Wednesday, August 01, 2007

And that’s the way it is – Bill Walsh greatness personified

The sports industry as has been well reported in the last few weeks is facing its toughest and challenging times in recent memory. From the blind hatred Barry Bonds pursuit of Major League Baseball’s career home run record, to Michael Vick (Rawlings dropped Vick Tuesday), the scandal plagued Tour de France and serious questions relating to National Basketball Association’s on-court credibility, the honor, the greatness, the men of integrity that have for generations inspired and pushed those connected to the sports industry to greatness have become lost in the avalanche of prevision, indiscression, greed and more often than not bad judgment. While not a “traditional” sports business obit, at least for one day it’s important to recognize the greatness and honor men like Bill Walsh brought to the sports industry. Better to pay tribute to men like Bill Walsh for one day, than continue the needed focus on those who their actions continue to bring shame to the sports industry.

Walsh got his first job as a head coach in the pros at the age of 47 in 1979 when the San Francisco 49ers named him head coach and general manager. The 49ers had won just 31 of their last 86 games and were 2-14 in 1978.

But Walsh was up to the challenge and in just three years provided the 49ers with their first-ever National Football League championship with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. It was the first of a great string of successes for Walsh.

In his 10 seasons as head coach of the 49ers, Walsh compiled an impressive 102-63-1 mark that included 10 wins in 14 postseason games. Under Walsh, the 49ers won six NFC Western Division championships and NFC titles in 1981, 1984, and 1988. Those NFC titles were followed with victories in Super Bowls XVI, XIX, and XXIII which made the 49ers, by every measurement, the NFL team of the 1980s.

In seven of Walsh's last eight seasons, the 49ers won 10 or more games and appeared in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers advanced to the NFC title game against the Washington Redskins in 1983 and to the first playoff round in 1985, 1986, and 1987. Walsh was named the NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and NFC Coach of the Year in 1984.

Bill began his pro coaching career as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders in 1966. He then served with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1975 and the San Diego Chargers in 1976. While he was still an assistant coach, Walsh developed the reputation for being a superb offensive coach who specialized in the passing game. He is credited with shaping Ken Anderson of the Bengals, Dan Fouts of the Chargers and Joe Montana of the 49ers into outstanding quarterbacks.

Football’s first great coach may arguably have been the late Knute Rockne. As head coach of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana from 1918 to 1930, he set the greatest all-time winning percentage of 88.1%, since eclipsed but still the best percentage in Division I-A. During 13 years as head coach, he oversaw 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties, and 6 national championships, including 5 undefeated seasons without a tie. His players included George 'Gipper' Gipp and the "Four Horsemen" (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden), and Frank Leahy.

Rockne introduced the "shift", with the backfield lining up in a T formation and then quickly shifting into a box formation to the left or right just as the ball was snapped. It remained a staple in the Notre Dame playbook until it was discarded by Frank Leahy in 1942 in favor of the T.

Football’s next and it’s greatest coach and leader was legendary Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. Named "Coach of the Century" by ESPN, Vince Lombardi is remembered for his dedication, his infectious enthusiasm and his unforgettable quotes that continue to echo in locker rooms around the world.

By 1958, the 45-year-old coach had grown tired of being an assistant coach. He accepted a challenging five-year contract in Wisconsin as the general manager and head coach of the perpetual losing team, the Green Bay Packers. At the time, the Packers had no clout in professional football, for they had won only one game the previous year. Vince saw the team as a chance to prove both himself and his coaching abilities to the world.

Lombardi held the first ever of his notoriously intense training camps to gear up for the 1959 season. "Dancing is a contact sport," he told his Packers, "Football is a hitting sport." He expected obedience, dedication and 110 percent effort from each man, but he also made a promise to them - If they obeyed his rules and used his method, they would be a championship team.

Three years later, that promise became a reality. At Lambeau Field in Green Bay on December 31, 1961, Vince watched proudly as the Packers defeated the New York Giants 37-0 for the National Football League championship.

In 1967, after nine phenomenal winning seasons with the Packers, Vince decided to retire as head coach (though he would still act as general manager). The Packers had dominated professional football under his direction, collecting six division titles, five NFL championships, two Super Bowls (I and II) and acquiring a record of 98-30-4. They had become the stick by which all other teams were measured.

