July 31, 2007


Bill Walsh, 75; legendary 49ers coach reshaped football
(Sam Farmer, July 31, 2007, LA Times)

Bill Walsh, known in football circles as "The Genius" for taking his San Francisco 49ers to three NFL championships and designing the "West Coast offense" that has countless devotees in both college and professional ranks, died Monday. He was 75.

Diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, Walsh had been in failing health for several months and died at his home in Woodside, Calif., according to Stanford University, where he had been a coach and athletic director.

Cerebral, introspective and innovative, Walsh had an uncanny eye for scouting players and designing refined game plans. His offensive scheme — predicated on short passes that depended on timing — fueled a dynasty in San Francisco with Super Bowl victories after the 1981, '84 and '88 seasons.

George Seifert, Walsh's defensive coordinator, who retained the same offensive system after Walsh retired, led the 49ers to two more Super Bowl victories after the 1989 and 1994 seasons.

John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and longtime NFL broadcaster and analyst, said Monday that "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.

"People use the word genius and we usually scoff at that. In his case, I don't think you can scoff at it."

Behind 'genius' tag was another Walsh: Football writers recall surprising and off-guard moments with the coach away from the game. (Sam Farmer, July 31, 2007, LA Times)

When Walsh died Monday, I called some of my sportswriter friends in the Bay Area to reminisce.

Ira Miller, who for years covered the 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle, used to butt heads with Walsh on a daily basis. Miller is a bulldog, who, in the most contentious of times, was barely on speaking terms with the coach.

Yet, after Walsh announced his retirement in 1989, the coach stepped away from the podium and made a beeline for Miller in the front row, throwing his arm around the cantankerous reporter.

"It's been 10 great years," Walsh said.

Miller was speechless.

"I wouldn't have been more surprised if Eddie DeBartolo said I was the new coach," Miller recalled with a laugh. "If those were 10 great years, I was thinking to myself, I must have missed some of them."

Seventeen years later, when Walsh wanted to let the world know about his cancer, Miller was one of the two reporters he called. The other was Lowell Cohn, formerly of the Chronicle, who's now a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

No reporter knew Walsh better than Cohn, who spent the better part of a year with the coach in writing, "Rough Magic — Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football."

The night before every Stanford home game, Walsh and Cohn had a routine. Walsh would work late at his office, scripting the first 15 to 20 offensive plays of the game, then would meet the reporter at the now-defunct Rickey's Hyatt House for one margarita — always one.

One night, as Walsh and Cohn were walking in, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was walking out. Gibbs was in town to watch his son, Coy, play linebacker for Stanford.

Cohn couldn't believe his luck. He'd get to see how two giants of the game would interact in a casual setting. Would Walsh give Gibbs a hug, or just a hearty handshake? Would he invite the Redskins legend to join them for a margarita? Or, better yet, dinner?

Instead, the coaches passed each other with barely a nod.

Later, while sipping his margarita, Walsh offered a simple explanation: "When we were coaches, he was my biggest rival."

For all his success, Walsh could be incredibly insecure at times. He was tormented by losing and forever haunted by the fear that his empire was on the decline. One of his biggest regrets was that he retired too early.

Cohn remembers leaving Stanford early one night while Walsh prepared for a game. But as the reporter walked through the parking lot toward his car, he got a creepy feeling someone was following him.

And someone was — Walsh.

"Lowell?" the coach said, startling him, "Do you think we can win?"

"Yeah," Cohn said, composing himself. "I'm sure you can win."

"Good. Good."

Imagine that, a three-time Super Bowl champion — a coach headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — pleading for reassurance from a newspaper reporter.

Walsh was that way. Just like us.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2007 12:02 AM
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