San Francisco’s miracle man Bill Walsh
April 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM
When I think of The San Francisco 49er’s and The National Football League I think of one man that comes to the top of my mind instantly almost every time and that is current 49er General Manager Bill Walsh. He epitomizes and represents almost everything of what professional football was, is and it’s very future rolled into one.
He is without question in my mind and many thousands of other’s the greatest professor, philosopher, architect, head coach and general manager of professional football of all time. There is little to compare or even shake a stick at, for Bill Walsh has instituted a system that has had such a tremendous impact upon the National Football League that has been taught and bred in virtually every franchise in the league in one form or another.
He is the direct greatest of grandfathers in a Family Tree of assistant coaches turned head coaches in the league. That have left his glorious empire in The San Francisco 49er’s and gone on to incorporate the same teachings and philosophies that he first instituted and almost all have been successful in establishing winning records.
Bill Walsh is the man that took over a horrendous San Francisco team in 1979 and built it into the very most successful NFL franchise in professional football history; after two decades he returns to this proud organization to help guide it into the next millennium.
He was named Vice President/General Manager of the 49er’s on January 20, 1999 and his duties were to coordinate the daily management of the organization and all aspects of football operations, including personnel decisions, the college draft and training camp.
Under Bill Walsh the San Francisco 49er’s experienced heights of victory and glory they thought were unattainable as they suffered through season after season of endless mediocrity. Upon his arrival as head coach in 1979 he began the meticulous task of rebuilding a losing franchise into not only a winning one but also a dominant one.
He was appointed the teams General Manager in 1982 and ascended to the role of President in 1985. During this period Walsh was responsible for all major organizational decisions. During his ten-year tenure (1979-88), Bill Walsh established the foundation of success that the San Francisco 49er’s have achieved over the last 20-years, including the beginning (1983) of an unbelievable streak of 16 consecutive 10-win seasons.
We owe this very man a lifetime of reverent gratitude for all that he has done, many throughout the league often referred to the 49er’s as “The Holy Roman Empire” of the NFL. Certainly they were not too far off from this mark as wherever we went we did so with dominance.
In one of the greatest success stories in the history of professional sports, Walsh took over the 49er’s in 1979; that had gone 2-14 the previous season and transformed it into a Super Bowl champion in just three seasons.
Under his direct supervision, the 49er’s won three Super Bowl titles (1981, 84 and 88), he also made seven National Football Conference post-season appearances and claimed six National Football Conference Western Division championships. He was twice named NFL Coach-of-the-Year (1981, 84) and was even later named NFL Coach-of-the-Decade for the 1980’s.
What this man achieved over the coarse of time allocated to him is simply incredible to put it mildly. Never in my lifetime and I speak for many others have I seen so many in The National Football League touched by in one form or another rather it be a coach, a scout, an agent or a player by this one man.
Bill Walsh was one of only 14 coaches in the history of professional football to be elected to the NFL Hall of Fame, when he was enshrined in 1993. He compiled a .617 winning percentage with a 102-63-1-career record that included 10 wins in 14 post-season games. He was the first coach in team history to reach the 100-win plateau.
I have seen this man walking the sidelines, peering out of the skyboxes overhead and sitting in countless war room sessions during draft day over the many years. I have seen so many little known players turned into superstars almost overnight because of this man’s principles and teaching philosophies that help elevate them to above-average status.
Bill Walsh’s very first college head coaching assignment came at Stanford in 1977, where he directed the Cardinals to a 17-7 record and captured wins in Bluebonnet and Sun Bowls during his two-year tenure. Walsh then left to coach The San Francisco 49er’s. He returned to Stanford in 1992 and promptly led the Cardinals to a 10-3 record that concluded with a New Year’s Day win over Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl. It was the college’s first New Year’s Day bowl game victory in 21-years. Bill Walsh remained at Stanford through the 1994 season.
Even after all of this you would think that Bill Walsh had achieved and done all one man could possibly want to do? But the love of the game and the challenges of every aspect of the sport drove him to reach for even higher heights.
In 1994, Walsh was instrumental in the establishment and management of the World League of American Football, now known as NFL Europe. He has continued since then to serve the league as a consultant and representative in various league ventures.
