The Top of His Game (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 6, 2007 5:18PM; Updated: Tuesday March 6, 2007 5:18PM
After DeBartolo calms down, he reminisces about the December 1978 dinner at the Doral hotel in Miami Beach, where he offered Walsh, then the Stanford coach, the job of turning around the franchise DeBartolo had purchased two years earlier. Coming off a 2-14 season that ended the brutal two-year reign of autocratic general manager Joe Thomas, the organization was, in the words of Montana, a third-round draft pick in '79, "a small circus."
After years of being mentored by legendary football men such as franchise builder Paul Brown and offensive guru Sid Gillman, Walsh proved to be a transcendent ringmaster. Hired as coach and G.M., Walsh instituted a system that would revolutionize the game. From his meticulously crafted organization and cerebral practice regimens to his daring personnel decisions and his visionary offensive schemes, he created an enduring model.
But the heavy lifting over those 10 years with the Niners -- he was also G.M. from 1979 to '82 and team president from '83 to '87 -- left Walsh drained, and he chose to walk away. That Walsh now questions the move doesn't surprise his former boss. "Bill was such a competitor, but he was going through such an emotionally tough time," DeBartolo says. "[Quitting] was going through his mind after the fifth or sixth game [in '88], and he held it together."
The two men's relationship had been strained since the 49ers were upset by the Minnesota Vikings in a 1987 divisional-round playoff; afterward DeBartolo stripped Walsh of his title as team president, appointing himself as the replacement. But as early as '82 -- the season after San Francisco's first Super Bowl victory -- Walsh was wearying of the grind and contemplating resigning as coach. The subject was broached to his assistants on a semiregular basis. "There were times we'd be told, 'Go to the East-West [Shrine Game] practices and find a job because Bill's quitting,'" recalls Bill McPherson, a longtime friend of Walsh's who was a 49ers assistant from 1979 through '98. "Then two days later he'd be in his office and we'd say, 'Maybe we still have jobs.'"
In '88 Walsh saw the team through a full-blown quarterback controversy of his own making, angering Montana by inserting Young into the lineup for parts or all of numerous regular-season games. In early November the Niners blew a 23-0 lead at Phoenix and lost to the Cardinals, a game in which Walsh also suffered bruised ribs when he was plowed over during a punt return near the sideline. That evening he was so emotionally and physically sapped that he could barely board the team plane. The next week San Francisco endured a humiliating 9-3 defeat to the Los Angeles Raiders to drop to 6-5. Though Montana rallied the Niners to a 10-6 finish and an improbable Super Bowl title, it didn't improve Walsh's outlook. He was exhausted and disillusioned with coaching.
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