The San Francisco 49ers of the golden 1980s were a team of superlatives. Discussions can be had to “determine” whether they were the greatest dynasty ever; whether Montana was the best of all quarterbacks, Ronnie Lott the game’s all-time greatest defensive back, Jerry Rice the finest receiver, and Bill Walsh the best coach.
Walsh as best coach is a tougher argument to make, not because he was not, but because of self-imposed limitations he put on himself. Walsh was always an erudite, articulate Bay Area kind of guy who liked to play tennis, go to the opera, and read about history. He did not fit into the stereotype of the all-consuming football coach, uninterested in any other form of human endeavor. He did not have the intense toughness of Vince Lombardi. He was more likable than Tom Landry.
A closer parallel might come from the basketball world, where Phil Jackson seems to have been a coach who found newer, modern methods to create champions. But Walsh’s abrupt retirement after winning the 1989 Super Bowl detracts from the effort to attach “all-time greatest” status to his career. Had he stuck around, he no doubt would have guided his team to a fourth world championship in 1989, maybe a fifth in 1990, a sixth in 1994, and . . . ?
He won three Super Bowls. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll won four. Noll was a great coach, but Walsh is thought of as more of an innovator. Tom Landry of Dallas won two and created new paradigms in the approach to the game, but his Cowboys also went to the Big Dance three times only to see rival suitors leave with the prom queen.
The Walsh-Lombardi comparison seems awkward. The Packers legend won two Super Bowls, but captured what was known as the “world championship” - the NFL title with no regard for the status of the emerging AFL – twice before creation of the AFL-NFL Championship Game in 1967. But Lombardi’s methods were very different from Walsh’s; from personality to preparation and especially to offensive philosophy.
Walsh’s role model, and the best comparison, is with the great Paul Brown, who turned Cleveland into a juggernaut in the 1950s before Jim Brown’s arrival, then made them even better once he came on the scene. This makes sense because it was under Brown, where Walsh was an assistant on his staff with the Cincinnati Bengals, where Walsh cut his teeth.
A native of San Jose, Walsh earned two degrees from San Jose State before embarking on a coaching career at Fremont’s Washington High School. In the 1960s he coached under Marv Levy at Cal and John Ralston at Stanford. He joined the Oakland Raiders, where he learned under the legendary Al Davis.
“Al Davis is a fascinating man, a true football genius who I admire greatly,” said Walsh.
The football stories of the Raiders, Stanford and the 49ers might have been different had Walsh not taken over the semi-pro San Jose Apaches. Had he stayed at Oakland, Davis may well have elevated him to the head coaching position when John Rauch left. Instead, John Madden took over. The Apaches were no great shakes, but Walsh did get a taste of head coaching before returning to the assistant ranks when Brown hired him at Cincinnati. He was credited with turning Sam Wyche into a creditable pro quarterback.
Walsh has given Brown credit and it has been convenient to say that he learned under a man of Brown’s stature, but the Cincinnati years were not easy for Walsh.
“From all I’ve read about Bill’s Cincinnati experience, it must have left a lasting impression on him,” said Montana. “He went into the job with a real chance of becoming head coach of the Bengals. Bill was working for Paul Brown . . . who apparently was getting ready to either retire or move into the front office on a full-time basis. Unfortunately, Bill’s job – offensive coordinator – turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing . . . We’re talking about pure jealousy. Bill was trying hard to make a name for himself, while Paul was hanging on to his own identity as a legend in the game. This caused friction between the two men . . . the two men ignored each other. The only time they were seen together in public was on the sidelines.”
Walsh finally got his big break when he took over at Stanford, where he was 17-7 from 1977-78 with wins in the Bluebonnet Bowl and Sun Bowl. In 1979 his 49ers were 2-14, but improvement in 1980 gave hope that Montana’s emergence could mean success. Nobody could possibly have predicted the kind of success that followed.
His teams made seven post-season appearances, claimed six NFC West titles and Walsh was named NFL Coach of the Year twice (1981, 1984). Later, he was named Coach of the Decade (1980s).
He became the 14th coach elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993, having compiled a .617 percentage (102-63-1) and a 10-4 post-season record.
Walsh went into broadcasting, teaming with Dick Enberg on Notre Dame, and on NFL, telecasts. He returned to Stanford, where in 1992 he led the Cardinal to a 10-3 record, victory over Notre Dame and Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl, and a Top 10 ranking.
Since leaving coaching, he held various front office positions with the 49ers and in the athletic department at Stanford. He seamlessly straddled affiliation with both the 49ers and Stanford, remaining an icon at both places. It was most appropriate that in the only Super Bowl ever played in the Bay Area, at Stanford Stadium in 1985, it was Walsh who led San Francisco to victory before the “home” crowd.
Walsh has detractors, but it seems that any detraction of him is more jealousy than anything, just as Paul Brown was jealous of the younger man in Cincinnati. The label “Genius” was attached to Walsh, causing some to scoff that he had such great players that any coach could win, as his successor George Seifert was able to do.
