If Bill Belichick were to loosen his cerebral grip, ever were going to empty out the folds of gray matter hidden under that gray hoody, he'd do it the way Bill Walsh did.
He'd teach. He'd write a book explaining it all. He'd spin the game of football forward by giving it all away. He looks at how Walsh did it, and out of admiration, it has become one of Belichick's hidden desires, too.
Walsh, who passed away Monday after a lengthy battle with leukemia, left an indelible impression on the man who has taken his place as the NFL's reigning genius.
To this day, Belichick insists Bill Walsh: Finding the Winning Edge is the greatest piece of football literature regarding a franchise blueprint ever written. Belichick read the book in the nuclear winter of his own coaching career, between the disaster with the Cleveland Browns and resurrection with the New England Patriots. At a time in his life time when Belichick was forced to re-examine his basic truths about team building, he wrapped his hands around the second of several books by Walsh.
When he was finished, Belichick's philosophical foundation as a coach had once again solidified beneath his feet.
"Saying it was outstanding wouldn't do it justice. For a coach, it's a Bible," Belichick said. "That book reinforced most of what I thought as a coach. I was glad to see Bill write it and say the things he did because a lot of it was either what I was trying to do or what I believed in. Between the book, the clinics, talking to Bill and picking things up from the (San Francisco) 49ers organization, there was certainly a confirmation in my mind that this is the way to do it."
They are words of deep respect, born of a relationship that few have known about over the years. Unbeknownst to most, Walsh has been one of the men who helped Belichick hone his coaching compass over the years. Separated by coasts, specialties and maybe even social personalities, Walsh somehow became a beacon, a sounding board and a geographically distant friend to the man who has authored the league's latest dynasty.
"Even though we never worked together and were really rivals in the 1980s – myself as a defensive coach and Bill as an offensive coach – and even with a lot of distance between us, we've had a very good relationship," Belichick said.
You wouldn't have made the match, with the two seeming so different. Even with the often tribal relationship of coaches, Walsh seemed more of the philosopher poet while Belichick has seemed cut from the cloth of a Cold War scientist. But their mutual knowledge and abilities as thinkers created the bridge. Much in the way that Miles Davis found inspiration in the styling of Charlie Parker and Vincent Van Gogh found motivation in the artistic kinship of Paul Gauguin, Belichick discovered a bond with Walsh through ideologies.
It wasn't always that way, of course. Belichick spent the greater part of the '80s playing Walsh's foil as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. It was Belichick who spent his nights burning through film of Walsh's West Coast offense, tinkering with defensive game plans that often meant the difference between a run at the Super Bowl or heading home for the season.
It was during that time that Belichick's appreciation for Walsh took root. His players were disciplined. His system was painstakingly precise and well-practiced. And his players fit
"(Walsh) did such a good job of getting Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler and the tight ends, Russ Francis and John Frank and Brent Jones, … to execute that offense," Belichick said.
Even now, so many years later, he feels the pangs of satisfaction from his lone playoff victory over Walsh – the 49-3 bludgeoning in 1986 which arguably is the best game Belichick ever has called as a defensive coordinator.
Years later, when Walsh had retired and Belichick became coach of the Browns, the respect for Walsh developed into a bona fide friendship. Belichick sought to understand more about the San Francisco 49ers as an organization and the West Coast offense as a system. Phone calls on strategy and personnel became a staple. At one point, Belichick dispatched an assistant coach to spend time with Walsh at a coaching seminar. When the assistant returned, he carried with him 30 pages of Walsh's personal insights.
Eventually, the days in Cleveland went bad, and Belichick was left in the years that followed to dissect what went wrong. He's not particularly fond of the topic even now but allows that when he read Finding the Winning Edge, it armed him with renewed conviction.
Released in 1997 and written with the help of current Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, the 550-page book is classic Walshian theory. While most coaches were penning lyrical accounts of players and teams and Super Bowl victories, Walsh enlisted Billick to help him write a how-to manual on building a franchise. And when it was finished, it was as complete as any outline ever has been.
From how to hire and fire coaches and scouts to refining a quarterback's footwork, the book dissects every nook of an NFL team. Taking all his notes, thoughts, clinics and even vital portions of his playbook, Walsh laid bare all that amounted to San Francisco's greatness in the '80s. And with a touch of his own personal teachings, he laced it with nuggets on leadership from presidents, generals, coaches, philosophers and theologians. In the chapter on designing a winning game plan, Walsh draws from Sun-Tzu's The Art of War:
"Rapidity is the essence of war; take advantage of the enemies' unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots."
Boiled into offensive terms: Keep your opponents on their heels and throw the ball to the open spot.
"If I were an owner, first of all, I would read that book," Belichick said. "Then I would make that book required reading for my head coach, general manager or any other key executive in my football operation."
That's with the assumption an owner could find enough copies. The book sold out all of its 36,000 copies. Now, securing one at vintage bookstores or on the Internet costs anywhere from $90 to $180 (more than six times its original price of $29.99). There even is a leather-bound edition, autographed by Walsh and limited to 300 copies, that fetches anywhere from $600 to $1,000. And on the rare occasion that several copies pop up at a bookstore, they typically are scooped up in an instant by coaching staffs.
Over the years, Billick has been approached by businessmen who have used the book as a business model, professors who have used it as a textbook in sports management, and, of course, coaches like Belichick who leaned on it to shape the principals of their own teams.
"Bill envisioned it as something on every coach's desk that he could refer back to," said Billick, the 49ers assistant director of public relations from 1979-80. "And I think he did that. Some people might say that it was a self-ingratiating concept, this whole 'the world according to Bill Walsh' thing. But Bill genuinely just wanted to put into print his observations about this league. And there really is no other book out there like it."
In that vein – the proliferation of ideas – there have been few like Walsh.
"Most of us are kind of private and aren't too helpful to outsiders – I guess that's a nice way of putting it," Belichick said. "But Bill was kind of like Johnny Appleseed. He was throwing those seeds out there in a helpful way to anyone who was interested."
And though Bill Walsh is gone, it's the seeds he bestowed on others that will keep him from ever being forgotten.