BILL WALSH sits
at a lacquered wooden table, the 18th hole of the pristine Sharon Heights Golf
and Country Club behind him, another blood transfusion and another long,
draining day at Stanford Hospital in his immediate future. The Hall of Fame
coach is talking about the end of his life--the "final stage," as he
calls it--and, at 75, sounds as prepared and unruffled as a man battling
leukemia can be. But is he completely without regret? Walsh closes his eyes and
furrows his brow, the wrinkles on his prominent forehead becoming more
pronounced. Something is bothering him, something apart from the disease that
has left him so vulnerable: a decision he made 18 years ago that he wishes he
could take back.
have continued to coach," Walsh says, his words hanging in the air of the
country club's nearly deserted dining room. "If I could've taken a month
off, or something, to get away ... but I had all the other jobs. I couldn't
leave. The draft was coming, and I was the general manager. So I didn't see any
place to go. I should've turned it over to other guys and taken off. It
would've been all right. Of course it would have. But I didn't do it." He
sighs and shakes his head.
In January 1989
Walsh--burned out after a decade as coach of the San Francisco 49ers--stepped
away from the NFL sideline, never to return. The franchise he'd raised from
rubble had just won its third Super Bowl in eight years and was positioned to
win more. Under Walsh's coaching successor, George Seifert, the Niners would
win their fourth Super Bowl the following year, go to three more NFC title
games in the next four years, and win their fifth Super Bowl in January '95.
Had Walsh remained as coach, with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana
and Steve Young running his avant-garde offense, the man who had been dubbed
the Genius knows he could have won four, five, maybe even six Super Bowls. Six!
There's a record that might have stood forever. Instead the most influential
football man of his era allowed others to bask in the afterglow of his
So now Walsh
squints into the descending sun on a clear January afternoon in Menlo Park,
Calif., lost in silence, and ponders what might have been. How, after drawing
up all those spellbinding game plans, after all that bold draft day wheeling
and dealing, could he have so badly botched that one, crucial call?
jr. is enjoying Montana--the state where he owns a vacation home, not the
quarterback whose excellence helped him become the most successful NFL owner of
his era--when the mention of Walsh brings him out of his reverie. A few days
earlier, a writer from the Bay Area had called DeBartolo's secretary seeking a
phone interview for a story on Walsh. Recounting the writer's message sends
DeBartolo into one of his infamous tirades. "He wanted me to give him
quotes for an obituary," DeBartolo screams. "A f------ obituary! I said
to my secretary, 'Amy, read that to me again because I can't f------ believe
what I'm hearing!'"
calms down, he reminisces about the December 1978 dinner at the Doral hotel in
Miami Beach, where he offered Walsh, then the Stanford coach, the job of
turning around the franchise DeBartolo had purchased two years earlier. Coming
off a 2--14 season that ended the brutal two-year reign of autocratic general
manager Joe Thomas, the organization was, in the words of Montana, a
third-round draft pick in '79, "a small circus."
After years of
being mentored by legendary football men such as franchise builder Paul Brown
and offensive guru Sid Gillman, Walsh proved to be a transcendent ringmaster.
Hired as coach and G.M., Walsh instituted a system that would revolutionize the
game. From his meticulously crafted organization and cerebral practice regimens
to his daring personnel decisions and his visionary offensive schemes, he
created an enduring model.
But the heavy
lifting over those 10 years with the Niners--he was also G.M. from 1979 to '82
and team president from '83 to '87--left Walsh drained, and he chose to walk
away. That Walsh now questions the move doesn't surprise his former boss.
"Bill was such a competitor, but he was going through such an emotionally
tough time," DeBartolo says. "[Quitting] was going through his mind
after the fifth or sixth game [in '88], and he held it together."
The two men's
relationship had been strained since the 49ers were upset by the Minnesota
Vikings in a 1987 divisional-round playoff; afterward DeBartolo stripped Walsh
of his title as team president, appointing himself as the replacement. But as
early as '82--the season after San Francisco's first Super Bowl victory--Walsh
was wearying of the grind and contemplating resigning as coach. The subject was
broached to his assistants on a semiregular basis. "There were times we'd
be told, 'Go to the East-West [Shrine Game] practices and find a job because
Bill's quitting,'" recalls Bill McPherson, a longtime friend of Walsh's who
was a 49ers assistant from 1979 through '98. "Then two days later he'd be
in his office and we'd say, 'Maybe we still have jobs.'"
In '88 Walsh saw
the team through a full-blown quarterback controversy of his own making,
angering Montana by inserting Young into the lineup for parts or all of
numerous regular-season games. In early November the Niners blew a 23--0 lead
at Phoenix and lost to the Cardinals, a game in which Walsh also suffered
bruised ribs when he was plowed over during a punt return near the sideline.
That evening he was so emotionally and physically sapped that he could barely
board the team plane. The next week San Francisco endured a humiliating 9--3
defeat to the Los Angeles Raiders to drop to 6--5. Though Montana rallied the
Niners to a 10--6 finish and an improbable Super Bowl title, it didn't improve
Walsh's outlook. He was exhausted and disillusioned with coaching.