To the coaches and scouts gathered in the San Francisco 49er draft headquarters on the evening of April 29, 1986, it must have seemed that Bill Walsh had lost his marbles. At around 8 p.m., Walsh, the president and coach of the 49ers, let a 56-year-old character actor, Bradford Dillman, make the team's final pick in the National Football League draft.
An inveterate NFL draft groupie, Dillman first talked his way into the 49er draft room, in Redwood City, Calif., back in 1979, and he sat as still as a statue, observing the selection process and jotting notes in a large loose-leaf notebook. Every year since, Dillman, who played Robert Redford's best friend in The Way We Were and Clint Eastwood's cop pal in The Enforcer, the third Dirty Harry film, would show up on draft day and pass around a sheet of paper outlining his "sleeper pick." Dillman's witty evaluation of some little-known prospect usually got a big laugh from everyone present—except that Dillman's sleeper pick in 1984 was tight end Ed West, and in 1985 it was safety Mark Kelso, both of whom wound up starting in the NFL, though not for San Francisco.
In the '86 draft, the 49ers' last pick came in the 10th round because they had traded their 11th-and 12th-round selections. So, near the middle of the 10th round, Walsh, who was feeling quite pleased with his team's selections, turned to Dillman with a mischievous grin and said,' O.K., Brad, who's your guy?"
The character actor was getting a chance to play a lead. "Harold Hallman," Dillman said. "Nose-tackle at Auburn, but I think he'd project to linebacker here. Fierce guy. Tenacious. He'd be a special-teams killer, if nothing else."
San Francisco's pick was at hand. "O.K., let's take your guy," Walsh said.
Victorious in four Super Bowls since 1982—including the last two—the 49ers stand atop the world of pro football. Walsh, who retired to the broadcasting booth last July after 10 years in San Francisco, will be remembered for coaching three of those Super Bowl winners (1982, '85 and '89), for grooming Joe Montana into one of the finest quarterbacks of all time and for making some important offensive innovations. What will not be engraved on his Hall of Fame bust is how he built the Niners through masterly drafting and trading.
San Francisco's 1986 draft was one of the best any team ever had. From the college ranks Walsh and his staff selected five players who became starters: fullback Tom Rathman and wide receiver John Taylor, who had 133 catches between them in 1989; Kevin Fagan, the 49ers' best defensive end; Charles Haley, their best linebacker; and Don Griffin, their best cornerback. They also chose three sterling subs: cornerback Tim McKyer, tackle Steve Wallace and defensive end Larry Roberts.
The 49ers entered that draft with an aging defensive line, a battered and inexperienced secondary and a one-man (Roger Craig) offensive backfield. The team needed a big, blocking fullback, a pass rusher for the nickel defense, a quick wideout and a couple of cornerbacks. Walsh had tried to trade for two first-round picks, hoping to get Auburn running back Bo Jackson or Purdue quarterback Jim Everett. But Walsh struck out on both, and he made no trades before the draft. He couldn't see paying a ransom for any other '86 collegian.
There are two approaches to the draft, and they both will be evident at this weekend's player auction. Most teams take the best available player on their list, making minor adjustments for needy positions. Other teams target players they want and then maneuver into position during the draft to take them. Under Walsh, the 49ers were one of the latter.
Walsh believed if he saw a college player display tremendous athleticism on one play, he and his staff could get that level of output from him consistently in the pros. Most scouts insist that many college players can look good on a few plays. Scouts like consistency, and Walsh, to be sure, liked it too. But inconsistency didn't scare him.