Bill Walsh On 49ers, NFL and Stanford
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 25, 2006

BILL WALSH was surprised by the trade which the 49ers made last week to give them an additional pick in the first round.

“That’s, typically, more like the type of trade you make on draft day, when you sense by the way the draft is going that there will be a player at that position (22) that you can use,” Walsh said, in a conversation in his Stanford office.

“Unless, of course, they’re thinking of packaging those two picks to move up to, say, No. 2 to get a player they really like.” That was a suggestion I made last week, but it appears Mike Nolan prefers to keep both picks.

“At least, it’s encouraging that they’re able to make decisions,” he said. “For a long time, they couldn’t make any at all.”

That was as close as Walsh would come to criticizing Terry Donahue, whom he brought in to replace him as general manager. Donahue was a serious disappointment, to Walsh and many observers. I had thought he’d be good in the job, because of his intelligence and success as a college coach. (He’s in the college Hall of Fame.)

Why did Donahue fail? There were a number of reasons. Having come most directly from working on telecasts of college games, he was no longer accustomed to putting in long hours. As a college coach, his job – and others in the same position – had evolved from a football-heavy emphasis to one where the most important factors are dealing with alumni and media, so he had gotten away from making football decisions. He had just bought what he called his “dream home” in Newport Beach, so he wound up spending long weekends and more there. There were times when his work “week” in Santa Clara was no more than three days. With so little time, he fell back on computer analysis for his decisions.

I’ve discussed computer analysis before, and it certainly has its place. But relying on computer analysis also brings in players like Kwame Harris. On the spread sheet, Harris looks great, with good size, speed and intelligence, and I thought he was a good choice when he was drafted. But the problem with Harris is simple: He doesn’t have quick feet. Without that asset, an offensive tackle can’t adjust to the speed moves of NFL defensive ends. A good scout should have been able to see that in a game, or even in practice. Relying on computer analysis, Donahue drafted Harris. You’ve seen the results.

Walsh has severed his ties with the 49ers – like many of you out there, he has no use for owner John York – but he still watches the team and generally likes what he sees of Nolan. Strangely, the two have never talked, except for small talk when they’re at a public gathering. “I always wanted to get as much input from as many people as I could get,” Walsh said. “I always had confidence in my own judgments, and I didn’t think it undercut my authority to listen to others.”

Nolan clearly has a different opinion, and he has an authority that rivals Walsh’s, as coach and de facto general manager – though he still has to talk with York. Walsh thinks the addition of Lal Henneghan was a good move because Henneghan brings an experienced NFL executive into the front office. (It also helps Nolan in what observers think is his plan of isolating Paraag Marathe from important decisions.) But Henneghan is a financial guy, not a talent evaluator.

There was an amusing side story to Henneghan’s hiring. York hesitated to hire him when he learned that Carmen Policy had hired Henneghan with the Cleveland Browns – until Henneghan assured him that, though he was grateful that Policy gave him the opportunity, they did not socialize and were not close friends. That shouldn’t have mattered, anyway, but because York is so obsessed with his rivalry with Eddie De Bartolo (not understanding that 49er fans sorted that one out years ago), he sees traces of Eddie in whatever De Bartolo’s long-time friend Policy does.

WALSH IS still involved with the NFL, with an executives seminar scheduled for June at Stanford. He has also worked on other NFL projects over the years, most notably the program to help black assistant coaches get a shot at head coaching jobs, with long-time NFL executive Roger Goodall, who is the leading candidate to replace Paul Tagliabue as commissioner.

As an observer of though not participant in the recent battle over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, he was glad to see it happen – because he remembers the “bad old days” in the NFL. “We had one strike when I was with the Bengals,” he remembered, “and two when I was with the 49ers. We just had some hard-liners, especially Tex Schramm, who were just determined we weren’t going to have free agency. It was crazy, because there was already a precedent (in baseball).”

The current NFL operation has one unfortunate aspect: Players so often leave a team in free agency that it’s hard to develop continuity. Walsh was reminded of that when he was at the big reunion party that De Bartolo threw in Las Vegas. “It was first class all the way,” he said, “and it was great seeing all the players and coaches and remembering what a great time that was. You couldn’t do that with a team today. It seems when players come to a team, they’re already thinking of the next team they’re going to.”

Of course, those times weren’t perfect, either. The tempestuous De Bartolo would, after losses, threaten to fire Walsh, though he never followed through on the threats. At the Las Vegas reunion, Walsh hosted a cocktail party for the team’s coaches and executives. Policy toasted George Seifert by joking, “You may not have won as many Super Bowls as Bill – but you weren’t fired as many times, either.”

WALSH IS currently the interim athletic director at Stanford, having been asked to step into the role when Ted Leland resigned unexpectedly. Leland himself had expected to stay until the new stadium was built but he got an offer from University of Pacific that he couldn’t refuse.

Walsh expects that a new athletic director will be named soon, though he has agreed not to go public with a name. “I briefly flirted with the idea of taking the job (which certainly would have been an option for him) but decided against it. It’s just too much. I’m out five nights a week, and that’s not fair to my wife. I want to enjoy these years.” Walsh, whose birthday is in November, is 74.

He admits there’s some frustration in his current job. “There’s been so much pressure on admissions,” he said. “We have so many more qualified applicants that it’s raised the standard for everybody, including athletes. I won’t name any names, but there are many star athletes from the past who wouldn’t be admitted today.

“So, that’s put tremendous pressure on the coaches. We have some very good ones here, but even Mark Marquess, who always has a good (baseball) team, is having trouble winning games. I have confidence in our coaches, but it’s still tough for them.”

Walsh also noted that there's one crucial difference for Stanford football since the first time he coached at the school, 1977-78. "Stanford used to be able to beat teams by throwing the ball," he said, "but now, everybody in the Pac-10 throws the ball. We have the best quarterback, Trent Edwards, but we don't have the advantage we once had."

One aspect of the job Walsh enjoys: “We don’t have any ‘surprises’ here, like those schools where they find out athletes have been paid.” When his long-time friend and associate, John McVay, took his first college coaching job, he was pleased that players all greeted him warmly - but he realized when they stayed in his office that it was because he had replaced the coach who paid the players.

Much of Walsh's job now is concerned with meetings on the new stadium, which remains on schedule despite the rain. The new 50,000-seat stadium is expected to host its first game, against Navy, on Sept. 16.

The relatively small seating capacity is a recognition of how the Stanford fan base has shrunk over the years. “I’m told that tickets are selling well,” Walsh said, “but ultimately, it will come down to winning, of course.”

FORTY YEARS ago, Walsh was part of an incredible coaching staff at Stanford, with John Ralston as the head coach and Mike White and Dick Vermeil joining Walsh as assistants. All four later became head coaches in the NFL, and Walsh and Vermeil have won Super Bowls.

Of the four, there’s no question that Walsh is the brightest star. We’ve been very privileged to have him.

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