One year into his retirement, Vince realized that he still wanted to coach. He accepted the head coaching position for the Washington Redskins in 1969. During that season, Vince kept what had become the Lombardi tradition and led the Redskins to their first winning record in 14 years. In January of 1970, his professional coaching record stood at a remarkable 105-35-6, unmarred by a losing season, and the NFL named him their acclaimed "1960s Man of the Decade."

Unfortunately, Vince would never again have the opportunity to lead another team to the Super Bowl. He was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and died on Sept. 3, 1970. Over 3,500 people attended his funeral (the news was filled with stories about fans who drove cross-country to be there), and hard-nosed football players cried openly. President Richard Nixon, who had telegrammed Vince get well wishes while he was ill, sent another telegram of condolence to Marie signed "The People." Vince was buried at Mount Olivett Cemetery, in Middletown, N.J.

Rockne, Lombardi and now Walsh created and left behind legacies that will last forever. Each man will remain the personification of a generation – leadership, greatness and excellence, loved for what they stood for, blessed for winning both on and off a football field.

“Bill was blessed with one of the greatest gifts you can have which is the ability to see the future potential of another human being. It just so happened that football was his expertise,” Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said. “He saw in me much more than I ever saw in myself well before I ever had a chance to understand it. That is the ultimate compliment to the word coach. There's nothing more a coach should be than to see the full potential of a player unfolded. I am eternally grateful to Bill Walsh.”

"He took a chance on me. I was four years removed from a high school coach. It usually doesn't work that way," Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said before receiving word of Walsh's death.

"He looked at how to put everything together and how to do it differently. I always said he was an artist and the rest of us were blacksmiths pounding the anvil while he was painting the picture."

Former Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula told The Associated Press Walsh was "a great competitor."

"The offensive philosophy he installed in those great 49ers teams more than 25 years ago will remain his legacy and is still very much a part of the NFL to this day," said Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history.

"His offensive philosophies changed the game in the 1980s, and his influence helped so many of his assistant coaches move on to the next level," current Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "He was a wonderful contributor to this league, and his impact will be felt for years to come."

"I don't know that when it counted we ever beat them out there," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs (also a member of the Football Hall of Fame) said in an Assoicated Press report. "That's where we really got hurt. I think we would have been to another two or three Super Bowls if we could have got through the 49ers at their place, and whenever they had home field advantage it didn't seem we could get it done out there."

"For me, personally, outside of my dad, he was probably the most influential person in my life," Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana told The San Francisco Chronicle. "I am going to miss him."

"I came to San Francisco and I found another father in Bill," Jerry Rice said. "I never wanted to let him down. Today is a very sad day. This is the guy if I get into the Hall of Fame, I wanted him to introduce me, and we talked about that so many times. I want you to know this man meant the world to me."

"I think he wanted to win as bad or worse than I did," former 49’ers owner Eddie DeBartolo said. "If you got close to Bill, you knew what made him tick. He was a special, unique man, who had a vision, and it transcended football. He was my friend and mentor, and he taught me a lot."

Raiders’ owner Al Davis was one of the people who visited Walsh in his final days and remarked, "Bill knew it was coming. He gave us a chance to say goodbye. It was a great visit."

Walsh, one of only 21 coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the only one nicknamed "The Genius," disclosed in late 2006 that he was battling the disease. He was known for his revolutionary offense, cerebral practice regimens and keen eye for talent, among many other things.

At Stanford, three generations of student athletes called Walsh "coach." He served as an assistant coach in the in the mid-1960s, and as head coach in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Coaching and guiding young men at Stanford served as bookends for his Hall of Fame coaching career.

Former Stanford running back Darrin Nelson laughed when he was asked about his first practice with Walsh, whom he met in 1977, the first year Walsh served as head coach.

"Bill put all the freshman in and said, 'OK, for comic relief, let's see if the freshmen can do it.' He wanted to see if we were paying attention."

Nelson, a senior associate athletic director at Stanford, said Walsh had a rule against hazing freshmen. But they were allowed to tease and laugh at them. It was OK for Walsh too.

"Bill met with the entire freshman class of football players to talk about coming to college and being a college person," Nelson recalled. "One of the things he said was: 'don't worry about your high school girlfriend. She's probably out with your best friend right now.'"

