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"Dick Vermeil was a junior there when I was a graduate assistant. People ask me how well I knew him at that time; well, I can assure you we found each other very quickly. We were very close. I have to smile sometimes when I hear someone comparing his work habits to mine, when he's called a workaholic, while I work more or less normal hours. That's just Dick. He was always like that, in everything. Tremendous industry and drive, like no one else I'd ever seen.
"If he were an auto mechanic instead of a coach, you would find him in the shop at 10 p.m. putting in a new transmission. Dick knows cars. When I was having trouble with mine, he'd come over on the half a day we had off and work on it until it was fixed. I was the kind of person who didn't even know how to open the hood. He used to have barbecues at his house for 10 people and he'd do all the cooking.
"But it's a sad fact that, in the NFL, the way Dick works makes some people nervous. What is your typical NFL club, anyway? At the top you've got an owner who made it quick, who wants things to be done quickly on his club without quite knowing how.
"Under him you've got the general manager, who's positioned firmly within the owner's comfort zone. He demands a large salary for doing very little. Then you've got a personnel man, often a frustrated former player or coach, who justifies his position by sending scouts out.
"Then there's the coach, in there with his assistants at night, looking over the films, again and again, trying to find out what's wrong. And at the same time, there are the owner and general manager and personnel man out having dinner, discussing the team over their third martini. The general manager says, 'Well, I don't know what's wrong. Look, I've got the best facilities and administration and exhibition schedule; I've set up every possibility to do a job.' And the personnel man says, 'We've got the players. I had a great draft. I know because I read it in the papers. But everyone knows Smith is a guard, not a tackle.' And the GM says, 'Everyone knows so-and-so should be playing, and everyone knows so-and-so should be the quarterback.' And then they say, 'What do we do?'
"So they put their heads together and they get a new coach, obviously within the general manager's comfort zone, not too strong a threat, a guy who knows where he got his job from. So the cycle starts all over again and the situation continues to exist. Why? The big money that is made, TV, NFL Films, the hype. Football should get the hype; it's a great sport. But sometimes, well, sometimes the way teams are run makes you wonder."
For many years Walsh existed on the outer fringes of that system, an acknowledged mastermind of offensive football, particularly the quarterback position, but far removed from the comfort zone. Around the league the quarterbacks knew how valuable he was; he was Greg Cook's coach at Cincinnati when Cook burst onto the scene like a rocket as a rookie in 1969; and he guided Ken Anderson to two NFL quarterback titles in the '70s. Dan Fouts still talks about the year Walsh spent with him in San Diego in '76. But when it came time to interview for a head coaching job, something always seemed to go sour; maybe he was too much his own man. The Bengals passed over Walsh in favor of Tiger Johnson, who was fired two years later. The Jets interviwed him and settled for Lou Holtz, who didn't last the season. He lost out on the Rams' job to George Allen, who didn't even make it through the exhibition season.
So Walsh settled in at Stanford, and the offenses he created were pictures you frame and hang on the wall. "He was a breath of fresh air when he came there," says Guy Benjamin, Walsh's All-America quarterback at Stanford in 1977 and his current back-up to Montana on the 49ers. "He could be tough; he could be tough with the best of them. The good thing was that he never let it get boring. Pro scouts would come to the practices, and they'd wind up copying down our plays and formations and taking them back with them to the NFL."
Walsh's pedigree was impeccable. He broke into the pros under Al Davis at Oakland in 1966 and '67, when the Raiders were first becoming a playoff team. "Al has a great, great football mind," Walsh says. "He was a master at attacking defenses, at fitting a system to his personnel. The Al Davis-Sid Gillman systems of that era probably did more to advance offensive football than anything since Clark Shaughnessy in the '40s."
From Al Davis he went to Paul Brown and the Bengals for eight years. "Paul gave you command of your area," Walsh says. "He let you develop and mold your own philosophy. Every now and then he'd make a suggestion. He'd say something like, 'I want more of that swishing and swaying.' He meant more man-in-motion."