Bill Walsh’s Family Tree of Coaches is something that always puts me in awe as all of these former assistants have gone on to formulate his West Coast Offense and teach the very founding principles of this complex system to an unending supply of talent.
They include: 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, Tom Rathman, Harry Sydney, Tom Lovat and now Steve Mariucci.
Even with all of this influence his accomplishments continue to ring loud throughout the league and beyond, In 1987, Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program that has produced, among others, Tyronne Willingham, Stanford’s current head coach. The NFL later adopted this Fellowship as a league-wide program.
Not all of Walsh’s amazing career was based solely on coaching and management, after 10-seasons with San Francisco, Walsh joined NBC Sports in 1989 and teamed with award-winning announcer Dick Enberg for three-seasons as the networks top analyst on NFL and Notre Dame telecasts.
Bill Walsh prior to all of this managed to earn a prestigious education as he earned a bachelor’s degree (1955) and a master’s in education (1959) from San Jose State. He is also author of two books Finding the Winning Edge and Building A Champion.
Walsh has a wife whose name is Geri and they are both parents of three children: Steve, Craig and Elizabeth. Certainly his very own children have a treasure chest full of career highlights that their very own father has managed to accomplish and continues to do so right up to now. It is a legacy that any child would hold close to their heart, the remarkable life of their very own father.
After Bill Walsh was named General Manager on January 20th, 1999 he set out to do what he was hired to do; he has cleaned up the salary cap disaster that was the NFL equivalent to bankruptcy. He has had to make the tough, painful decisions. He is the one that has had to cut veteran players and slash salaries.
In all aspects he is the one that has put the 49er’s finances back in order to the point that when they see alight at the end of the tunnel now, it’s no longer a train coming their way at 100 mph. “I’m personally committed to get it as stabilized as I can before I step down,” Walsh said.
In comparison when Walsh took over just two years ago what he has faced this year is just pocket change in salary cap maneuverings, he had to trim about $15 million dollars by the March 2nd deadline for all football franchises to be under the $67.4 million cap figure. The 49er’s were some $28 million over the cap when he took over in 1999.
“I see us breaking out of our cap problems in another year, and I see us dealing with it effectively this year,” Walsh said. “We could be really on our feet next year and able to be in the market for free agents if we so desire.”
“So we could compete on an equal basis with most teams in the league next year. That’s our expectations.” However if you are seeking a target for when the 49er’s should be back on completely solid ground in finances, the 2003 season is a better bet.
By that time, they will have already taken the major salary cap hits for high-priced veterans who have either retired or been waived. Just last year the 49er’s used over $10 million of their cap room for players who were either out of the league or playing for other teams.
Having so very little salary cap cash to spend Bill Walsh has had to rebuild the team the old fashioned way, not being able to acquire ready to go free agents he has relied on the draft. He started off to a slow start in 1999, taking defensive tackle Reggie McGrew and defensive end Chike Okeafor; both athletes have been disappointments with his first two picks. But he regained his magic touch last year.
Five of the 49er’s top seven 2000 draft choices, started at some point on the team’s defense: outside linebacker Julian Peterson, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, defensive end John Engelberger and safety John Keith.
Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich was also expected to start until suffering a shoulder injury. Two fifth-rounders, running back Paul Smith and defensive end John Milem look like solid picks.
“Personnel wise, we had what could have been one of the best drafts in our history here last year,” Walsh said. “But were still, let’s just say, six to ten players away from really making a run at the final game. And this draft conceivably could garner four of them, three or four of them.”
Walsh’s influence on this 49er team has paid again big dividends as in 2000 alone so much was accomplished as a team and individual players shined like they never have before, because all the organization bought into the system that once again Bill Walsh had implanted.
The 49er’s expected to take a hard fall once they decided to tackle their salary cap problems. And they did having gone 4-12 in 1999 and 6-10 in 2000.
But it is without question that Bill Walsh has this franchise going in the right direction at a pace that must make 49er haters sick. If you expect the 49er’s to pay for their five Super Bowl titles and nearly two decades of success with an equal amount of agony, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Since he took over as General Manager every facet of the team has been touched in one way or the other. They’re building a defense that still will be young yet also will be experienced by the time the 49er’s break loose from their salary cap shackles. At that point, the team should have enough cash to plug the few holes on defense that remain.