"When I came here (in 1979 as 49’ers head coach), I just wanted to build a team that would win more than it would lose," Walsh told the late Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough. "I never envisioned the 49ers of the past three decades would become one of the greatest franchises in the history of sports. I'm proud that I played a part in it. I walk away knowing I orchestrated it, but also having a special feeling for everyone who worked and played here. We bonded together. It was like Camelot."
In a March 2007 article in Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Silver described Walsh as the "most influential football man of his era" and a "transcendent ringmaster.''

"With his meticulously crafted organization and cerebral practice regimens, to his daring personnel decisions and his visionary offensive schemes, he created an enduring model," Silver wrote. "Today, the West Coast, with its reliance on short passes, precisely timed routes and intricately planned progressions, is the NFL's preeminent scheme. But in the early 1980s it merely drove opposing coaches nuts."

"What really made Bill special is that he understood that the game was bigger than him,” Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said. “His genius was not centered around Xs and Os, it was centered around his ability to create a platform that made the game inclusive to others. He will forever be cemented with the likes of George Halas, Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi as the best ever."

"I don't know if people realize the innovation he has brought to this game on so many levels," Steve Young said to Sports Illustrated. "From a business perspective, I'd compare it to Silicon Valley, where Andy Grove, Steve Jobs and some of the other pioneers really changed business. Bill Walsh, around that same time, brought the same kind of mentality to football. In terms of how you deal with people and the kind of environment you create, his was a very enlightened approach."

For a time, Walsh worked as a football analyst for NBC. But he couldn't stay off the field for long. In 1992, he returned to Stanford as head football coach. Lowell Cohn, author of the 1994 book Rough Magic: Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football, compared the press conference in Burnham Pavilion to a coronation of the blue-eyed, white-haired Walsh, who was cheered by 600 people-fans, alumni and staff-and more than six dozen reporters from around the country.

"Walsh walked past them, got up to speak on a makeshift platform, and, quoting Joseph Campbell, said, 'This is my bliss,'" Cohn wrote. "His face glowed. He was in his element. He had come home."

Former Stanford Athletics Director Ted Leland, who hired Walsh in 1992, said Walsh was known for his dry sense of humor. He cited the time Walsh got into hot water after making disparaging comments about the University of Washington football team-comments that were published in the Sacramento Bee and picked up by newspapers across the country. Walsh apologized publicly and privately to UW officials, but the next time the Cardinal football team flew to Seattle for a game, the media was there to greet Walsh.

"When Bill got off the plane he was wearing fake glasses with a fake nose and mustache-as if to say 'Here I am,'" Leland said, laughing at the memory. "He had the ability to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and still joke about the human condition."

His reach in college athletics has extended beyond Stanford in recent years. In 2004 Walsh helped restore strength to the San Jose State athletic department and football program, leading the committee to hire Thomas Bowen as Director of Athletics. Less than a month later he recruited Dick Tomey to become head football coach. All Tomey has done is turn the moribund program into a winner, posting a 9-4 record and New Mexico Bowl crown in 2006. It was the university’s first bowl game appearance in 17 years.

Walsh shared the secrets of his coaching philosophy and winning strategies in books. In 1990, he teamed up with sportswriter Glenn Dickey to write "Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers." Seven years later came "Bill Walsh: Finding the Winning Edge."

He also took a lead role in expanding the sport globally. In 1994, Walsh was instrumental in the establishment and management of the World League of American Football, which later became known as NFL Europe.

Walsh's impact on the coaching industry is apparent by the rise of former assistants, players and people who have come under his influence, including Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes, Jeff Fisher, Sam Wyche, Rod Dowhower, Bruce Coslet, Sherman Lewis, Brian Billick, Gary Kubiak, George Seifert, Jon Gruden, Paul Hackett, Tom Holmoe, Dwaine Board, Bobb McKittrick, Bill McPherson, Steve Mariucci, Tom Rathman, Jim Mora, Greg Knapp, Harry Sydney and Tom Lovat.

At least for one day it’s a joy to show appreciation for one of the industries greats. As much as some are taking away from the sports industry and having a negative impact on the business of sports, each and everyday Bill Walsh made the sports industry a better place for everyone he touched with his greatness.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: San Francisco 49’ers (obit), San Francisco Chronicle and Wikipedia.

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