The Top of His Game
Walsh comes to terms with his considerable legacy
Posted: Tuesday March 6, 2007 5:18PM; Updated: Tuesday March 6, 2007 5:18PM
Bill Walsh sits at a lacquered wooden table, the 18th hole of the pristine Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club behind him, another blood transfusion and another long, draining day at Stanford Hospital in his immediate future. The Hall of Fame coach is talking about the end of his life -- the "final stage," as he calls it -- and, at 75, sounds as prepared and unruffled as a man battling leukemia can be. But is he completely without regret? Walsh closes his eyes and furrows his brow, the wrinkles on his prominent forehead becoming more pronounced. Something is bothering him, something apart from the disease that has left him so vulnerable: a decision he made 18 years ago that he wishes he could take back.
"I should have continued to coach," Walsh says, his words hanging in the air of the country club's nearly deserted dining room. "If I could've taken a month off, or something, to get away ... but I had all the other jobs. I couldn't leave. The draft was coming, and I was the general manager. So I didn't see any place to go. I should've turned it over to other guys and taken off. It would've been all right. Of course it would have. But I didn't do it." He sighs and shakes his head.
In January 1989 Walsh -- burned out after a decade as coach of the San Francisco 49ers -- stepped away from the NFL sideline, never to return. The franchise he'd raised from rubble had just won its third Super Bowl in eight years and was positioned to win more. Under Walsh's coaching successor, George Seifert, the Niners would win their fourth Super Bowl the following year, go to three more NFC title games in the next four years, and win their fifth Super Bowl in January '95. Had Walsh remained as coach, with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young running his avant-garde offense, the man who had been dubbed the Genius knows he could have won four, five, maybe even six Super Bowls. Six! There's a record that might have stood forever. Instead the most influential football man of his era allowed others to bask in the afterglow of his accomplishments.
So now Walsh squints into the descending sun on a clear January afternoon in Menlo Park, Calif., lost in silence, and ponders what might have been. How, after drawing up all those spellbinding game plans, after all that bold draft day wheeling and dealing, could he have so badly botched that one, crucial call?
Eddie Debartolo Jr. is enjoying Montana -- the state where he owns a vacation home, not the quarterback whose excellence helped him become the most successful NFL owner of his era -- when the mention of Walsh brings him out of his reverie. A few days earlier, a writer from the Bay Area had called DeBartolo's secretary seeking a phone interview for a story on Walsh. Recounting the writer's message sends DeBartolo into one of his infamous tirades. "He wanted me to give him quotes for an obituary," DeBartolo screams. "A f------ obituary! I said to my secretary, 'Amy, read that to me again because I can't f------ believe what I'm hearing!'"
1 of 5