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When Vince Lombardi retired as coach of the Green Bay Packers after winning the 1968 Super Bowl, he said he had "nothing left to prove." San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, who is looking at a third Super Bowl victory, might take the same route. Walsh has been hinting that after Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, win or lose, he won't be back as coach.
On this uncertain note, Super Bowl XXIII is launched, with Walsh's 49ers a solid favorite over the Bengals, coached by Sam Wyche, who is happy just to be employed. When Cincinnati finished 4-11 last season. Wyche's job appeared to be in serious jeopardy, but he survived. He roomed offensive and defensive players together to foster a spirit of closeness. He got tougher on club discipline. His quarterback, Boomer Esiason, had his finest year as a pro. And a heavy-duty rookie runner, Ickey Woods, put some punch in the ground attack.
The Bengals went 12-4 to tie the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears for the best record in the league and won their two playoff games in convincing fashion. Nonetheless, few observers give Cincinnati much of a chance against the 49ers. who were even more impressive in their two playoff victories. The Niners are the hot team, and not even the uncertainty over Walsh's future has diminished their popular appeal.
The last time we went through a pre-Super Bowl period like this was in '68, when Lombardi spent the week stalling writers who asked him if the rumors that he was quitting as coach were true. Green Bay beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14, and Lombardi did quit—becoming exclusively a general manager. After a year he moved on to coach the Redskins. That scenario could be repeated.
After his 10 years with the 49ers, Walsh certainly has nothing more to prove, especially if he wins on Sunday. Winning three Super Bowls would be a feat matched only by Chuck No.11. His Niners have already become the winningest team of the 1980s. When he joined the Niners in 1979, they had just gone 2-14 and had traded their No. 1 draft choice. In his third year Walsh won a Super Bowl. He might now spend a year or two at the beach and then surface with, say, an expansion team.
"What I'd really like to do," he says, "is take a year off and go back to the roots of football and write three books: coaching at the high school level, at the college level and in the NFL. I'd like to go around the country visiting high schools and colleges. The books would not be money-makers; I'm not interested in one of those autobiographical things. These books would simply be my way of giving something back to the game. Anyway, that's what I'd like to do. What I'll actually do may be something different."
Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo says he would like Walsh to stay on in some capacity. But what capacity? Walsh has one year left on his contract, which pays him $1.3 million per season. That's a hell of a lot for an overseer. John McVay, San Francisco's vice-president-general manager, says Walsh could "keep doing the things he's doing now, apart from coaching." That could include remaining in charge of player personnel, which Walsh has said is "the only area that contributes to winning aside from coaching." And the Niners have been excellent in that department.
Unlike most NFL teams, the 49ers don't belong to a scouting combine. They have gone their own way in the draft, often bucking prevailing opinions about players. Quarterback Joe Montana, a third-round pick in 1979, was thought to be hard to coach and not to have the strongest of arms. Running back Roger Craig, a second-rounder in 1983, was unpopular with scouts because he had a subpar senior season at Nebraska. Won't play hurt, they said. These two maverick picks produced two future Hall of Famers.
Next case: wide receiver Jerry Rice, who came out in '85. The knock against Rice was that he couldn't really go deep, that he lacked blazing speed. Still, Walsh wanted him, but as the defending Super Bowl champs, the 49ers would draft last. So Walsh gave the New England Patriots a second-round choice to move up and get Rice as the 16th selection in the first round. Result: future Hall of Famer number 3.
The San Francisco roster is loaded with young players who have carried the team through three seasons that should have been a rebuilding phase. Eight starters came from the '86 draft. The top pick in '87, tackle Harris Barton, is a two-year starter. The '88 draft focused on defense, and the first three selections were bull's-eyes. Again, each of the players had a knock against him. End Danny Stubbs was supposedly only a pass rusher; at 26, tackle Pierce Holt was said to be too old—he was 22 by the time he went to college, at Angelo State, after having had a variety of jobs after high school—and linebacker Bill Romanowski was supposed to have an attitude problem. He liked to do things his way.