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Bill Walsh, 1931-2007

A man with a talent for picking talent.

11:00 AM, Aug 1, 2007 • By MAX BOOT
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HERE'S A QUICK test to determine if you're a high brow or a low brow. Two men died recently. Both were described as geniuses in their field. Which one meant the most to you? Was it Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director of gloomy, arty movies? Or Bill Walsh, one of the greatest football coaches of all time?

There's no doubt which one the New York Times judges to be the more important: Bergman gets a lengthy tribute not only on the front page of the entire newspaper but also of the Arts sections. Walsh was relegated to a paltry obit on B9. If I were calling the shots at the Newspaper of Record, I would have reversed the story selection, but then I admit to a certain bias here as a devoted 49ers fan of long standing.

I grew up in Los Angeles rooting for the Rams, before they betrayed my hometown by decamping for St. Louis in 1994. By that time my allegiance had already begun to shift, since I moved north to attend the University of California, Berkeley in 1987, at the very height of the 49ers dynasty. Ah, to be young and a football fan in the Bay Area in the 1980s and early 1990s . It must have been like being a New York Yankees fan in the 1920s-30s or a Boston Celtics fan in the 1960s. Bliss it was to watch Joe Montana lofting soft passes to Jerry Rice, Roger Craig coming out of the backfield, Ronnie Lott nailing opposing receivers.... And orchestrating the whole brilliant show was the incomparable William Ernest Walsh.

Born in 1931 during the Great Depression, the son of a Southern California day laborer, Walsh came up the hard way as a marginal football player (and amateur boxer) at the College of San Mateo and San Jose State. Then he served a long apprenticeship as a junior coach, working as a graduate assistant at San Jose State, a high school head coach, and then as a defensive assistant at Cal (my alma mater) and Stanford (its hated rival). He switched from defense to offense when he joined the Oakland Raiders in 1966 and emerged as a passing guru when he was hired by Paul Brown as an assistant for the expansion Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.

Here he developed what would become known as the West Coast offense, predicated on multiple receiver sets and short, precise, timed passes. Much of the impetus for this new approach was that the Bengals had a lousy running game, so they couldn't simply shove the ball down opponents' throats in the "three yards and a cloud of dust" style favored then and now by so many unimaginative National Football League coaches. Walsh's genius was that he realized that short passes could be an even better way of controlling the game's tempo than a brutal running game; the run could come in later, as a way to grind out the clock, once the quarterback and his receivers had built up a lead.

Yet when Brown retired in 1976 he did not designate Walsh as his successor, reportedly because the white-haired, soft-spoken assistant was considered too "cerebral," not "tough enough" to handle the roughnecks of the NFL. The head coaching job went to Bill Johnson, whose only claim to fame now is that he was chosen in place of the great Bill Walsh.

Walsh went to San Diego where he spent a year working with QB Dan Fouts in a scheme orchestrated by head coach Dan Coryell, who emphasized the long-range, quick strike, not the kind of short, methodical passes that Walsh favored. Then it was off to Stanford for a brief stint as head coach before he was called upon by 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to turn around his woebegone franchise.

Walsh took over a team with an league-worst 2-14 record and within three years he won the franchise's first Super Bowl--the first of five under Walsh and his immediate successor. The highlight of that thrilling championship season was the 1982 NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys, one of the reigning powerhouses of the league. As every football fan knows, the 49ers won that game, 28-27, on a pass from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark stretching out his hands over his head while running by three defenders in the back of the end zone. What is less known is that the 49ers practiced that particular play hundreds of times--a tribute to Walsh's methodical attention to details.

Walsh introduced many innovations to the game, such as scripting the first 25 offensive plays and laying off contact drills during practice so as to keep players fresh for the game. But, along with his elaborate offensive schemes, what earned him a place in football history was his talent for picking talent.

In 1979 he chose Joe Montana in the third round. Imagine that! Every other team in the league had a chance to draft the greatest quarterback in history but they put too much faith in scouting reports which claimed that the Notre Dame signal-caller was too slow and had too weak a passing arm. Only Walsh saw his true potential.

That was no fluke. In 1987 Walsh acquired Steve Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for second and third-round draft choices. Once Montana was no longer at the top of his game, the 49ers were able to offload him to the Kansas City Chiefs and insert another future Hall of Famer behind center.

And then Walsh did it yet again. As the 49ers' general manager in the late 1990s, he signed quarterback Jeff Garcia, an unheralded San Jose State grad playing in the Canadian Football League. Garcia went on to have three Pro Bowl season in San Francisco flinging the pigskin to the talented if flaky Terrell Owens.

Walsh was such a talented architect of championship teams that, after he left the coach's job in 1989, the franchise he put together went on to win two more Super Bowls under the genial but hardly brilliant George Siefert, who never had any head-coaching success after leaving the 49ers. (His record at the Carolina Panthers was 16-32.)

Call me a Philistine if you like, but I'd prefer to watch highlights from the 49ers' glory years, which aren't hard to find on ESPN Classics and the NFL Channel, to one of Ingmar Bergman's interminable, pretentious, and incomprehensible movies.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World, coming out in paperback from Gotham Books in August.