Remembering a true visionary
Walsh's intellectual ways took football to new heights
Posted: Monday July 30, 2007 7:09PM; Updated: Tuesday July 31, 2007 12:38AM
As I worked to finish a book in 1991 on the inner game of pro football, I was asked by my publisher to consider something I had never thought of: Find someone to write the foreword.
Hmmm. I'd covered football for seven years, and I'd met my share of bright guys; but now I had to come up with the best, the brightest, to try to make people understand this was no longer just a blood-and-guts game anymore.
Bill Walsh. The only choice.
Would he do it? Nice guy. Had a good relationship with him. Loved talking to him because he had great stories and was never shy about giving himself the credit that he deserved. (Don't you just hate false humility?) So I called him, explained that I was writing a book in which I would spend a week with some of the best players in football -- staying at their homes, going over their playbooks with them, studying their assignments -- and would he consider writing the foreword.
"Absolutely,'' he said. "I would love to. Sounds like my kind of book.''
Let me tell you about books, and forewords. Some of them -- many of them I dare say -- are phonies, ghost-written after conversations with the author. Not Walsh's foreword. He wrote something that captured exactly what I hoped he'd say.
I know he wouldn't mind. I'm reprinting a chunk of it here. I re-read it Monday afternoon and got chills.
"Football is detail work. It's teaching. People in baseball may disagree, but I think football is the real thinking person's game and I think that's what you'll see in this book. Coaches and players know that today, but that's not how it used to be. I'd like to think that my coaching successes have had some effect in changing the image.
"Intelligence was never something I thought much about until I started getting passed up for head-coaching jobs in the seventies. The Bengals passed me over when Paul Brown retired, and I lost out when the Rams changed coaches too. After missing out on some of these jobs, I became alerted to an overriding thought around the league about me: I would be good in the laboratory, but I'd never be enough of a taskmaster to be a good head coach. Owners wanted someone who'd yell and scream and whip their players into submission, but I don't believe that's how to coach. I think you have to treat players intelligently. Sometimes you have to threaten players, and discipline them, and yell at them. But my approach is to teach, because players need to be prepared mentally to play the sophisticated football of the nineties.
"If there's one thing that frustrates me a little bit about fans and media, it's that they really don't -- and they can't -- grasp the mind-boggling and painstaking detail that goes into a football game. When things go wrong, they lash out. That's their right, certainly. But I wish they could step back sometimes and look at a play that's gone awry and say, 'Why didn't that work?' They need to understand the detail.
"I remember going down to San Diego to play a preseason game when I was coaching the running backs for the Raiders in 1966. Before leaving the hotel, I was sitting in my room flipping around the TV dial and I stopped to watch Sid Gillman, the Chargers' coach, on his show, running his game films. He was teaching the game to the viewers at home.
"It may sound funny, but it was fascinating watching something as simple as the slant pattern that day. Sid, whom I regarded as a brilliant coach in every phase, went into the minute details of the slant pattern, how it had to be coached and how it had to be run by the receiver. Then you watched the Chargers and discovered how well they ran it, and you knew it had to have been coached brilliantly for them to run it that well. Details. That's when I knew how important every single detail was in football.
"That was a revelation to me. And the longer you're in the game, the more you see how significant the details and teaching and education are. Everyone knows that the quarterback is the brain center of the football team, but few people know what that means and what it entails. Here, one of the game's smartest quarterbacks, Boomer Esiason, brings you into his football life for a week and shows you. I don't know that quarterback has ever laid open his life, in battle and in study, the way Esiason does here. The same is true about the other positions covered in this book.
"As a coach, I know I have to start with smart players. It might not have been so important in past years, but today we're asking players to do so much and to know so many schemes. Without basic intelligence, they simply can't play. And if they're not just plain smart, they're not going to be able to do the things a sophisticated coach is going to ask. With the speed on the field today, their technique and knowledge of what they have to do has to be keen or they'll get buried. A player like Bill Ring of the 49ers, who wasn't physically gifted, was a great contributor, despite his lack of speed and size and quickness, because he was a tremendous student of the game.
"As you'll see in this book, intelligent players have an infinitely better chance to succeed. On offense, they have to cope more and more with things like the no-huddle and quick snaps. In a few years, who knows? Maybe there won't be huddles. On defense, they have to cope with different schemes and all the substitution. When I look for players now, even at Stanford, I can rule out a lot of people fast. They have to have above-average intelligence combined with the ability to function under stress ... You will come away from the book knowing what football is really about. "Bill Walsh "Palo Alto, California''
I was pretty much agog when I read that, 16 years ago and again on Monday. Walsh was convinced you had to be smart to win in the NFL, and his legacy will never be forgotten.
You know why? On Monday, I sat with Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis for an hour in Georgetown, Ky., discussing his team and his hopes for the season. I bet 20 minutes of our conversation was about a book, "The Best Damn Ship in the Navy,'' that Carson Palmer had asked him to read to help him understand how to motivate sometimes difficult-to-reach players. That's not the only book Lewis read in the off-season, and he's not the only reader among NFL coaches. Because, as Walsh taught us all, the smart coaches win.