Out in the stillness of the parking lot, you offer a cocktail napkin to Bill Walsh so he can wipe the lipstick from his face. It is bright, Stanford scarlet—the smear, not the face. The face is tan and remarkably good-humored, considering that Walsh has just left a reception at the Los Altos Country Club, outside San Francisco, and it is not yet two hours since his Cardinal football team was dismembered by Arizona, 21-6.
Inside, with rueful candor, Walsh has told a cluster of Stanford alumni and friends how the team's speed was, is and maybe ever shall be reason for worry. "Arizona's defense found us out," he said, "but it's critically important for us to bounce back well." Stanford teams can't be counted on to be swift or deep, so they must never surrender the indefatigable spirit that is their essence, their sparkle.
Walsh had no qualms about pressing upon his Stanford players the offense he had run when he was the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "The whole network of terms had to be learned and applied, with really no room for mistakes," he told the Los Altos gathering. "And it was. The retention has been amazing, even of nuances I only mentioned once. But it was confounding today, against Arizona's tight man-to-man, when our receivers didn't have the speed to get open."
These alumni were extravagantly untroubled by the Arizona loss. This is Stanford. They winced and nodded with Walsh. They invoked the imperishable glory of Stanford's 33-16 defeat of Notre Dame on Oct. 4. Husbands hugged Walsh's wife, Geri. Wives planted so many fortifying kisses on Walsh that he needs the napkin in the parking lot.
"Ah, losing," he says. "It's not quite like this in the pros. It feels about the same to me, but it seems to be easier on these folks. You know, I don't even follow the professional game anymore. That's not a negative, just a state of mind. It's almost as if I never did it. I feel"—he pauses, drawing in air faintly scented by eucalyptus—"I feel like I've always done this."
If anyone is surprised that the NFL's coach of the 1980s took the Stanford job, then they don't know the first thing about Walsh. Or they're so consumed with the notion that the best use of a football mind is in the professional league that they see conspiracy where there is only love. "People say there must be some hidden agenda." says Walsh. "There was a rumor that I took the job to train the staff to be ready to take on a new franchise. People forget my age, which is 60. They act like I'm forever clawing upward to the top rung. Or they say there must be money."
Stanford made Walsh about the fourth-best paid coach in the Pac-10) (at $350,000 a year) and gave him a loan to help with a new house in nearby Woodside. NBC was ready to keep paying him $1 million a year to remain a color commentator. "Our 'negotiation' was hilarious," says Stanford athletic director Ted Leland. "Bill accepted our first offer. We got to perks. I said, Take six cars.' He said. 'No, no, I only need one.' "
He didn't come to drive. He came to teach. When he began to diagram his first play at Stanford, he was flooded with the thought that if he had gone on with broadcasting, he might never have done this again, might never have engaged in his life's defining art, specifying to each player his assignment on the 20 Halfback Curl X Up. The prospect filled him with the dread of a narrowly escaped accident. "I didn't want to do this for anything," he says. "I just wanted to do it."
The real mystery of Walsh then is why he is perpetually regarded as being mysterious. Yes, he created a system of offense rich in deception. Yes, he succeeded in the professional game, where, as Leland puts it, "There is no room to show any human weakness." But football's reluctance to take him at his word goes back further than that. Let us skim the road that has returned him to Stanford and count the reasons why football has resisted seeing him accurately the whole of his working life.
Walsh has coached at Stanford twice before. He assisted John Ralston in 1963-65 and returned as head coach in 1977-78, in part to rise above the reputation he had acquired in between. He had labored for eight years as offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals, developing quarterback Ken Anderson, and then was passed over when owner Paul Brown gave up the coach's job. Stunned, Walsh put in a year with the San Diego Chargers, working his magic on Dan Fouts and solidifying his reputation as a wonderful mentor of quarterbacks and deviser of offenses who was, nevertheless, too abstract, too bloodless to be entrusted with command.