Cut from a different cloth

Jason Cole
Yahoo! SportsJuly 30, 2007

An admiral, a politician, a clothes designer and a militant black activist/professor.

This isn't the opening line to some elaborate joke. It's the collection of people football coach Bill Walsh assembled for a late-night discussion before he led the San Francisco 49ers in a road game against the New York Giants in October 1987.

The coach was ready to bend his mind, professor Harry Edwards recalled of the night with Walsh, his friend of more than 25 years. Yet none of the talk was about football.

For Walsh, an atypical coach in a single-minded profession who passed away Monday after a lengthy battle with leukemia, the discussion was common. The group, which included Adm. James Stockdale, talked about the Vietnam War and its lasting effect.


Walsh (L) and Edwards in 2000. (Getty Images)

"By the end of the two hours, Bill has orchestrated the conversation to where we're now talking about the impact of the end of the draft and what had been a second chance to inner-city kids to pick up skills and get discipline," said Edwards, who was asked by Walsh to give his eulogy. "How (the end of the draft) created and contributed to the deterioration of life in the urban center because now there are no second opportunities … and how ultimately the military might still be a way of getting kids who are hopeless and lost and have no other options some kind of second chance and whether that was ethical in terms of the poor and dispossessed becoming the military of the United States.

"So by the time this thing ends, he has this admiral who was in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war; he has me, an anti-war member of the Black Panther Party, fighting against the war, against racism; this clothes designer, who's taking full advantage of all the ideas coming out of the inner city in terms of clothes design; and a moderate politician, who the draft is poison to in terms of getting elected, talking about this."

To Edwards, an imposing man whose life experiences include inspiring John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's black-glove protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics, it was part of a deep relationship. It was the essence of Walsh, an incredibly profound man who didn't fit the mode of the "tough guy, winning is everything" football coach.

Walsh's construction of the West Coast offense and his extensive coaching tree would be enough to rank him with football innovators such as legendary Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas, Clark Shaughnessy (the inventor of the T-formation) and Sid Gillman (the father of the modern passing game). In reality, they only speak to part of a man who Edwards befriended after they exchanged so many notes about subjects having little or nothing to do with football.

Ultimately, Walsh understood not just how to coach and manage players, but how to run an entire organization … even if the foundation was built on unconventional methods. He was just as apt to draw up plays as he was to exchange books with scholars at Stanford University, where he twice served as head coach and worked as an administrator.

"That was maybe one of his obstacles to getting a head coaching job faster. Bill was a very cerebral, articulate coach who didn't look or sound like (one)," said Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who was the assistant director of public relations with the 49ers in 1979-80 and co-authored Bill Walsh: Finding the Winning Edge. "Owners and fans weren't used to this type of intellect from a head coach."

While men such as Halas and Vince Lombardi were intimidating teachers and leaders, Walsh, with his combination of V-neck sweater and wispy white hair, looked more like a man ready to ponder the meaning of a Henry James novel.

"I've said this before, but his approach to the game was quite different," said Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, another Walsh disciple. "He was a football coach, and football is a physical, sometimes violent sport. But it was like most of us were a blacksmith pounding an anvil and he was an artist painting a picture."

During his years with Walsh, Holmgren rubbed elbows with men like Stockdale and author James Michener.

"One day … we sat down for the cheeseburger snack, and there's the playwright (Neil) Simon in there with us. You just never knew who you'd run into with Bill in the course of getting ready for a game," Holmgren said.

Like any football coach though, Walsh had an element of toughness to him. As a boss, he could be brutal.

"He fired me twice in one game," Holmgren said. "It was something that wasn't going right with the quarterbacks and he was angry. As a head coach, you get that way sometimes and you fly off the handle a bit in the heat of the moment. I've learned that since I became a coach.

"But … the next day I was in my office cleaning out my things. Bill came in and said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'You fired me yesterday.' He told me I wasn't really fired. He even gave me a little raise. Then he got in front of the staff and apologized for what he said. He didn't need to do that. That meant a lot to me."

Walsh was tough on his coaches in other ways. He never yelled directly at his players. Instead, he yelled at assistant coaches as a way of motivating players.