On offense, the 49er’s continued last season to do what they’ve done from the moment Walsh was hired as their coach in 1979 and installed his system. They gained more yards than all but three other NFL teams: The Rams, Broncos and Colts. Garcia, a Canadian Football League product, passed for a club record 4,278-yards and 31 touchdowns. After Walsh steps down as expected right after this draft, he’ll leave Terry Donahue a team that has faced it’s worst financial nightmare and is headed for a sweet payoff.
It was only a few months ago and I can still remember the tremendous signing off that legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice was undertaking as the last regular season games came to a close. He all but acknowledged, as did thousands of fans that he would not return next year as a 49er.
Bill Walsh talked about why star receiver Jerry Rice would have to leave the 49er’s just after the 2000 season, and when he did so he spoke bluntly. “At some point,” he said, “great eras come to an end.” Walsh’s comment was aimed directly at Rice, with the 49er’s 16-years, but in reality he may as well have been talking about himself.
Bill Walsh in one of the most under-published stories in the NFL, will bow out as the 49er’s general manager this spring most likely shortly after this year’s draft and he will be replaced by Terry Donahue.
The bright part of this story however is that Walsh is expected to remain with the 49er’s as a consultant, a role he served in 1996 when he assisted then-offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. That experiment turned into a disaster, with Walsh disappearing from the scene before the following summer, however the 49er front office does not expect that to be a repeat.
Owners Denise DeBartolo and John York want Walsh in the building, So does assistant general manager Terry Donahue, whom Walsh brought to the 49er’s two years ago. And so does the head coach, Steve Mariucci. “We want to keep him around,” said Mariucci. “He’s an icon, and he’s a resource.”
To myself I find this as no surprise as Bill Walsh represents everything good when it comes to the interests and prosperity of this franchise. To have the overwhelming support of all those involved in decision making and coaching from the owner on down is a testament to his character and his immeasurable knowledge of the game itself.
Bill Walsh is expected to have an office at the team’s complex, with Mariucci more insistent that he be involved with salary-cap decisions that will help determine the team’s future. Remember it was all Bill Walsh who had to slash $49 million from the team’s cap over the past two years; moves that included cutting of starters like Merton Hanks and Lee Woodall and retirements of Steve Young and Tim McDonald. And it is Walsh that should receive the credit for having this team at salary cap zero by 2003.
Not everything can be done by Bill Walsh though he had some very valuable assistance in this protracted undertaking. One of them being one of the most important and that is executive John McVay, who came out of retirement in 1998 and is what Mariucci termed “the steady Eddie around here.” It was McVay and Walsh that made the difficult personnel decisions that helped transform the 49er’s from an aging club with no future to one of the league’s best and brightest rehabilitation projects still underway.
After the 49er’s slumped to a 4-12 record in 1999, the first time in 17 years the club did not win at least 10 games, 49er haters and doomsayers predicted two to three years of bottom-feeding for this franchise. Bill Walsh was the man to take heed of this and he insisted the club’s quarterback, Jeff Garcia, would finish among the top five in the league and that the team would win seven games.
The final results were that the 49er’s won six, losing four by six or fewer points, and Garcia; who set a club record with 4,278-yards passing and threw for 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, finished as the league’s fifth-ranked passer.
“I think Bill Walsh is ahead of the curve,” said a source close to the 49er’s general manager. “If I had to build a team tomorrow it would be with Bill Walsh and no one else.”
In the beginning of Walsh’s inauguration as general manager in the beginning of 1999, he still had his problems there was friction created between Head Coach Steve Mariucci and himself, he made some controversial personnel moves and his revamping of all management within the departments met some flak.
But even after all this to his credit, Walsh learned from even these mistakes and pulled back. Terry Donahue was promoted from Director of Personnel to Assistant General Manager and took on even more responsibility. Peter Harris was hired as team president and took over Walsh’s office at the team’s Santa Clara headquarters.
Walsh by all margins became less visible and stayed out of Mariucci’s way, allowing one of the league’s most underrated coaches to flourish. Mariucci responded by warming to Walsh, with the two embracing each other after games last season. “ We have the relationship now I wish we had from the start,” said Mariucci. “He’s a father figure, a friend and an ally to me.”
