One of my heroes died today. Bill Walsh, age 75, died of leukemia. I am Fred Moore, 73 years of age, and my father died of leukemia so I know the disease well.
I have three home towns: Phoenix, where I live now, San Francisco, where I went to junior high school and high school, and Fresno, Ca., where I went to elementary school and one year of junior high school. When I lived in San Francisco from 1946 to 1951 I was just beginning to be the obsessed sport’s fan I am today. In those days my teams were the San Francisco 49ers, University of San Francisco (basketball), University of California at Berkeley (college football) where I intended to go to school one day, the Oakland Oaks baseball team in the Pacific Coast League, and the Boston Red Sox.
In the early years the 49ers played in the All American League dominated by the Cleveland Browns featuring Otto Graham, Mac Speedie, and Marion Motley. But the 49ers had some good players too like Frankie Albert, our all pro quarter back out of Stanford, and Johnny “Strike” Strykalski at running back. When the league folded a few of the teams had strong enough followings and large enough markets to move to the NFL. Cleveland immediately went to the top of the league, but it took the 49ers quite awhile to make it there. I remember going to games at the old Kezar Stadium to watch that version of the team.
But it wasn’t until Eddie DeBartolo bought the 49ers in the early 80’s and hired Bill Walsh, the successful head coach at Stanford University, that the team hit the top. They had a symbiotic relationship that worked so well they won three super bowls in Walsh’s time as head coach. It was the golden years of pro football in San Francisco with their stars: Joe Montana leading the way, Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, and some very efficient no name offensive and defensive players like Randy Cross and Matt Millan.
But there have been many famous coaches in the NFL who had records like Walsh’s. George Halas, Bill Belichek, Tom Landry and others. But Walsh was a very creative innovator. He is given credit for developing what is now called the “West Coast Offense.” In addition many of his assistant coaches have gone on to success as a head coaches in the NFL; men like George Sieffert, Mike Holmgren, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid, and others.
But there was more. What I intuitively got from him was his attention to detail. He thought of everything, and some things no one else had thought of. As an example, his offensive linemen were always smaller but much faster then their opponents. I think he knew all the parts of the team and how they fit together, and he knew the kind of player he needed for each position. Maybe like a composer of a symphony knows each instrument, and the note each has to play to get the melody. It also seemed to me that he was constantly thinking long term. As an example: as player X was aging and beginning to lose some of his speed and ability he was training his replacement, so when the older player left, his replacement was ready to step in and take his place so the team never lost a beat.
I remember when Joe Montana came into the league there was a lot of skepticism about his arm strength and would he be able to make some of throws a pro quarterback has to make (heard the same arguments about our Matt Leinart). But perhaps Walsh designed the West Coast Offense for Joe Montana to take advantage of his accurate arm, quick mind, and his leadership. Walsh recognized early on that Montana was a winner and they could do this thing together.
It wasn’t just the offense on those great teams because his defenses were as good as the offenses, but they too were smaller and faster then the other teams.
But beyond all of that it comes down to this. How do you get so many players to want to play for you, and are willing to do things no one else has done before, and therein lies the magic of this man. He knew something and he knew how to find the players he needed to carry out his vision.
Kenny Moore (who used to write only articles about running and runners) wrote a great article in Sport’s Illustrated about Walsh. It got inside the man and you felt you were beginning to understand how he did this. In sports there are no secrets. We all know about the same things, but some of us can make these things work better then others. Dumping a short pass in the flat to the great Jerry Rice with some innovative blocking schemes will only fool the other team for a short time because the other coaches are smart too and will figure out to stop that play, but I’m not sure they ever figured Walsh out.
In the Halls of coaching greatness, in my opinion, he ranks up there with Vince Lombardi, George Halas, Pop Warner, and Johnny Wooden. It wasn’t wins and loses for these men, but the impact they made on the game they coached. Walsh changed professional football forever. He was personally difficult, arrogant, self righteous, bad tempered at times, tough minded, and very demanding of his players and coaches. He wanted perfection even though he knew he would never achieve it. He was ruthless and if you couldn’t cut it with him and his ideas, he was quick to send you on your way. But he was also kind and generous, loyal, a great friend, teacher, and leader. I don’t think the public knew him well because he was a very private man.
He was one of my heroes, and we took this trip together: he the coach, and me his fan. I never met Bill Walsh in person, but I felt like I knew him. I’ll miss him.