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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.