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America's Teams

Football is serious business.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By MAX BOOT
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The Genius

How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty

by David Harris

Random House, 385 pp., $26

Boys Will Be Boys

The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty

by Jeff Pearlman

HarperCollins, 416 pp., $25.95

Both the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, two of the NFL's most storied franchises, started this season with high hopes of returning to their bygone glory. The 49ers expected to win their division or at least snare a wild-card playoff spot. The Cowboys were considered odds-on favorites to win the whole shebang.

It didn't quite work out that way. Midway through the season, both teams were at the bottom of their divisions, with the 49ers already having jettisoned their head coach, Mike Nolan. The 'Boys still have a chance to salvage this campaign, but odds are that fans of both clubs will be left to mutter: Wait 'til next year.

They can take heart from two books that reveal how these teams escaped previous periods of oblivion to emerge as dominant forces in footballdom.

The 49ers had won 10 or more games only twice between 1946 and 1980. They would go on to win at least that number every season for the next 17 years (not counting strike-shortened 1982). Along the way they would prevail in five Super Bowls and establish themselves as the "Team of the '80s." This amazing turnaround can be attributed largely to two men: Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who bought the team in 1977, and William Ernest Walsh, the coach he hired in 1979. In The Genius, David Harris focuses on Walsh, but he includes a memorable portrait of DeBartolo as well.

When DeBartolo took over, he was a 30-year-old party animal who had never worked for anyone other than his father, a self-made shopping center magnate from Youngstown, Ohio. After floundering at first, he became desperate enough to take a chance on the silver-haired Stanford coach, Bill Walsh, who had a suspect reputation in NFL circles. Walsh had been the offensive mastermind behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the early 1970s, but when head coach and owner Paul Brown retired, he passed over Walsh as his successor, leading many to conclude there was something wrong with him. He was, the scuttlebutt had it, "too cerebral and too far outside the box."

What the critics overlooked was Walsh's genius for drawing up innovative offensive plays and for finding the right players to execute them. His scheme, which emphasized short passes to control the ball, became known as the West Coast offense, and it remains a mainstay of the league to this day. But plays drawn up on paper can fail on the gridiron if a team lacks talent, as it did when Walsh first took over. He rectified that with a series of brilliant drafts, starting in 1979 when, in the third round, he picked a skinny quarterback from Notre Dame who was considered a big risk at the professional level.

Joe Montana turned into arguably the best passer of all time, but that would never have happened if Walsh hadn't also snagged two overlooked wide-outs to play catch with him: first Dwight Clark, who had caught only 12 balls in his senior year at Clemson, and then Jerry Rice, a product of ultra-obscure Mississippi Valley State. Although known primarily for offensive acumen, Walsh was no mean judge of talent on the other side of the ball, stocking his team with defensive all-stars such as safety Ronnie Lott and pass rusher Fred Dean.

Walsh's first season was awful: 2-14. His second wasn't much better: 6-10. It was in his third season (1981) that the 49ers established themselves. Their breakthrough came in the NFC Championship Game. Trailing the Dallas Cowboys, 27-21, with less than five minutes left, Montana orchestrated a legendary drive that culminated in what became known simply as "The Pass"--a desperation heave caught by a streaking Dwight Clark at the back of the end zone.

Judging from the 49ers' subsequent record of success, it might seem that things were easy from then on. They were not. As Harris tells it, Walsh was a tortured genius who had difficult, verging on dysfunctional, dealings with those closest to him, personally and professionally.

Like many other coaches, Walsh was so dedicated to his career that he hardly spent any time at home. His relationship with his children was described as "almost complete alienation." His relationship with his wife Geri wasn't much better. At one point in the 1980s he left her and moved in with a former Playboy playmate 20 years his junior. He finally returned home only when he found out his eldest son was dying of AIDS.

He had an equally tumultuous relationship with his boss, Eddie DeBartolo, who, one of Walsh's friends said, "treated him like dirt in certain cases," and who contemplated firing his coach after almost every season that did not result in a championship. Walsh even had a difficult time with his top players. Joe Montana, a teammate recalls, would routinely deride his coach: "He called him a 'dumb, stupid m--f--r,' which was his catchall phrase for anybody he didn't like."

Ultimately, what led to Walsh's retirement was not his inability to get along with others but his inability to live with himself after every loss. An emotional wreck, he finally called it quits after his 1988 Super Bowl victory. His hand-picked successor, George Seifert, would continue the team's winning ways, snagging two more championships (1989, 1994) thanks to DeBartolo's free-spending ways. But as the 1990s went along, the team lost ground to its old rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, who had recovered from their nadir of the late 1980s.

Just as in San Francisco, the resurgence in Dallas was led by a new owner--Jerry Jones--and a new coach--Jimmy Johnson, who took over in 1989 from Tom Landry, the only coach the team had ever known. Jones and Johnson had been teammates years before on the University of Arkansas football team. Since then, the two had gone their separate ways, Jones earning a fortune in the oil business and Johnson coaching the Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 1987. Reunited in Dallas, they proceeded to stockpile
top-tier talent including quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and receiver Michael Irvin.

Nobody ever described Johnson as a "genius" in the manner of Bill Walsh, but he was just as driven to succeed. And like Walsh, he paid the price, divorcing his wife and neglecting his kids. His dedication paid dividends in Dallas once he made the adjustment to the professional game. The Cowboys went from 1-15 in 1989 to 13-3 in 1992. That year they won the Super Bowl, a feat they would repeat in 1993 and again in 1995. By the third championship Johnson was no longer at the helm. He was fired in 1994 by Jones for no better reason than that the owner was jealous of all the accolades heaped on his employee. Jones wanted to show he could win without Johnson, and to make his point he hired another former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer to lead "America's Team." The easygoing Switzer would win one more championship, but he would also lose control of the squad and hasten its downfall.

Reading Boys Will Be Boys makes you wonder how the Cowboys managed to win as many games as they did. The tales of their carousing suggest that the later Roman emperors were puritanical by comparison. Jeff Pearlman writes that the players routinely would "hit the town in a pack--twenty, twenty-five Cowboys sitting at a table in the hottest gentleman's clubs, slinging $100 bills and screwing dancers and ducking into back rooms for pulls on bongs and snorts of cocaine." They even rented a house near their practice facility where they could indulge in sex and drugs away from the preying eyes of wives and reporters.

The ringleader in many of these debaucheries was Michael Irvin, who showed a preternatural ability to score "blow" at night and still blow by cornerbacks the next day. But after Johnson's departure, discipline collapsed, and Irvin got out of control. In 1996 he was arrested in a Dallas hotel room along with a former teammate and "two strippers, 10.3 grams of cocaine, more than an ounce of marijuana, and assorted drug paraphernalia and sex toys." In 1998 he grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed a teammate in the neck, nearly killing him, when he wouldn't vacate a barber chair. That incident, as much as any other, symbolized the end of Dallas's run as the "Team of the '90s."

The Cowboys appeared to be on the brink of a comeback last year before they were eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Giants. This year has turned into a nightmare with a return to the indiscipline and infighting of the late '90s. For their part, the 49ers have never been the same since DeBartolo, in legal difficulties, had to cede control of the team in 1997 to his sister and her husband. Those two have presided over one disastrous decision after another, from firing coach Steve Mariucci in 2003 to selecting quarterback Alex Smith as the first pick of the 2005 draft.

Both Dallas and San Francisco cry out for a savior in the mold of Bill Walsh or Jimmy Johnson. Too bad Walsh is in the ground while Johnson is in a television studio, and fans of both teams will have to satisfy themselves with these tales of the glory of yesterseason.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.