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A REMEMBRANCE

Behind `genius' tag was another Walsh

July 31, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Bill Walsh was a perfectionist who refused to be hurried.

I learned that the hard way.

In January 2005, when USC was playing Oklahoma in the national championship game, I was assigned to ghost-write a column by Walsh. I was supposed to call him at halftime and after the game, jot down his observations, then write a story in his voice. When USC jumped out to a 38-10 lead in the first half, I thought I'd get an early start on the process.

With about a minute left before the half -- the game already a blowout -- I called his house.

"Bill, it's Sam," I said. "So what do you think?"

"Why are you calling me?"

"Well ... " I stammered, caught a little off guard. "We're going to do the stor--"

"But the half's not over yet," he interrupted. "You told me to analyze the game. Don't call me until halftime."

Click.

That was Walsh. When he committed to analyzing a game, he was going to break down every last play, no matter what the score. He was, above all, a football coach. And you don't bother a football coach during a game.

I'll always remember that exchange, just as I'll remember my trip to see him at Stanford last December. He had already spoken publicly about his battle with leukemia, and I flew up to talk to him about how he was coping with the disease.

He still kept an office at the school, and we spent a couple hours in the conference room next door talking about his life and career. We had to schedule and reschedule the interview several times. He had a lot of bad days mixed in with the good ones, and, naturally, it wasn't easy for him to face mortality.

He told me he didn't fear death, "but the last thing you want when you're dying is to be suffering. I've discussed that with my physicians.... I just don't want to cling to some form of life."

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.

At times, Walsh was the absent-minded professor. Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune recalls running into him the morning before Walsh's Stanford team played at Northwestern.

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