NFL Hall of Fame Coach and Architect Bill Walsh Dies

I wanted to take a moment to pause and reflect on the untimely loss of Bill Walsh. We all know about how he was the head football coach who won three Super Bowls after raising the embattled San Francisco 49ers franchise, his gaudy 102-63-1 regular season record, his playoff record of 10 wins in 14 postseason games, his NFL coach of the year awards in 1981 and 1984, and how he perfected “West Coast” offense.

But to me he was an innovator of the game of football that probably will never be seen again. He may have lost his battle to leukemia at the age of 75, but his legacy will continue to grow for generations to come in his former coaches and players like Tyrone Willingham, Steve Young, Tony Dungy, Joe Montana, Freddie Solomon, and many others that will spread his words and teachings. The words of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana ring true when talking about Walsh’s impact and his passing. Montana said “This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers.” He added “For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him.”

The game of football that Walsh envisioned and built was grown from two of the largest pillars of the NFL Paul Brown (Former Browns Owner) and Al Davis (AFL Maverick and Oakland Raiders Owner). Walsh took the lessons learned from these two men and applied it to the 49ers, Stanford University, and in life.  He distinctly was visionary in developing his own theory on football based on the phrase “Find a Better Way” and strived for perfection. His premise that you must “out think” your opponent changed the way that NFL coaches approached the game. He didn’t subscribe to the common theory of “beat your opponent into submission”, but he was more of an artist who galvanized the most violent game and turned it into a sculpture. I equate his style to a boxer that is not a knockout artist, but rather a jab and move counter puncher like Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali. Walsh like these fighters preferred not to slug away early and often, but he instead chose to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses and then leave him slumped over on his stool in mental and physical exhaustion, while he experienced the thrill of victory.

There were a couple of times that I really appreciated the true genius of Walsh, but the one that stands out most for me is surprisingly non-Super Bowl related. During the 1987 NFL Strike Season, the NFL was in total acrimony over players fighting with owners and the owners thumbing their noses at the players and television by putting an inferior “scab” product on the field. Everyone was a buzz about which players would cross the picket line and scab games caused the NFL to experience a national ground swell over union labor negotiations. In Philadelphia, which is an extremely pro union town things got rough in the stands and in the Eagles front office. Eagles owner at the time Norman Braman was strongly for ownership and wanted the players to suffer, but then Eagles Head Coach Buddy Ryan wanted nothing to do with this “scab crap” as he called it. Ryan decided that he would field a team of replacement players that couldn’t win, because he wanted “his” guys only and he sure did put out the most laughable group of players including Guido Merkins at quarterback. Needless to say the Eagles replacement team got blown out in almost every game and went 0-3 during the crucial “scab” portion of the season. When the regular players returned the Eagles finished with a 7-8 record (7-5 in non-strike games) and nearly missed the playoffs.

In contrast, with all the unrest and hostility around the NFL, leave it to the visionary Bill Walsh to find a way to still focus on the game of football and his opponent. Walsh didn’t want his guys to cross the picket line like other teams including the Dallas Cowboy, but he needed to find a way for the 49ers to stay in contention while waiting for the regular players to return. He devised a game plan around an “option” style offense, focusing on the talents quarterbacks Mark Stevens and Ed Blount (former DB). Stevens who played in the CFL after starring at the University of Utah, was an out of work running quarterback when Bill Walsh knowing that he needed a ball-secure option quarterback called and asked him to join his replacement team. Walsh knew that his opponents would not have enough time to let alone develop a team in a couple of weeks, but to also prepare for an option offense that had not been seen in the NFL in years, would drive them batty. The offense worked to perfection controlling the clock and thoroughly confusing opponents. The 49ers went on to win all three games of their replacement games and when their regulars returned they finished 13-2, making it to the Divisional Playoffs. The 1987 Niners’ squad was a legitimate Super Bowl contender and many experts point to Walsh’s “Option Wizardry” game plan as a major impact on the season.

I strongly recommend watching NFL Network to find out more about Walsh and his teachings. The America’s Game programs featuring his three Super Bowl winning teams (1981, 1984 and 1988) are some of the best in my opinion, because you get a back stage look at Coach Walsh at his best motivating and teaching.

Bill Walsh will be truly missed for his love, candor, and football mind, but he will not be forgotten. David and I will definitely pause and reflect for a moment at Walsh’s bust this Saturday at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Walsh is survived by his wife, Geri, and two children, Craig and Elizabeth. Walsh’s son, Steve, an ABC News reporter, died of leukemia at age 46 in 2002.


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