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Back to School
Kenny Moore
November 02, 1992
Bill Walsh, a teacher at heart, is free to be himself at Stanford
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November 02, 1992

Back To School

Bill Walsh, a teacher at heart, is free to be himself at Stanford

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His two seasons as Stanford's coach allowed him to bury that notion. His teams went 17-7, won the 1977 Sun Bowl and the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl, and moved San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo to present him with the 2-1449ers. Three years later, with the blossoming of Joe Montana under Walsh's guidance, the 49ers were 16-3 and the 1982 Super Bowl champions.

His first postchampionship team went 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. But Walsh brought the 49ers back better than ever the following season, and they blew out Miami, 38-16, in the 1985 Super Bowl. They were better still after selecting Jerry Rice in that spring's draft. Always, Walsh crafted his high-percentage, short-passing offense according to his sense of the particular gifts of his athletes. Always, he chose assistants who welcomed and employed human diversity.

In an important sense, Walsh football could not be divorced from Walsh the man. He was president, head coach and offensive coordinator for the 49ers. So his football was the sum of his personal judgments of players, coaching and tactics. Five current NFL head coaches—George Seifert of the 49ers, Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Holmgren of the Green Bay Packers and Bruce Coslet of the New York Jets—make up a short list of the many in whom Walsh has seen an ineffable something. Walsh could not have done what he has done without being a very sensitive man.

And this made for a lasting irony. "In the pros," Walsh says, "I felt great affection for the players, but I couldn't demonstrate it. I was the employer. If I were to keep a player on too long out of friendship, I would be compromising the interests of the entire venture. I remember thinking, in a game we were losing, Here's Joe Montana, the greatest quarterback ever to play, and he is not up to what we need today, and Steve Young should be in there. Is friendship going to overshadow the ethic of the job? I made the substitution. I did the job. And in a way, Joe's never forgiven me for that."

The more the 49ers became a dynasty, the more difficult Walsh found it to release players who had sacrificed for the team. "Looking into the future of Joe, Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Mike Wilson, I really wondered if I could sit down with them and ask them to step away from the game, when they'd been so much of my life," says Walsh.

As the 49ers struggled to a 6-5 start in 1988, Walsh took emotional stock. "I had a waning intensity. I was weary of the daily press-sparring. I thought of delegating more. The guts of our success on the field was my being offensive coordinator. But the longevity of the team's excellence was through drafting and developing talent. I knew I couldn't say, 'Someone else run that, I'll just coach.' And I knew that after 10 years I didn't have the drive and the insensitivity to family and friends to continue as I was."

The 49ers roared back to win Walsh's third, and most dramatic, Super Bowl, defeating Cincinnati 20-16. Four days later Walsh resigned as coach, though he stayed on as general manager until July. He prevailed on DeBartolo to ensure continuity by making Seifert, his defensive coordinator, the 49er coach. Yet he never called the team together to say he was retiring, and many of his players were offended. "He used to be a players' coach," said Lott. "He'd crack jokes, be sarcastic. But he started to change after the second Super Bowl. The media started calling him a genius and prying into his private life. He was really distant after that."

"He was the type who had everything, but he could never enjoy it," said tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "He was miserable."

Perhaps he was, but not because he lacked feeling for others. "I could have left the 49ers in a more dramatic way," says Walsh. "You want to get up and make an emotional speech, and you can't because your nerve endings are exposed. You know you'll never be able to finish. I was determined to go out the way my players went out, with the emphasis on my replacement. But I have had a hard time talking to 49er players after retirement."

Because he had hewed to the coach's "ethic" and stifled his affections, few players sensed his real feelings, and then only dimly. Walsh's tone is a mixture of irony and embarrassment when he says, "I'm called 'calculating' and 'insensitive' when I can't speak my heart, because I know I'll break down."

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