Bill Walsh became famousfor his football, but he was much more than that.
He was a man who was comfortable talking — and arguing — politics with Jack Kemp or in teaching a law school class at Stanford. He worked with Roger Goodell, before he became NFL commissioner, on many league projects, including NFL Europe.
On his own, he started coaching clinics for black assistant coaches, working with them to help them get head-coaching jobs — a program that was later adopted by the NFL — and was very proud when there were two black head coaches in the last Super Bowl.
Truly, the NFL’s Renaissance Man.
Walsh, who died Monday at age 75, was intensely loyal to anybody who ever played for him or coached with him. He maneuvered to get his top assistant, George Seifert, to replace him when he resigned as the 49ers’ coach and Seifert won two Super Bowls.
In fact, Walsh was a one-man employment agency. After he left coaching, we had many conversations in his office and I don’t think there was one time we weren’t interrupted by a phone call from a coach seeking his help in getting a job. I knew that very soon the caller would have the job he sought.
And then, there was the football. Walsh turned the NFL on its head.
The NFL offensive schemes of the time were very predictable. Teams would run on first and second down, pass on third — and the passes were often deep ones. Walsh often passed on first down and he used short passes to control the ball.
The standard for quarterbacks had been 50 percent completions and as many touchdowns as interceptions. Walsh’s quarterbacks completed nearly two-thirds of their passes — Steve Young once said that any quarterback who couldn’t complete at least 60 percent of his passes in Walsh’s system should quit — and had nearly twice as many touchdowns as interceptions.
He also believed that it was important to "move the chains" and have time-consuming drives because that helped the defense by giving it a chance to rest. The Los Angeles Rams’ John Robinson kidded him, saying Walsh was a great defensive coach.
Walsh’s system worked even against the best coaches of the day. Tom Landry had built a powerhouse in Dallas with a defensive system in which players had specific roles on each play. Walsh devised formations that would get the 49ers in favorable matchups, such as forcing a Dallas linebacker to cover a wide receiver. Preparing for the 1985 Super Bowl, he had noticed that the Miami linebackers turned their backs to the line of scrimmage in pass coverage, so he told Joe Montana to run any time he saw that. On one remarkable play, Roger Craig, a Miami linebacker and Montana were running in tandem down the sideline.
Walsh also preached beating the opponent to the punch, so he drafted smaller but very effective offensive linemen.
As important as his system was his ability to evaluate players. Montana was only a low third-round pick because other clubs didn’t believe in him. There probably wasn’t another general manager who believed Young could be an NFL quarterback when Walsh arranged the trade for him.
He was a true icon, a graceful, charming man who changed the face of football, while always saving time to work on programs for the less fortunate. There will never be another quite like him.
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