Hall of Fame coach who developed the West Coast offense and won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers died Monday at his Woodside, Calif., home following a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.
Bill Walsh never needed to draw up a play in the dirt. He was too smart. He anticipated everything before it happened.
The cerebral and meticulous Hall of Fame coach who developed the West Coast offense and won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers died Monday at his Woodside, Calif., home following a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.
John McVay called Walsh a “visionary” with a “magic eye for talent.” The former Massillon (Ohio) Washington High School standout who coached at Central Catholic had a front-row seat for Walsh’s 49ers as the team’s vice president and director of football operations.
McVay came to San Francisco in 1979, the same year as Walsh and owner Eddie DeBartolo. McVay said Walsh could take any group of players and make them better. He found what each individual brought to the team to make it better.
“He was fun to work with. He was very bold, not afraid to try things,” McVay said. “It’s not that everything turned out, but when something didn’t work, he just forged ahead and forgot about it.”
Walsh joined Paul Browns Cincinnati Bengals staff in 1968 and soon was running the offense. It wasn’t long after that the protégé was being compared to his tutor.
Walsh was the first coach to script plays at the start of the game. But he is best remembered for developing an offensive system that relied on quick passes and put receivers in the open field with the chance to make big plays. It was a passing game that set up the running game, the reverse of traditional thinking.
Now a staple of many NFL and college teams, Walt Downing said it took years of repetition to put it all together.
“Bill was a technician, a cerebral type,” said Downing, an offensive lineman on Walsh’s first Super Bowl team and father of former GlenOak High School All-Ohio lineman T.J. Downing, now with the Arizona Cardinals. “We weren’t the biggest offensive line, but we had one of the best offenses because technique-wise, we were the best.”
The path to the Super Bowl took just three years. The 49ers were 2-14 in Walsh’s first season. A 6-10 finish followed before San Francisco took the meteoric step to Super Bowl XVI. McVay said the play that got them there, the one everyone remembers — Dwight Clark catching a touchdown pass from Joe Montana in the back of the end zone to beat Dallas, 28-27, in the NFC championship game — was one Walsh had been practicing all season.
“A lot of people think that was a broken play,” McVay said. “It wasn’t. Bill had them rehearse it over and over in case that situation ever came up.”
If a coach’s legacy is paving the trail for those to come after, Walsh is among the deans of NFL coaching.
George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh’s San Francisco staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. The second generation of Walsh’s coaching tree includes Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher.
“He had a magnetic personality that all these great coaches wanted to learn from him,” McVay said. “He was a great leader, coming from the graduate school of Paul Brown.”
Walsh also created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program in 1987, helping minority coaches to get a foothold in the profession. Marvin Lewis and Tyrone Willingham are among the coaches who went through the program, later adopted as a league-wide initiative.
Walsh found success on the college level as well at California and Stanford. He was an assistant under Al Davis in Oakland as well as in San Diego and Cincinnati. He is credited with having shaped the careers of quarterbacks Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson and Joe Montana.
“He had a fantastic background before even becoming the head coach in San Francisco,” McVay said.
Two more championships followed in Super Bowl XIX and XXIII. Walsh left the sideline after the 1988 season, becoming general manager and helping San Francisco win another two titles.
Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning six division titles and 10 of 14 postseason games. He was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984.
He also helped to establish the World League of American Football — what was NFL Europe — in 1994, taking the sport around the globe as a development ground for the NFL.
“How could you have a better representative of the game than Bill Walsh?” said Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf. “He was articulate, a real gentleman, a caring guy and a guy who left his mark on the game.”
Reach Repository Assistant Sports Editor Joe Frollo Jr. at (330) 580-8564 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org