, Bill McPherson, Steve Mariucci, Tom Rathman, Jim Mora, Greg Knapp, Harry Sydney and Tom Lovat.
Walsh, who was born in Los Angeles, played wide receiver at San Jose State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1955 and a master's degree in 1959, both in education.
He was preceded in death by his son Steve, an ABC News reporter who died of AIDS at age 46. Walsh is survived by his wife, Geri, of Woodside; son Craig of Redwood City; daughter Elizabeth of San Francisco; sister Maureen of Mission Viejo, Calif.; and two grandchildren, Samantha and Nathan.The family asks that in lieu of flowers contributions be made to the charity of choice in Walsh's name.