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You half expect his headset is playing Mozart.
Bill Walsh sits somewhat uneasily at the head table at a Rotary Club of San Jose luncheon. The program began before the stragglers reached the buffet, which features veal bird in tomato sauce. Dr. Gail Fullerton, the president of San Jose State, Walsh's alma mater, is announcing the construction of a recreation and events center. Walsh sits with his fingers clasped before his chin, contemplative, a study.
It is certainly natural to be curious about Walsh. For 11 seasons he was an ambitious and brilliant NFL assistant coach but was never judged worthy of being entrusted with his own team. Word got about that there was something different about him, something that unsettled owners and general managers. He had a mind that saw deeply and in detail, they said; he could encompass two or three sides to a question. In the euphemistic world of football, that meant he was indecisive. They said he was a good, humane teacher, and that meant he was soft. They said he was a genius, and that meant he was too abstruse.
Finally, Stanford made him a college head coach in December 1976 and after two seasons there, he was given the 49ers, the 2-and-14 49ers. Three years later San Francisco was 16-3 and Super Bowl champion. After losing to the 49ers in the NFC championship game, Dallas Coach Tom Landry, certainly not an intemperate man, spoke for his proud team and many of his frustrated colleagues when he said, "The difference is Montana. There's nothing else there but him." Joe Montana was magnificent. But besides the quarterback, Fred Dean was there, and Jack Reynolds and three remarkable rookie defensive backs. And, above all, Walsh. To the casual observer, Walsh's success seemed a rebuke to professional football for not having used him better, for not having understood him. And that is nearly unfathomable, for few men are as capable of making themselves understood as Walsh.
Walsh, 50, has a telling face. In profile, his forehead and jaw are windswept and flinty, appropriate in his calling for projecting sureness in the maelstrom of battle. Full on, however, his features are mobile, softer than one might imagine, more complex. At the Rotary luncheon his bright-blue gaze roams the smoky room, straying above the mass of tailored businessmen, all stuck with buttons and ribbons and name tags.
The invocation has included the remarkable assertion, "I reject the stale calm of Utopia," apparently meaning that there must be more to life than contentment with California affluence. The Rotarians have murmured assent. Thus, spread before Walsh seems a prototypical pro football audience, corporate males hungry to add some adrenaline and risk and, perhaps, vicarious concussion to their low-struggle lives. Walsh thinks, "What can I possibly say to these people that they will care about?"
Walsh makes few such appearances. But friends and the school have collared him. Not that he truly minds. Such things are vaguely expected of an NFL coach. "And," Geri Walsh, his wife of 27 years, has said, "he doesn't waste energy being negative about anything that is part of his job."
It is also a measure of his positivism that, as his college coach, Bob Bronzan, rises to introduce him, Walsh doesn't muse about the two occasions he was passed over to coach San Jose State. Instead, he thinks of Bronzan: "He's one of those people who have been saying lately that they always knew I'd be successful. Well, they didn't know. I didn't apply myself at all at school."
Bronzan is 63 and trim, with a sharp, downturning grin that might convey either humor or hardness. Here, it is humor. Apparently clairvoyant, he at once rebuts Walsh's thought. "The good said about him now was said about him then," says Bronzan as he produces a letter of recommendation he wrote for Walsh in 1956. "Bill Walsh is destined to be among the best teachers and coaches San Jose State has ever graduated," he reads. "His ability and knowledge and interest leave nothing to be desired." Dropping the letter in Walsh's lap, Bronzan goes on to compare him with those coaches most influential in football history—Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Clark Shaughnessy—saying, "It is his great work to almost scientifically analyze the skills of his players and to devise tactics based on those."
When Bronzan finishes, Walsh takes the podium, smiling at his friend's tone, which has seemed to him more suited to the canonization of Mother Teresa. Great work, indeed. "I bet I showed that letter to 50 potential employers," he says as the chuckles begin to mount. "And it only took me 20 years to make head coach, so I could try to live up to it."