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Jim Murray

Funny, He Doesn't Look Like a Coach

August 23, 1987|Jim Murray

Bill Walsh stood on the stairs outside the San Francisco 49ers' locker room and tried not to look like the proverbial cat that had just swallowed the canary.

Canary? Walsh had just wolfed down a whole albatross. Over in the other locker room, the crestfallen Los Angeles Raiders were licking their fur, trying to overlook a 42-16 exhibition defeat.

Walsh had just made the Raiders look confused, amateurish, ridiculous, talentless. The Just Win Babies had looked just terrible.

And Walsh had done it with a left-handed backup quarterback the league had long since dismissed as a journeyman, a guy who was supposed to be Joe Montana's caddy this year, a quarterback who came in to mop up 42-7 games or hold placekicks or imitate the rival quarterback in the week's practice drills.

But Steve Young had just riddled the Raiders with a 20-for-27 passing performance, 247 yards in the air, another 61 yards rushing.

Giving Bill Walsh another quarterback is like giving a lion another claw. Bill Walsh has never needed much more than a guy who could see without glasses or frost a mirror or lift his arm high enough to comb his hair. Bill Walsh can make a quarterback out of a fry cook. Or out of the Yellow Pages.

Walsh baffles longtime coach-watchers. He is the least coach-like of anyone in the profession. You'd know Mike Ditka couldn't be anything else but a coach. Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Forrest Gregg, Joe Gibbs. Even a masked TV panel could guess what they did for a living. But Bill Walsh? He could be anything from an Elizabethan poetry teacher to an opera critic. First of all, he looks like a snowdrift on the sidelines. White on white. Even his eyes are white. His hair looks like the top of Mt. Everest. He wears white sweaters, white shoes and shirts and he watches a game with such a preoccupied air that I once concluded he was probably listening to Mozart with that headset.

A lot of people were stunned when Walsh grabbed a cameraman and shouted at him in a training camp incident one day this year. They couldn't have been more shocked if a statue of St. Francis had come down from its pedestal and begun kicking birds. No one had ever heard Walsh raise his voice before.

The next day, he apologized. He was ashamed of himself for acting like a football coach.

Walsh and San Francisco are perfect for each other. They're almost over-civilized. There's a heady aura of white wine and quiche about both of them. It's bad form to get over-excited.

Bill kind of watches the goings-on on the field with the bemused look of a visiting surgeon at a lobotomy. It's as if he'd rather be at the symphony. You figure Lord Byron might have looked like Bill Walsh. You figure maybe his real name was Algernon.

Other coaches react more as if they're at a dock fight and itching to join it. They're emotional, irascible, theatrical. Walsh just fixes you with a look. There are verbs in all his sentences, his conversation is not sprinkled with four-letter vulgarities. You figure he'd know that Proust wasn't a down lineman for Pittsburgh.

It's precisely because he looks so little like a head coach that Walsh had so much difficulty becoming one. Because he's such an elegant, meticulous, reserved man, football passed him up for 20 years.

They thought he was a born assistant coach, a guy you locked in a room some place so he could come up with all these gorgeous, intricate, lovely designed mathematical plays on a blackboard but might not be tough enough to talk a bunch of coal-miners' sons into carrying out. They knew he knew football, but did he know football players?

Nobody knows the X's and O's of football better than Bill Walsh, but the game had him figured for another Clark Shaughnessy, brilliant but aloof, a theoretician not a leader.

Walsh couldn't be any tougher if he came with a blue-black beard, a scowl, an eye patch, tattoo and several teeth missing. He's as hard as a prison guard. Underneath that Cream of Wheat exterior beats the heart of a guy who will do anything to you that any guy named Bear or Bull or Bo will do.

He might look like a vicar or a character out of "The Lives of the Saints," but the halo comes off when the ball is kicked. His teams are like he is, cerebral, unemotional, perfectionist. The coach might look as if he's on his way to the tennis court, but he's on his way to the Super Bowl.

He might be on his way to being the Pope of football. As he stood on the stairs contemplating his rout of the Raiders, you had the sensation that one of the Merriwell boys had just routed the bullies. Walsh was as calm as if he had just completed a rubber of bridge. Yes, his quarterback was "interesting." But he had committed a number of "severe" mistakes. That would have to be attended to.

He could have been discussing a new recipe for ratatouille. But then a reporter wanted to know if he didn't think the New York Giants and Chicago Bears had leaped ahead of the competition and taken over this game.

For a moment, Bill Walsh's eyes almost glittered. He stared at the questioner. "They were saying that about us two years ago, when we won our Super Bowls," he said haughtily. "I don't think anybody is going to run away from anybody in this league."

Not now that Bill Walsh has a second quarterback. "If I were the rest of the league, I'd lock the doors and run like hell," offered a nearby reporter.

"You know something?" he added. "I just noticed Bill Walsh had a broken nose once."

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