But it was Walsh who built the 49er destiny from scratch. He did what none before him did, and none who followed was able to carry the franchise on their own as he had. Maybe because he worked under Brown, and had been on the staff under the likes of Marv Levy and Al Davis, Walsh was proprietary when it came to protecting his own reputation.
There have been coaches who worked under him who felt Walsh manipulated his place in history, but the record speaks for itself. Walsh was never mean-spirited, and a number of successful coaches started careers under him. Pete Carroll did not actually coach on Walsh’s staff when he was the 49ers defensive coordinator in 1995, but he was influenced by The Genius, who recognized that Carroll was a special talent.
Others who learned under him include Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Jeff Fisher, Sam Wyche, Rod Dowhower, Bruce Coslet, Sherman Lewis, Brian Billick, George Seifert, Jon Gruden, Paul Hackett, and Tom Holmoe. He appeared to be much more generous in helping young assistants who aspired to become head coaches than the old school Paul Brown had been.
The media like to talk about “turning points.” The turning point in the franchise history of the 49ers; in the career of Bill Walsh; and in the development of Joe Montana; may well have occurred on December 7, 1980 at Candlestick Park against the New Orleans Saints. The Niners were out of the running, but instead of playing out the string, they stirred the home crowd with a glorious comeback all the way from a 35-0 deficit to a 38-35 win in overtime. The 1980 squad was only 6-10, but this game and the positive development of Montana, coupled with the drafting of Lott a few months later, gave them hope that in 1981 the team might contend.
It was similar to the 1969 New York Mets, who after years of floundering in last place, felt that they could build on the development of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman in 1968, creating a contender in 1969.
It is one thing to contend. It is an entirely different thing to go all the way, as both the 1969 Mets and 1981 49ers did. In both cases, the world championships were among the most improbable in sports history. There is a difference, however. The Mets were a contending team in the years that followed the 1969 season, but never approached their 1969 performance.
The 49ers, on the other hand, improved and went from a surprise winner to a true dynasty. It was not without its bumps and bruises. In 1982, the players struck, breaking up the season. The 49ers never got on track, and it appeared that their 1981 season had been a fluke.
In 1983 they recovered and contended, but Joe Theisman and Washington got hot, stayed that way, and overcame San Francisco to reach the Super Bowl (only to lose to Marcus Allen and the Los Angeles Raiders).
It is also worth noting that Walsh’s 49ers did not ascend to great heights in an era in which no contenders emerged to challenge them. In 1981 the Dallas Cowboys, even though Roger Staubach was gone, posed a major challenge. Theisman’s Redskins were a powerhouse in 1982 and 1983. In order to capture the 1985 Super Bowl, Walsh’s team had to beat Dan Marino and Miami, a team so explosive that many favored them to win.
In 1985 and 1986, the 49ers were still an excellent team, but the ’85 Bears are thought by many to be the finest team of all time. The 1986 New York Giants were another great team. The NFL’s second strike in six years helped deflate the value of the 1987 season, but in 1988 and 1989 San Francisco dominated like never before.
Walsh was gone by 1989, but his legacy was carried on. The 1990 49ers may have been the best of all their teams, but Bill Parcells and the Giants had a monster season, stopping them.
Since the merger of the American and National Football Leagues in 1966, and the creation of the American and National Football Conferences in 1970, the AFC has consistently had the better conference. The Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders, Broncos and Patriots have all been dynasties, some for longer periods of time than others.
In the NFC, only the 49ers and Cowboys have held that kind of place in history. Even the Cowboys great record is diminished by the fact that they could not beat Pittsburgh. The Los Angeles Rams contended but lost play-off games year after year. Parcells’s teams won four years apart. Great NFC teams like the Redskins, the Bears and St. Louis Rams were unable to build on championships as Walsh’s 49ers did.
“We ‘ beat people to the punch,’ ” said Walsh. “We established a standard of performance where each man was an extension of his teammates. We prepared for every contingency and throughout all this there was a single thrust – sacrifice for your team, because you infinitely care.
“We took great pride in playing like a ‘precision machine.’ We weren’t obsessed with individually attracting attention. We could thrive in the volatile, sometimes cruel arena of the National Football League with class, dignity and mutual respect. I take pride in the fact that every man who wore a 49er uniform could be proud of his participation, even if it was a brief training camp episode.”
Did You Know . . .
That Washington High School in Fremont, where Bill Walsh got his coaching start, is also the alma mater of Oakland A’s Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley?
Bill Walsh has been described as a Renaissance Man. He has always had social pathos, and in 1987 started the Minority Coaching Fellowship program. This program is credited with producing his successor at Stanford, Tyrone Willingham, who later became the coach at Notre Dame. The NFL adopted Bill’s Fellowship program as a league-wide program.
Bill Walsh also was instrumental in establishing NFL Europe, which is crediting with creating worldwide popularity for pro football, while providing many opportunities for players to prove themselves and later make NFL rosters.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism