San Francisco's Bill Walsh steps aside for Donahue
May 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM
It was on Friday April 20th, 2001 that all the great circles of draftsmen came together to diagnose and ponder what their greatest needs were in both offense and defense. Many college players lives would be forever shaped and transformed with the announcements made by the NFL commissioner at the podium in New York City with countless thousands watching with immense anticipation at what their team’s front office personnel had decided.
San Francisco’s General Manager Bill Walsh would be a high profile in this year’s draft as he was about to embark upon his very last one, this was the one where he felt compelled to leave his trademark and signature on for one last great time.
What makes Walsh’s draft accomplishments so very remarkable is he never was a typical NFL scout. Walsh was more of an artist than an architect was. He didn’t beat the bushes or observe film until his eyelids wouldn’t blink. As a talent evaluator, he operated on one thing only his very own intuitive level. I cannot for the life of me ever understand where Bill Walsh acquired this mental and philosophical ability, In my opinion he is the best in the business at it and can read and analyze a player within ten to fifteen minutes as first impressions are enormous in his opinion.
I cannot comment enough about how I feel about Bill Walsh being the main focal point of this organizations overall success, sure there are countless other personnel that assisted him and gave him detailed information and pounded away countless hours in legwork for him. But the overall sphere of this franchise and its generated success is accountable to this King of kings in professional football mentality.
Walsh never had to study libraries worth of tape or identify traits. He saw more in five minutes than others saw in five hours. John McVay, the 49er’s director of football operations, tells the story of how he and Walsh were watching a tryout at the old team facility in 1981.
"There were easily 100 guys on the field," McVay says. "We were on the fire escape looking down. He said, "Who’s that towheaded kid?" He was way on the other end of the field, where you could barely see him. He said, "Sign him." It was running back Bill Ring, who would play six years for the 49er’s.
Bill Walsh’s long list of accomplishments and triumph’s are an incredible tale of how his life has been blessed with utter contentment after putting in very long hours of work to resurrect a franchise that was precariously close to falling into oblivion.
Look at Bill Walsh’s decision to draft Charles Haley in the fourth round of the 1986 draft. Haley was a 6-5, 230-pound linebacker from James Madison who never rushed the passer. After watching Haley on film, Walsh told Bill McPherson, then the 49er’s defensive line coach, that Haley might be another Fred Dean.
McPherson was bewildered with this outrageous assessment; until he actually witnessed Haley’s work out. Five Super Bowl rings and 100.5 sacks later, Who can possibly imagine that Bill Walsh was onto something here.
His ability to sense greatness in a player is unbelievable almost on the verge of being called a psychic of professional athletic abilities and maturity. He literally tears a player apart with his own personnel evaluation and mentally stores that player’s strengths and weaknesses inside his head with great precision and awareness. He has made countless personnel decisions based upon these findings, some have been criticized others have been highly praised most have had very positive outcomes.
Sometimes his abilities actually would defy logic in a lot of cases in evaluating player personnel and his ability to sense that a player was past his prime and that they needed to be waived or cut to make room for new and younger talent went without question or variable.
Walsh always stressed instincts in his evaluations, while at the same time placing a limited amount of value in measurable. "He was very adept at understanding the nuances that would be important for different positions, and exactly what would separate great athletes from good ones." Says Cleveland Browns President Carmen Policy, who had a longtime association with Walsh in San Francisco.
When picking out a player to fit his offense or defense it was never that much more difficult than selecting a Northern California wine that would go with dinner. Walsh rarely ever drafted players who didn’t marry well to his elite system. Perhaps because he knew his system better than anyone else knew theirs.
Bill Walsh was the creator of the West Coast Offense and his scriptures on how to play and win with this system is still used by more than half of the teams in the NFL today. It is without a doubt the most sound and fundamental system around today as it utilizes almost every player to their fullest potential.
I have always praised this system for what it contributes to the game and it’s rational as to countering different schemes and formations that are thrown at you on every play. I find Walsh’s system to be one that has seen a lot of hybrids or variations come out of the base one and still work fairly reasonably with other teams.
Walsh really made a mark as a personnel man when he became a master manipulator of the draft. In his 13-years in control of the 49er’s (he was head coach from 1979-88 and general manager from 1999-2001), he made 52 trades involving draft picks. The entire emphasis changed from acquiring players for picks early in his career to trying to make picks multiply like guppies later in his career.
However the thrill of the trade remains the same. "I think he would trade for the sake of trading to invigorate the draft room, the organization and himself," Policy said. Walsh would spend a lot of time with a piece of paper that lists every pick of every team, trying to come up with some way to make trade matches. It’s called a draft chart, and Walsh carried it from room to room in the days proceeding the draft. "I’ll pore over these hundreds of times," he said. "That aspect of it is very exciting to me."
This was and still is the most exciting aspect of being a general manager to Bill Walsh his handprint on the future of this franchise means more than words can say. His abilities and insight on drafting high caliber talent through the NFL draft process has been done with a charismatic and detailed determination, one that will shape and form future units into dominating ones.
Bill Walsh’s hall of fame draft was in 1986 where he garnered eight starters, including Charles Haley, fullback Tom Rathman, wide receiver John Taylor and offensive tackle Steve Wallace. It was only made possible by eight trades that turned six picks and two veterans into 16 players, including two veterans. "Considering we were drafting 19th that year," Walsh says, "I think you’d have to say it was one of the best drafts ever."
It was a perfectly calm on Friday April 20th, 2001 last minute details were being worked out in the San Francisco front office as to what direction they wanted to go with in this year’s pivotal draft. Bill Walsh was well aware that this draft was his very last and he was finding renewed strength that he thought he never had as draft time began to draw nearer.
Walsh was planning on giving all the 49er coaches and staff personnel the rest of the afternoon off after meeting at the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center. However from out of nowhere came the sudden news of The Atlanta Falcons acquiring the first pick of the 2001 NFL Draft in a trade with San Diego? The afternoon was reconvened immediately going well into the early evening about how their draft strategy was about to change.
"This was one of the most unbelievable trades I’ve seen," says Walsh, 69, a couple hours after the deal was announced. "It borders on the Herschel Walker trade." In Walsh’s estimation, quarterback Michael Vick, the player for whom the Falcons traded up, is a bit of a gamble. And he sees real value in return man/receiver Tim Dwight, with whom the Falcons parted with.
Suddenly Bill Walsh was in a new predicament as far as placement in the draft with the targeted personnel he was seeking. This deal in all itself served major implications for the 49er’s. Before the trade Walsh was most confident about the player he wanted. Andre Carter defensive end from California would fall to them at the ninth spot. However after this deal was finalized, Walsh believed the Chicago Bears were prepared to take Andre Carter one pick ahead of him.
Bill Walsh realizing he needed to make a decision proceeded to call on Seattle Seahawks Head Coach/General Manager Mike Holmgren, his former offensive coordinator, basically appealing to him to do a favor for his old boss "for old time’s sake." However Holmgren wasn’t biting unless he could acquire something in return, and he finally did so by acquiring a third round pick from us in allowing us to move up one slot ahead of Chicago to select defensive end Andre Carter.
As the moment came to a head and as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue walked to the Madison Square Garden podium to announce the Patriot’s selection with the sixth overall pick in the first round, a sudden silence fell over the San Francisco War Room. When Tagliabue reads the name of Georgia’s defensive tackle Richard Seymour, 49er’s Head Coach Steve Mariucci and Assistant General Manager Terry Donahue pump their fists in gratefulness.
After solidifying the deal with Seattle and moving from No.#9 to No.#7 overall in the first round selection, the deal was in stark contrast from what Walsh had done so many times in the past and that was to move down instead of up to acquire additional picks. Well today was a day of sacrifice for Andre was the 49er’s coveted pick all along.
After the verbal deal over the phone with Holmgren, Seconds later, but right before the world knew what really happened, Walsh looked slightly jittery with the adrenaline still flowing, says, "I’m relieved. We had to give more than we hoped, but it was well worth it."
This is where all the blood, sweat and tears are shed right in the war room as so much is at stake in regards to the productivity and future overall success of this franchise. The risks are always there in any coming NFL Draft and you try to do the best you possibly can in order to give your team the very best possible shot at making the playoffs with the correct additions of quality personnel to your roster.
When the time came and San Francisco’s selection of California’s Andre Carter was revealed on ESPN, the 49er’s war room erupted in applause. Mariucci paid homage to the mother of Jesus, and he and Walsh smile from ear to ear like they have just won the Super Bowl and exchange a well-exaggerated handshake.
There is little question or misunderstanding that Bill Walsh will still serve the 49er’s for the rest of his lifetime in some form or another. However he has prepared for this very day for a long time and he is in full contentment with his decision to allow Assistant General Manager Terry Donahue to resume his duties.
"Bill is cognizant that this is his last draft and what he does will be on Terry’s head and Steve’s head," says John York, the 49er’s owner. "Instead of determining the process and picking the players, Bill picked the players from Terry’s process. For him to recognize Terry’s strength was a real credit."
The passing of power is expected to take place very soon, as Bill Walsh will have taken a vacation to allow Terry Donahue time to organize and prepare for his formal announcement. "Terry is beginning to express himself more and more," Walsh said the day before the draft. "His presence is being felt more, and that’s the way it should be."
You have to feel that there was some tension in the 49er’s war room during the tense negotiations and never-ending wheeling and dealing which is a Bill Walsh common art. Everyone wanted to give Walsh his appropriate respect, But at the same time Bill Walsh worked hard at not to be overbearing.
Terry Donahue legitimately regards Walsh as "a treasure," but that does not always spell out that he always sees eye to eye with him. It was Bill Walsh that was the force behind the trade up for Andre Carter while Donahue had some mild hesitancy over parting with the third-round pick. In essence it was Donahue that allowed Walsh to bask in his moment of glory, knowing he wanted to leave a lasting impression as his term came to a close.
As the draft proceeded after trade deals with Green Bay and Seattle the last day of the draft was highlighted with staying conservative and being hilarious at the same time. Head Coach Steve Mariucci said there were trade scenario’s considered but the general thought was to stay where they were. For in all they had to be forced to wait after having absolutely no fourth or fifth round draft pick, the wait was long but seemed to be well worth it.
San Francisco In round one with the 7(7) overall pick took California defensive end Andre Carter, In round two at 16(47) overall pick we took Vanderbilt outer linebacker Jamie Winborn and in round three at 18(80) overall pick we chose Pittsburgh’s running back Kevan Barlow.
In the later rounds after waiting through the fourth and fifth round choices in round six at 6(169) overall pick we chose Tennessee’s wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. In round six again at 16(179) overall pick we chose Louisville corner back Rashad Holman. And again at 28(191) overall pick in the sixth round we chose Texas-El Paso defensive tackle Menson Holloway.
In the seventh and last round at 9(209) overall pick we chose Auburn inner linebacker Alex Lincoln. And again in the seventh round at 24(224) we chose Yale tight end Eric Johnson after a lot of fanfare in the war room.
Saving the best laugh for last Bill Walsh put on quite the performance on Sunday April 22nd, 2001 the last day of the NFL 2001 Draft. After watching a tape that was dropped off by Terry Donahue the week before, Bill Walsh feel in admiration for Yale tight end Eric Johnson he was taken in the seventh round with the 224th pick.
"He’s been beating me over the head to take this guy the last couple of days," Donahue said. "He was bugging me for three rounds (Sunday), and I kept telling him it was too early and that we’d get him in the seventh round. We started calling him Bill’s son."
What is even more peculiar and hilarious is the fact that when the time finally came about to draft him, Walsh went to make the pick and then stopped and turned around. "What was this guy’s name again?" He asked.
The coaches and scouts alike erupted in laughter, and they gave Walsh a round of applause after the pick was made. "It was a real special moment," Donahue said.
And the cheering never stopped there for on Friday they were cheering Walsh’s trade of three picks to Green Bay for five on Friday. And then his trade with Seattle on Saturday, giving up a third round pick for a move up in order to acquire defensive end Andre Carter.
"Really, this wouldn’t have happened if Bill hadn’t set the foundation by trading (lower-round picks) with Green Bay the day before the draft," said Mariucci, referring to a Friday night trade that gave the 49er’s an extra third-round draft choice, which the team then used to trade up in the first round to select Carter.
"We all know that this was Bill’s last draft, but it might have been his most creative. It was top-shelf Bill work," Mariucci continued before addressing Carter. "And he’s the reason why you’re here. He had to pull some of his magic to get it done."
Right on that cue Carter then smothered the 69-year old Bill Walsh with a hug, forcing the general manager to smile unexpectedly. Sure Bill Walsh would have loved to have an extra two or three draft picks. But he hopes to love Carter even more.
It has always been the order of the draft since Walsh has been in control of this organization to try and accumulate as many draft picks as possible so as to rejuvenate the team with an injection of youth and renewed talent. But this was a year after two in rebuilding where it came down to acquiring a real big time playmaker.
"Last year we needed to accumulate as many picks as we possibly could, and we had one of the best drafts in 49er’s history," Walsh said. "But as last year was progressing, we knew that what we needed was a great football player on this field to progress to that next level. And now was the time to acquire one, whatever it took."
Certainly there is no misconception that Bill Walsh was able to accomplish just that mission as he landed one of the best defensive ends in the draft and added quality depth to almost every glaring weakness we had on both sides of the line. He has without a doubt added another dimension to this franchise in a new crop pf great talent waiting to be harnessed.
The 49er’s 2000 draft was without a doubt one of the most successful in the league; and easily the team’s most successful draft in years. After a landslide of first round busts (Reggie McGrew, R. W. McQuarters and Jim Druckenmiller), the 49er’s landed five starters and 11 contributors in a deep and productive draft last year.
And for the very first time, it was crystal clear that Coach Steve Mariucci, Walsh and Donahue, among others, all had say in the decision process. Almost instantly, the 49er’s had gone from a team trying to hang on to past glories to a team looking into the future.
"I think we’ve created an era of youth and enthusiasm on this team, an energized feeling, eagerness," Donahue said. "What I’m probably proudest of is that I’ve helped contribute to a system of personnel that I think somehow got lost for a little while in San Francisco. I think we’ve re-created that."
The official announcement of Terry Donahue succeeding Bill Walsh as General Manager was made on Wednesday May 2nd, 2001, as the talk of the Bay area and all around The National Football League was targeting this expected transition.
The 49er’s flew in Terry Donahue’s wife, Andrea, and their three grown daughters from Southern California to witness Donahue officially taking over during a packed news conference. "Very few people are blessed in their life to become a general manager of a franchise like the 49er’s," Donahue said. "One that has a history of winning and that will win again." "He’s the best personnel man we’ve ever had here," Walsh said firmly, then paused. "Well at least since I’ve been around. Maybe there was someone else in the 1940’s or so. Bit I’ve never seen anyone better."
The changes in The San Francisco front office have been anticipated and welcomed as the ownership once under Eddie DeBartolo had changed over to his sister and her husband Denise DeBartolo and John York. When Bill Walsh signed on as general manager in January of 1999, he did so out of a commitment to the franchise he led to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980’s. He filled a leadership black hole that was created with the departure of Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark to Cleveland.
With Walsh’s contract expiring Tuesday May 1st, 2001 largely by his own accord he has recently indicated that he expects to move into semi-retirement in May. Walsh has a clause in his contract that allows the Hall of Fame coach to remain as a vice president and consultant.
Bill Walsh has not only been a genius in evaluating player talent and identifying an individuals strengths and weaknesses, he has also been largely responsible for hand picking his very own personal replacements.
Terry Donahue is Walsh’s hand-picked choice to succeed him and the 49er’s hope that he’s learned the job well, mostly due in part because the massive rebuilding project under Walsh’s third tour of duty with the franchise is expected to last at least one more year.
This is not the first time Bill Walsh has personally selected his own replacement. When he was preparing to retire as coach in 1988, Walsh convinced then-owner Eddie DeBartolo to hire defensive coordinator George Seifert as head coach, and Seifert continued the 49er’s winning legacy, leading them to two Super Bowl titles.
"Bill Walsh as profoundly affected my life, and that of my family," said Seifert, currently head coach for The Carolina Panthers. "I consider the years I coached with Bill to be the most enjoyable and rewarding of my career. Bill Walsh is dynamic, competitive, innovative, funny, tough and very motivating." "He is a gifted leader and simply the best in our profession."
Bill Walsh has indicated right from the very beginning of Terry Donahue’s hiring that he would someday step into the role of general manager, with just a few years of seasoning Donahue would be ready to run the franchise. Donahue has been the dutiful student as he has waited in the wings for this moment from the start. He has made major changes within the organization when he was the Director of Player Personnel and as a Assistant General Manager, he overhauled the scouting department, placing a greater emphasis on scouting college players, and he essentially managed and ran the past two drafts.
Terry Donahue will take on an array of duties as general manager of the 49er’s among his responsibilities will include all aspects of football operations, including personnel decisions, the college draft and training camp, as well as being instrumental in the daily management of the organization.
When Donahue was hired by San Francisco in 1999 as Director of Player Personnel and was elevated to Assistant General Manager prior to the 2000 season. He was essentially being groomed to succeed Bill Walsh at the General Manager post. Donahue’s primary duties included managing the 49er’s scouting and drafting activities in addition to coordinating the team’s pro personnel department.
"I’m very excited about this opportunity," Donahue said. "I have enjoyed learning about the nuances of professional football from Bill Walsh and John McVay. They are the very best and have prepared me well for this opportunity."
Terry Donahue joined the 49er’s after spending three years (1996-98) as the lead college football analyst for CBS Sports, Prior to going into broadcasting, Donahue enjoyed a Hall of Fame coaching career at UCLA. He became the most successful coach in Pac 10 history, posting a 151-74-8 (.665) record during a 20-year (1976-95) head-coaching career with the Bruins. He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 2000.
He is without a doubt more than capable of assuming the role of Bill Walsh as general manager of this franchise. I am even more confident as he was groomed and shown in full detail the intricacies of what it is like to run a professional football franchise and he has learned first hand from the creator and maker himself Bill Walsh.
Donahue is a genius in his own right as he has been greatly successful in the college ranks and turned UCLA into one of the most dominating college clubs in the nation, and kept it there for a strong 20-years. He built it into one of the top programs in the country.
The Bruins finished in the Top 20 12 times and cracked the Top 10 five times under Donahue’s direction. He registered 98-51-5 (.653) conference record and guided the Bruins to 13 bowl games, including four Rose Bowls, and five Pac-10 championships. The 98 wins are most in conference history, and he posted a winning record against every Pac-10 opponent, Donahue had an 8-4-1 record in bowl games and is one of only two coaches in NCAA history to win eight consecutive bowl appearances.
"I don’t feel intimidated is the right word," Donahue said when asked about following Walsh’s Saquatch-like footprints. "I have supreme confidence in myself. I’ve been in the big arenas." During his tenure at UCLA, he installed a modern weight room, revamped the choppy practice fields and instituted academic support for his players. The end results were 13 bowl appearances; three Rose Bowl victories and five teams that finished ranked in the top five in the nation.
UCLA produced 34 first-team All-Americans and had 16 players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft during Donahue’s tenure. Terry Donahue took a unique ride in football circles. When he joined the UCLA coaching staff in 1971 he remained there until stepping down as head coach in 1995. Twenty-five years in the same spot is highly unusual.
"Some people like to move but I like to be stable." He said. "One of the advantages was that our girls got to go to the same grammar school, same high school and same university. It really allowed us to become ingrained in our community. When I look back on my career that is one of the special blessings."
"We are very happy to have such a quality person as Terry to take over the role as General Manager," Owner Denise DeBartlo York said. "He has had great success during his football career. He is thoughtful, intelligent and organized. He will be a great leader for the 49er’s."
Is this the end of Bill Walsh? One has to wonder what exactly will be his role? I am profoundly impressed with what Bill has done for this franchise in just a short few years, taking over a franchise as it had fallen from it’s pedestal was no easy task. If there was any person that I would chose to do it though it would be Bill Walsh.
Terry Donahue will continue that proud heritage and keep Bill’s proud principles and ideologies in place with a little variation I am sure. He knows how to win championships and he has a tremendous advantage in evaluating player personnel. He is the right man for the job.
I am also assured that Bill will continue to work diligently behind the scenes with all the front office personnel and coaches on the field. As the seasons come and go, his presence needs to be felt and his words of encouragement and wisdom still need to ring in all of their ears. I bow at your presence Mr. Walsh and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you are and what you have accomplished in defining this proud dynasty.
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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