Even now, Walsh can recall the down-by-down details of that game and many others. He's a notorious perfectionist who was not only haunted by the rare defeat but nitpicked and second-guessed his decisions in the aftermath of victory.
"There are all kinds of regrets," he said. "That's what keeps competitive people going is the regrets. It's not the successes. The things you remember are the games you lost and why you lost them and what you could have done.... After a game, I'd go home and I'd sleep until about 3 in the morning. Then, boom, I'd relive the game and think, 'Why did I do this? How could I ever... why? This is ridiculous!' So you just don't want to lose. You'll do anything to avoid losing. That's what drives you."
A major factor in Walsh's success as coach of the 49ers was his relationship with DeBartolo, who gave him the money and freedom to sign the players he wanted. That was a rarity then and is all but unheard of now, especially with the advent of the salary cap in the early 1990s. Walsh and DeBartolo worked in lock step, assembling teams that won more than any others in the '80s and had only two losing seasons in the decade.
"The other clubs would get a report on a player and the coach would take it to the personnel director and he'd take it to somebody else," Walsh said. "Sooner or later, there'd be somebody that'd say, 'No, don't bother.' " And it would die. When it was me coaching and managing, I'd say, 'Good. I'll take him.' "
Not everyone in the NFL had such faith in Walsh's decisions. He was a Cincinnati Bengals assistant for seven seasons under legendary coach Paul Brown but was passed over in favor of Bill "Tiger" Johnson when Brown retired in 1975. Walsh, who subsequently resigned, said Brown "worked against my candidacy" to be a head coach anywhere in the league.
"All the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them," he said. "And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL."
Was it jealousy?
"I can't say," said Walsh, who didn't get his first NFL head-coaching job until he was 47. "He did that to other people too, it wasn't just me. But I was probably the most blatant one."
Of course, Walsh got the last laugh. His 49ers never lost to the Bengals, beating them five consecutive times, including twice in Super Bowls.
"By the time we got to those games, I didn't even think of the history," he said. "We were just playing another team. But when the plane took off the first time we beat them in Cincinnati, I looked back down and I was euphoric. I just sat there quietly. It was snowing down there. Lights on. We were gone."
He eased back in his chair and smiled, lost for a moment in the memory.
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The 49ers' decade
*--* SUPER BOWL XVI
Jan. 24, 1982
San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21
* Ray Wersching's Super Bowl record-tying four field goals and Joe Montana's controlled passing helped give Walsh his first Super Bowl win. The 49ers built a 20-0 halftime lead, but the Bengals rebounded to make it close in the second half. Cincinnati compiled 356 yards to San Francisco's 275, which marked the first time in Super Bowl history that the team that gained the most yards from scrimmage lost the game. Montana, the game's most valuable player, completed 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards.
*--* SUPER BOWL XIX
Jan. 20, 1985
San Francisco 38, Miami 16
* Walsh's 49ers got their second Super Bowl title with a dominating defense that tamed Dan Marino and Miami's potent passing attack. The Dolphins held a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, which represented the most points scored by two teams in an opening quarter of a Super Bowl. However, the 49ers used excellent field position in the second period to build a 28-16 halftime lead. San Francisco's 537 total net yards bettered the previous Super Bowl record of 429 yards by Oakland in Super Bowl XI. The 49ers also held a time-of-possession advantage over the Dolphins of 37:11 to 22:49.
*--* SUPER BOWL XXIII
Jan. 22, 1989
San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
* Walsh wrapped up his pro coaching career with another title over Cincinnati. The 49ers found themselves trailing the Bengals late in the game, 16-13. But Montana orchestrated an 11-play, 92-yard drive, with the decisive score coming on a 10-yard pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.