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Bill Walsh: 1931-2007

49ers coach reshaped football

July 31, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

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."

And the Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the player most closely associated with Walsh's tenure with the 49ers, told the Associated Press: "This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay Area, because of what he meant to the 49ers. For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him."

Instantly identifiable on the sidelines with a shock of white hair under his headset, Walsh amassed a remarkably consistent record as an NFL coach. His 49ers were the winningest franchise of the 1980s, with only two losing seasons in the decade: 6-10 in 1980 and 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Even more astounding was that, in 1978, he took over a rudderless club, a perennial doormat that had won only two games the previous season.

"The one thing that sticks in my mind about playing for Bill was how unfair it was, because we had such an advantage over the people we were playing," said Randy Cross, a mainstay on the offensive line throughout Walsh's coaching career in San Francisco. "Not everyone wanted to admit that. Some people had to come around to it grudgingly."

Not a screamer

Unlike many in his profession, Walsh wasn't a wild-eyed screamer like Green Bay's legendary Vince Lombardi, who struck fear in the hearts of his players. Instead, he was almost scholarly, and at times plagued with self-doubt. Jim Murray, the late Times sports columnist, wrote that Walsh "baffles longtime coach-watchers. He is least coach-like of anyone in the profession. He could be anything from an Elizabethan poetry teacher to an opera critic."

Walsh was fully aware that he did not fit the standard NFL mold.

"I know there were coaches who were certainly more intelligent than I was," he told The Times in December. "There were firebrand coaches who fired up their teams and all that kind of thing. But we basically understated everything publicly. We never talked about, 'We're going to the Super Bowl,' or, 'We're the best; come and get us,' all that kind of thing. We just quietly went about our business, and I do think people resented that. They wanted confrontation, and they didn't get it until we played."

Walsh retired from the National Football League in 1989, after leading his 49ers to victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII. In doing so, he joined Lombardi as the only other NFL coach to step down immediately after winning a Super Bowl.

William Ernest Walsh was born Nov. 30, 1931, in Los Angeles. It was the height of the Depression, and Walsh's father worked as a day laborer on a series of difficult and low-paying jobs.

His family moved around a bit, and Walsh graduated from Hayward High School in the East Bay. A left-hander, he played quarterback and participated in track and field.

Although he had hoped to attend UC Berkeley or Stanford on a football scholarship, he had neither the grades nor the athletic ability for admittance. He played two seasons at San Mateo Junior College before transferring to San Jose State. He switched positions when he got there, playing offensive and defensive end for the Spartans.

He was never approached to play pro football but was determined to stay in the game. He took a job as a graduate assistant under San Jose State Coach Bob Bronzan and immediately excelled.

"I went into coaching with the resolve that my coaching career wouldn't be a disappointment to me," Walsh once told the Saturday Evening Post. "So I worked doubly hard at it."

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