BILL WALSH REMEMBERED
We sat and talked in a coffee shop in the shopping center across El Camino Real from the university, and as he discussed his football philosophy, I thought, “This guy is in another league from the other coaches I’ve met.”
I never changed my mind. Gary Radnich asked me this week, knowing my penchant for criticizing coaches, if Walsh and I ever had a falling out. Of course, we did not. There were times when he made mistakes, but his overall plan was so brilliant and his moves so decisive, that I saw no reason to criticize.
My first impression of him was only strengthened when I watched his practices at Stanford. I’m big on watching football practices, not just for specific plays but for the overall atmosphere. The first time I saw a Cal practice with Jeff Tedford I knew better times were coming, because there was a crispness and energy that had been absent under Tom Holmoe.
It was the same way with the Walsh practices. They were a model of efficiency, with specific times for specific activities. Knowing his players had tight schedules because of classes – he had been an assistant on that great staff in the ‘60s which included five future NFL head coaches, himself, John Ralston, Dick Vermeil, Mike White and Rod Rust – he wasted no time. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. I talked to a pro scout at practice one day and he said Walsh’s practices were the most efficient he’d ever seen for a college team.
Our relationship deepened when 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo was looking for a head coach. Eddie had fired Joe Thomas and had decided to hire a coach first, with the idea that he and the new coach would work to find a general manager. I recommended that Walsh be hired and Ron Barr, who was doing the radio for Stanford football and was close to DeBartolo, also pushed Walsh in personal conversations. As far as I know, nobody else in the media mentioned Walsh for the 49er job.
The 49ers went 2-14 in Walsh’s first year, and there were writers who thought Walsh was in over his head. I disagreed and wrote that there was obvious progress on offense and that, when Walsh got the right players, he’d win.
I could write that because I had more personal knowledge of what he was trying to do. We had already started one-on-one conversations which were free-flowing because Walsh trusted me not to quote him when he didn’t want to be quoted. He told me early how he was going to work Joe Montana into a starting role because he thought Montana was perfect for his offense. Even as Steve DeBerg was setting club passing records, Walsh knew he was not a quarterback who could take the 49ers very far because of his immobility. He needed a quarterback who could move, as Montana could and Steve Young really could, to make the most of his offense.
My writing philosophy has always been simple: I want information more than quotes. If I could only get that information by taking it off-the-record, fine – if I trusted the individual. I would never have used something off-the-record from Charlie Finley (not a problem because Finley always wanted his every word to be quoted) but I figured putting my name on something I got off-the-record from Bill Walsh would only make me look good.
There was only one time that really backfired. In 1988, Walsh was convinced that Joe Montana was near the end. He had always been concerned about Montana’s health; he tried to have a competent backup for him, such as Matt Cavanaugh, and he traded for Young with the intention that Young would soon take over. Montana had back surgery in 1987, and he missed two starts in the 1988 season. The 49ers won the first game when Young made a spectacular 49-yard touchdown run at the end and lost the second to the Arizona Cardinals when Walsh turned uncharacteristically cautious with his playcalling.
Walsh told me when we talked the next week that he would have kept Young as the starter if the 49ers had won that game but he knew there would now be tremendous pressure to put Montana back in the lineup. He was concerned that the team would be affected by the turmoil, so he put Montana back in the starting lineup – but he didn’t expect Montana to be able to stay there.
So, I wrote that Montana was on the way out and Young would soon replace him. Montana had a terrible game in his first game back, a field goal game won by the Raiders, 9-3, but then went on to the greatest stretch of his career until he was injured and knocked out of the NFC championship game following the 1990 season.
And, I’m still hearing from Montana fans about what I wrote.
No matter. I learned a tremendous amount in my conversations with Walsh, and there often were bits of information I could use later. For instance, at one point, Ralston and Tony Razzano, who had been the 49ers scouting chief, claimed that they had talked Walsh into drafting Montana – as if Walsh ever needed advice on quarterbacks! – and that he really wanted Steve Dils, who had been his quarterback at Stanford. But before the 1979 draft, Walsh had told me he didn’t want to say it publicly because he didn’t want to hurt Dils but he thought Dils would never be anything but a backup quarterback. He was right about that, of course, and he was also right in his evaluation of Montana.
Our off-the-record conversations continued even after he left coaching. He was frankly dismayed after he watched a Buddy Teevens practice, before Teevens actually coached a game at Stanford. “That rah-rah approach wears thin very soon with players,” he told me. “They want to have a system that gives them a chance to make plays, and Teevens doesn’t have that.” As Stanford fans soon learned.
Our conversations often veered to what was happening around the league, which again was part of my education because he became deeply involved in league programs after he quit coaching the 49ers. Sometimes, we’d talk about Cal. He knew my attachment, of course, but he also had a connection because he was an assistant at Cal on the Marv Levy staff in the early .60s. Others may have forgotten that but he didn’t; he contributed money to the Cal athletic department, without publicity.
The only time I disregarded what he said was when he discussed his former coaches. He was intensely loyal to anybody who ever played or coached for him, so his judgment on them could be trusted. The day Holmoe was named coach at Cal, Walsh called to put in a good word for him. I said I had just finished writing a column which predicted Holmoe would be a disaster. “Oh, well,” Bill said, “you have to do what you have to do,” and then we chatted for several minutes on other subjects.
Naturally, most of our conversations were about sports, but not all of them. Unlike so many football coaches, he was very knowledgeable about current events, especially politics. He could talk freely with me because we shared a liberal viewpoint, but in fact, Walsh made friends across the political spectrum. Former Secretary of State George Schultz walked the sidelines during his second stint at Stanford. Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was provost at Stanford at that time and she became a friend. Admiral James Stockdale, who was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the ballot with Ross Perot in 1992, was also a friend.
One final note about our relationship: I never thought it was equal. I was always aware that I was the junior partner. From the very first time we talked, I realized I was in the presence of a great man. To say he’ll be missed is a gross understatement. There will never be another like him.
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