Monday, July 30, 2007

Three-Time Super Bowl Champion Coach Bill Walsh Dies of Leukemia

Bill Walsh lost his long battle with leukemia at the age of 75. The 1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee won three Super Bowls in the 1980s as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and when he retired after his final championship in 1988 he handed over a team to George Seifert that went 14-2 in 1989 and won another Super Bowl. Walsh also won three bowl games in five years at Stanford, capturing the Sun Bowl (1977) and the Bluebonnet Bowl (1978) before getting the 49ers job in 1979 and then making a triumphant return to Stanford in 1992, leading the team to a 10-3 record that included a win in the Blockbuster Bowl.

Walsh's cerebral, almost professorial air belied his grit and inner toughness. In his younger days he was a boxer and one of the things that he always stressed to his teams was "beating the opponent to the punch." This is how he explained that concept in Building a Champion, the 1990 book that he co-wrote with The San Francisco Chronicle's Glenn Dickey:

We also developed a team-wide mentality that emphasized moving more quickly than our opponents, whether it was the first step a center would take in blocking a nose guard or a receiver exploding off the line and getting an advantage on the defensive back. That quickness became the 49er trademark.

We continually talked about "beating the opposition to the punch." I used the parallel of the champion boxer who's beating the challenger to the punch by a split-second in the early rounds. Though the bout appears to be very close, the challenger is taking more punishment, and the bout is eventually stopped.

Beyond his superb record and the bowl victories at the collegiate and professional levels, Walsh is best known for three things: the development of the West Coast Offense, scripting plays and the impressive coaching tree that sprouted in his wake.

Walsh would be the first to admit that he did not simply invent the West Coast Offense on his own; in Building a Champion, Walsh wrote, "Football is continually evolving. Creative innovations are being implemented but, just as importantly, we continue to find ourselves reaching back into history...My offense, too, owes much to the past." He specifically cited Clark Shaughnessy (who utilized the man in motion), Davey Nelson (who developed the Winged-T) and Sid Gillman (who "brought refinement to the game," according to Walsh) as influences on the development of the West Coast Offense. The Cleveland Browns' Otto Graham employed a version of sprint right option, better known to most football fans for its most famous result--"The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game--as a championship quarterback in the 1940s and 1950s; the basic idea is to have a mobile quarterback roll out, with multiple pass options, plus an option to run if the defense drops too many people into coverage. Lefty Steve Young later ran the exact same play with the 49ers, but to the left side of the field instead of the right.

The genius behind Walsh's West Coast Offense are the refinements that he added to his predecessors' ideas and the masterful way that he continually adapted the system to best utilize the strengths of his players and to best attack the way that defenses tried to adjust to what he was doing. The short passing game that is a hallmark of his system was once derided as "nickel and dime" but it has influenced the thinking of virtually every offensive coach (and thus virtually every defensive coach) in the game.

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Walsh's genius is the concept of scripting plays. The uninitiated assume that Walsh drew up 15 or 20 plays before a game and then ran them no matter what. Of course, that would be foolish, because you have no way of knowing before the game what field position and down/distance situations you will face on your first few possessions. What Walsh did was design several plays for each of the most likely scenarios that his team would face. Then, when it was second and two or third and six, he chose a play from his list that was appropriate for the situation at hand. After he had gone through most or all of his scripted plays in a given game, he looked at how the opposing team had defended them and used that as a guide to know which plays to use again. Also, some plays were used early on to set up the opponent for certain tactics later in the contest. In Building a Champion, Walsh explained that he developed the idea for scripting plays while he worked under Paul Brown as a Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach. The Bengals had experimented with this idea on a limited basis but a 1975 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders convinced Walsh that a more comprehensive approach was needed. Walsh described how he made some play calling errors in the heat of the moment because he did not have a "ready list" on hand. "Without everything on our play sheet that I needed, it became too chaotic to make the best calls. The pressure was incredible." He vowed to never again come up short strategically in such a situation, noting, "The whole thought behind scripting was that we could make our decisions much more thoroughly and with more definition on Thursday or Friday than during a game, when all the tension, stress and emotion can make it extremely difficult to think clearly. The elements seriously affect a coach's ability to concentrate; severe wind, cold, or heat can damage it. Try going outside when it's five degrees and reach an objective decision that calls for problem-solving."

Walsh's coaching tree testifies to his enduring impact on the sport and to how effectively he taught his concepts not just to his players but also to his assistant coaches, several of whom have gone on to great success as head coaches, including Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel and Sam Wyche, each of whom led teams to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl coaches Brian Billick, Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan also are part of the Bill Walsh coaching tree.

Walsh coached some outstanding defensive teams but he will forever be remembered for his ability to identify and develop great quarterbacks, including Pro Bowlers Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia. Walsh drafted Montana in 1979 and made him the centerpiece of his first championship team in San Francisco. Many people probably don't know or have forgotten how terrible the 49ers were when Walsh took over in 1979. They went 2-14 in 1978 and matched that record in Walsh's first season. A 6-10 mark followed in 1980 before the 49ers put everything together to go 13-3 and win a Super Bowl in 1981. Montana's development into a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback played a big part in the rise of the 49ers. One of the most fascinating chapters in Building a Champion is titled "The Care and Feeding of Quarterbacks," which contains Walsh's description of how a young quarterback should be mentored. Too many coaches rush young quarterbacks on to the field before they are ready, which forces those players to endure a physical (and mental) pounding that may permanently damage their chances to have long term success. Walsh brought Montana along patiently and only put him on the field in situations where Montana could be successful. Journeyman Steve DeBerg was the starter for most of Montana's first two seasons. During practice, Walsh and the coaching staff started Montana off with a small number of plays that they knew that he could execute well and when they put him into games they ran just those plays, building up not only Montana's self-confidence but also the confidence that his teammates had in him. It is easy to forget that prior to coming to San Francisco, Steve Young was a somewhat erratic quarterback for a bad Tampa Bay team--but Walsh realized that Young would be the perfect successor to Montana. As Young said today on ESPN, Walsh saw something in him before even he saw it in himself. Neither Montana nor Young fit the stereotypical mold of a 6-4, 225 pound NFL quarterback and that is also true of Jeff Garcia. Long before anyone else, Walsh recognized that Garcia could become a very good NFL quarterback and when the 49ers finally heeded Walsh's advice and signed Garcia he became a three-time Pro Bowler who set a team record in 2000 by throwing for 4278 yards.

Prior to the NFL instituting the Rooney Rule regarding hiring black head coaches, Walsh developed his own internship program to mentor young black coaches. That project expanded into a full fledged minority coaching program that was eventually taken over by the NFL itself and is now in its 20th year. Marvin Lewis and Tyrone Willingham are two of the many coaches who received opportunities as a result of this program.

After he retired from coaching, Walsh dispensed his insights about football as a TV commentator and author. Here is a quote from an interesting piece titled "Coaches Should Show Results in Year Three" that he wrote for the October 5, 1998 Sporting News : "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump...My point is that it takes a concerted commitment from ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players for a team to succeed. It's the old 'a-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link-theory' theory. If one of the four areas is weak, it's extremely difficult to overcome that flaw." By Walsh's standard, the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and many other NFL teams have been failing miserably--and inexcusably--for quite some time.

Perhaps Dick Vermeil, a Super Bowl-winning coach himself, best sums up Walsh's impact: "There are many, many fine, fine coaches but I really think that Bill Walsh was the one that had as much to do with the game we play today, by many teams, as anyone."

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