Walsh was the
first coach to script his opening 20 or 25 offensive plays and the first to
prowl the sideline with a laminated sheet of plays for specific situations. He
recorded his speeches at team meetings and videotaped new plays being
installed, creating an archive as a resource for future Niners coaches and
players. And with his blessing, his systems were circulated throughout the
league by his former assistants and their prot�g�s. "He was
proselytizing," Young says. "He was a missionary. I think Bill
realized, I'm way ahead of the league here, and he knew the more people he
could touch, the more lasting his impact would be."
Two months ago
Walsh sat courtside at Maples Pavilion and watched a Stanford basketball game
with Jim Harbaugh, the latest in the long procession of coaches he has
mentored. As a member of the school's search committee, Walsh had just helped
Harbaugh, 43, a former quarterback at Michigan and a 15-year NFL veteran, get
hired as the Cardinal's coach. In the game they were watching, Stanford had
taken an early lead against rival Cal, but Walsh didn't like what he was
seeing. "Look at the way Cal's getting back on defense," he told
Harbaugh. "They're gaining." Sure enough, the Bears took command and
won by four. "His ability to analyze and communicate is unmatched,"
Harbaugh says of Walsh.
The two men met
in the early '90s, when Harbaugh, then with the Bears, was competing in The
Quarterback Challenge, a made-for-TV event in Hawaii for which Walsh was
serving as an announcer. (After staying on as the 49ers' G.M. through the '89
draft, Walsh left the organization for a three-year gig as NBC's lead NFL
analyst.) The two began discussing passing mechanics, and soon Harbaugh and
another quarterback, Bubby Brister, were behind the centerfield wall of an old
baseball stadium getting a 90-minute lesson from Walsh on drops and footwork.
"He was just so clear and specific," Harbaugh says, "and I was
soaking it up like a sponge."
Late last year,
even as his leukemia worsened, Walsh, who twice coached Stanford (1977--78 and
'92--94), remained active in the Cardinal's search. In the energetic and
enthusiastic Harbaugh, Walsh saw "a nonstop person" who is "as
close to Dick Vermeil"--his longtime friend who coached the St. Louis Rams
to the Super Bowl XXXIV championship--"as anyone I've seen."
It's a touching
storyline--ailing legend guiding prot�g�--but in Walsh's case so consistent
with his past as to be unremarkable. In an era in which many coaches seem to
thwart their assistants' opportunities for advancement, restricting their
access to the media and discouraging them from interviewing elsewhere, it's
instructive to remember how far Walsh went to do just the opposite. "I've
never known any coach more tireless in his efforts to help the people around
him," says Billick, who worked as a 49ers public relations assistant in
1979 and '80 before beginning his coaching career at San Diego State. "I
can never repay Bill, but part of his legacy is that I feel compelled to do it
for other coaches, and I think we all feel the same way."
By we all Billick
means a Who's Who of his profession, from Walsh's former assistants ( Holmgren,
Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Sam Wyche) to a second and third generation who
learned the Walsh way ( Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, Andy Reid and Tony
Dungy, who also played for Walsh in '79). Walsh's coaching tree resembles the
banyan in Lahaina--and this was by design. While Walsh was a Cincinnati Bengals
assistant from 1968 through '75, team founder and coach Paul Brown hindered
Walsh's head coaching aspirations. After Brown stepped down and named Bill
(Tiger) Johnson as his replacement, Walsh angrily left to become an assistant
with the Chargers before moving on to the Stanford job the following season.
Last year Walsh told the Los Angeles Times that Brown "worked against my
candidacy" to be a head coach in the NFL, "and then when I left him, he
called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL."
That's why Walsh
became a coaching patriarch. And he did so with a social conscience: In 1987,
15 years before the establishment of the Rooney Rule (requiring NFL teams to
interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies), Walsh
took the lead in an NFL internship program for minority coaches, bringing
prospective assistants into training camp each year and giving them significant
responsibility. Among those who served in this capacity were Marvin Lewis, now
the Bengals' coach, and Tyrone Willingham, who would go on to be the head man
at Stanford, Notre Dame and the University of Washington.
Late in the '88
season Walsh helped Green, his receivers coach, get the Stanford job, then
allowed him to begin working there even as the 49ers made another championship
run. "Denny had to take on the task at Stanford--that was so critical,"
Walsh says. "Of course, I had Mike Holmgren to replace him."
And when Holmgren
left to become a head coach, he installed Walsh's system first in Green Bay,
where he led the Packers to consecutive Super Bowls, and then in Seattle, where
he took the Seahawks to another.
coaches were able to be successful because of the blueprint Bill Walsh
created," Harbaugh says. "He created the modern-day practice, the
modern-day weekly schedule, the way to run a meeting, the way to manage an
organization. And when it comes to football expertise, he's the most respected
man who's ever coached the game, period."