If Walsh was given the choice, he probably would return for another term, when he took over two years ago, he said he expected to be on the job for no more than three seasons. But as the first season progressed the feelings within the organization especially with the acquisition of Terry Donahue is that he would not fulfill his three seasons.
The timetable for Terry Donahue continued to wind down almost to the point where he was considering taking management and/or head coaching positions with other teams. Donahue was Walsh’s handpicked successor, and with last April’s draft he demonstrated he was more than ready to fly. Donahue made the choices, and Walsh made the trades that left the club with 11 draft picks. In my opinion the overall results were outstanding to say the least, it was a resounding draft with all selections making the roster, including five defensive starters.
Just recently in light of Terry Donahue taking the reins as general manager as expected to happen right after the draft. Bill Walsh signed a new three-year contract to remain with the team as a consultant, although a smaller office, he said he is hoping to get another pivotal rookie class from the April 21-22 draft. In order to help the 49er’s stay within their means while shedding their salary cap problems and looking to regain their playoff status.
“It’s absolutely critical that we do well,” said Walsh, 69, who was wearing a leather cast over his broken left hand, fractured in a fall while playing tennis. “But we’ll never be satisfied with the draft because we need more than the draft can provide.”
“Basically, I’ve served my term,” Walsh said. “I’m continuing on until the draft and after that I’ll step aside and he’ll become general manager meaning Donahue. He understood this would happen because that’s what I told him when he came aboard two years ago. To be honest, I don’t think Terry would be here if it weren’t for me. We’ve got one of the dynamic people in football in Terry Donahue, and I take great pride in that.”
In hopes of trading down in the draft Walsh has found virtually no one seriously considering such a move, having so many holes to fill and add depth will be next to impossible with only seven draft picks. The 49er’s have just one pick in each of the first six rounds, with the exception of a fifth-round selection, which they forfeited as part of their settlement with the league for past salary-cap infractions. The 49er’s own two seventh-round picks.
“We can’t even be frustrated because there aren’t any alternatives to moving in the draft,” Walsh said. “There’s only two teams with two firsts (Seattle and St. Louis) and one team with two seconds (St. Louis). When that occurs, it becomes very difficult. So it very well could be that Terry drafts from start to finish right in order.”
“I know what it takes to do the job and, at age 70, some facets of it you can do probably better than anybody else. But other phases, you just don’t have maybe the energy or essence of time, and you’re not as updated as you could be. So there is a point where stepping away is appropriate and acceptable to everyone. I couldn’t have drawn it up any better myself.”
Bill Walsh says he wants to give Terry Donahue some breathing room in the transition, and he’ll do just that by going on vacation after the draft. “Not so much because I want a vacation, but he should establish himself while I’m gone.” Walsh said “He can establish himself, but it won’t take long.”
“When I leave in May, we can look back and see what we’ve been through,” said Walsh, who returned in January 1999 at the urging of former co-owner Eddie DeBartolo to help steer the organization through a tumultuous ownership squabble. Denise DeBartolo York assumed sole control of the team from her brother a year ago as part of a deal to resolve their feud over control of the family’s $1 billion empire.
I have no doubts or feel any uneasiness about the final results of this draft, with Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue on board we can once again and continue to feel that our franchise will attain the best athlete’s possible, and hopefully make a positive immediate impact.
We can feel very confident that Bill Walsh will go out as a true professional that he has been for so many years, however he will still continue to serve and be a part of this prestigious organization and wield tremendous influence.
Walsh is one of the most complex characters in sport in the late 20th century; controlling, captivating and cunning. He had a vision far beyond his contemporaries. The 49er’s organization still follows much of the blueprint he established in 1979. His teachings, either in organizational setup or offensive philosophy, are evident throughout the NFL even today.
Bill Walsh to me is a blessing from God, I honestly believe and hold true to conviction that this great franchise and dynasty would have never come about, without his coming and his incredible journey with us. I only hope and pray that he will continue to be that source of all mighty knowledge for many years to come, and my greatest wish is to have him see one more championship if not a Super Bowl.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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