"He'd say something to (offensive line coach) Bobb McKittrick like, 'Bobb, can you possibly teach your guys how to punch when we're blocking this way?' " Billick said. "Bill knew that the relationship between the assistant coach and the players was much tighter most of the time. He'd seize upon that as a way to inspire the players to protect their coach."

From a personal standpoint, Walsh's toughness developed in his youth, when he was a boxer. He never lost an appreciation for the sport, studying fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield. But where most coaches and athletes might stop with an appreciation of someone's skill, Walsh was looking at a bigger picture. Where did the skill come from? Where was the genesis of their love for the sport? What created and sustained their passion? And, ultimately, how does one apply those answers?

Essentially, Walsh was a sociologist with a whistle.

Walsh built the 49ers into a dynasty that won five Super Bowls over a 15-year period, including two under George Seifert after Walsh retired. Walsh had a great system, had great players (wide receiver Jerry Rice, safety Ronnie Lott and quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, among many) and great coaching staffs.

Talent was the foundation, but Walsh took it further. He not only taped practices, he taped coaching sessions so that the team could maintain a consistent approach. He instituted and/or upgraded programs for players that went beyond playing.

Edwards, for instance, was brought in to build finance, education and counseling programs for players, dealing with everything from paying taxes to getting family guidance.

"All of those to this day have been adopted by the league, and the teams follow them," Edwards said. "What Bill believed is that if we can create a better man off the field in dealing with the pressures and circumstances of life, we will have a better player on the field."

Said Billick: "Bill was different and he was treated with some scorn because he was one of the first people to question authority, to question traditional thought. He said: 'Why can't we run an offense this way? Why do we have to run our players so hard in practice?' He was probing for answers and looking for other ways to do things if those ways made sense."

Such as lightening the moment at the right time. One day, Walsh assigned Billick to go find the prettiest pregnant woman he could find. Billick roamed Santa Clara, Calif., for several hours before he found the right candidate. He brought her back to the 49ers facility for the beginning of the team's practice.

Walsh then lined up the entire team, including coaches, and began talking with the woman, as if he was assuring her that he would confront the man responsible for making her pregnant.

As the woman walked down the line of players and coaches – their anxiety growing as they started to believe what was going on – Walsh and the woman eventually stopped at McKittrick, the team's resident drill sergeant, disciplinarian and about the last guy who'd qualify as a lady's man.

"The entire team just broke up in laughter," Billick said. "It was just a great way to break all the tension they were dealing with at that point, and then they went out and had a great practice."

However, most of Walsh's overall approach has been blotted out by the popularity of the West Coast offense, a catchy term for the system Walsh began to devise starting in 1969 when he was an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.

As a franchise, the 49ers were moribund. They posted back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1978 and 1979, part of a run of seven losing seasons in eight years. Far worse was the social atmosphere of the Bay Area at the time. In November 1978, the area was hit by two staggering tragedies: hundreds of residents were victims of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, and Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were slain.

Beyond that, the outbreak of AIDS was just beginning, and it caused a rush of fear, particularly in the area's gay community.

"Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers stepped into that vacuum, into that situation of degradation, depression and self-doubt … and not only could they come from an abysmal past and win, but they could triumph," Edwards said. "When you saw that first parade and people were lined up screaming and throwing confetti, it was then that it dawned on me what Bill Walsh and the 49ers had done."

Set against the backdrop of the Bay Area's erudite fan base, Walsh and the 49ers made for a perfect match.

"This is a man of substance. I always thought that having him as a football coach, with the exception of that one thing – that God gave us the 49ers to show us what we could accomplish and the mountains we could scale together – he should have been a governor. He should have been someone who ran for president," Edwards said.

Perhaps, but maybe it's telling that Walsh did something just as impressive on a personal level: He touched the soul of a hard-edged black man like Edwards, who had been dismissed and degraded even by supposed intellectuals at the University of California.

"My greatest single experience and relationship other than my family has been my experiences with Bill Walsh," Edwards said. "I learned more about sports in the 21 years I was with him than I did in all the years of playing, organizing athletes, writing books, starting the field of sociology of sport, all of it. The greatest teacher and mentor I have been around is Bill Walsh."