As furious as
Montana was at his coach in the months before Walsh's resignation, he thought
the decision to leave was a huge mistake. "I was in shock," Montana
remembers. "With the team we had and where we were going, I think he gave
up at the wrong time. I know there was a lot of pressure, but he handed over a
team that arguably should have won three Super Bowls in a row and might have
won who knows how many."
Even as Walsh was
making his announcement at a press conference, DeBartolo could sense the coach
was having second thoughts. "Bill got better in the next five or six days
after the Super Bowl, and then he went to Hawaii and healed even more,"
DeBartolo says. "But you can't renege on a commitment. He never said to me,
'You know what, I blew it. I shouldn't have resigned.'"
acquired Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for second- and fourth-round draft
picks before the 1987 season, the lefthanded quarterback was the NFL's version
of a wild mustang--swift and untamed. It took years for Young's coaches,
including Walsh and future offensive coordinators Mike Holmgren, Marc Trestman
and Mike Shanahan, to mold him into the precise passer and methodical
decision-maker the 49ers' offense demanded. More than seven years removed from
his last NFL game, Young now believes that for all the credit Walsh receives,
his genius is nonetheless underrated.
"I get the
sense that East Coasters don't see the impact [West Coasters] do," Young
says. "I don't know if people realize the innovation he has brought to this
game on so many levels. From a business perspective, I'd compare it to Silicon
Valley--where Andy Grove, Steve Jobs and some of the other pioneers really
changed business. Bill Walsh, around that same time, brought the same kind of
mentality to football. In terms of how you deal with people and the kind of
environment you create, his was a very enlightened approach."
It's not that
Walsh wasn't tough on his employees; tales of his authoritarian antics are
numerous. "There was the cardboard-box story," says Walsh, smiling at
the recollection. Early in his tenure an offensive lineman had become a problem
in the locker room. When the player's agent showed up at the Niners' facility
demanding a large pay raise for his client, Walsh had enough. "I said, 'Get
his stuff, put it in a cardboard box and put it on his doorstep,'" he
recalls. "Word got around."
Once, after a
rookie defensive lineman smacked Montana during a training-camp drill, Walsh
cut the player on the spot. As the newly unemployed behemoth was led off by a
team official, in full view of 100 players and thousands of fans at Sierra
Community College in Rocklin, Calif., Walsh paced behind them, screaming,
"Don't even let him f------ shower!"
"One time he fired a guy at training camp--I think it was a kicker--because
the guy had a dog. Bill was playing tennis, and the dog was running around the
courts scaring him, so he yelled, 'Get that guy out of here!' Bill could be
mean and tough and as nasty as anyone, but five minutes later he'd turn on the
charm. And he is really, really funny."
Mike Walter, an
undersized inside linebacker who thrived under Walsh after being waived by the
Dallas Cowboys, remembers, "My favorite part of training camp was the 15
minutes we'd meet as a team each night in this big amphitheater at Sierra
College, because Bill's dry sense of humor was unbelievable. The night before
the first time we were going to be drug-tested, a lot of guys were definitely
anxious, and Bill said, 'It's really no big deal. All they're going to do is
ask for a little sample ...' and he reaches under a desk and pulls out this
two-quart Mason jar."
primary job was to win football games, his vision of the coach's role was far
more expansive. He had money managers and sociologists counsel his players,
delivered speeches on integration and encouraged employees to get involved with
He also seemed
aware of the legacy being created by the success of his West Coast offense, the
most obvious sign being the wide-open receivers catching Montana's pinpoint
passes in stride. Today the West Coast, with its reliance on short passes,
precisely timed routes and intricately planned progressions, is the NFL's
preeminent scheme. ("Let's call it what it is: the Walshian Offense,"
Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick insists.) But in the early 1980s it merely
drove opposing coaches nuts. Old-schoolers, such as the Chicago Bears' Mike
Ditka, openly scoffed at the Genius label--a tag Walsh never went to great
pains to protest--but his teachings were that innovative. Long before the
advent of eBay, copies of his playbooks were being sold on the black market at
prices that made him blush.