49er's Transition of Power Walsh to Donahue
May 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM
Former head coach legendary Bill Walsh resigned as general manager of The San Francisco 49er’s on Wednesday May 2nd, marking the very end of an era that was focused on one main objective and that was to win at all costs.
As the franchise and the front office brass rolled out their new general manager Terry Donahue in a setting that was laid out from the very beginning by Bill Walsh himself. Together they set their collective gaze and thoughts on a current predicament of promise and a future filled with renewed hope of competing for a playoff berth.
Donahue was a college legend that patiently served out his apprenticeship under Walsh and learned all the intricacies of professional football in comparison to college from Walsh himself.
As Terry Donahue stood on the dais next to owner John York and was being announced as the team’s new general manager, Bill Walsh with perfect contentment, stepped down so that his handpicked successor could take over with limited fanfare. Walsh observed from the first row. He faced York and Donahue and did not say an entire word the entire press conference.
Bill Walsh will always be remembered for all his contributions to the game itself, the game of professional football is unique to this country and instills ferocious loyalty and pride throughout the many classes of human psychology and social status. The players themselves serve as gladiators of the modern era, and Bill Walsh represents a part of that persona as anyone alive today.
The many characteristics of Walsh are so numerous and detailed it would take many scholars to fully list and explain them all in order, he is a man that personifies excellence and honest dedication along with hard work as classifications necessary to enhance one’s own performance.
“The game of football is a unique activity,” he explained, “The most violent activity conceived outside of warfare. We are viewed throughout the world through the prism of this game.”
For all those that know him and have had the unique honor to have played for him and coached under him, they all identify him as a giver. He never withholds knowledge, he passes it on to those that have supported him and worked for him.
Bill Walsh can also reflect back on his career when he was one of those that worked for someone else, full of eagerness and determination he was someone ready to make an impact on something.
“I was held back in my career,” he says. “I never wanted to do that. I look on the influences of Marv Levy, Paul Brown, Al Davis, Sid Gillman, John Ralston-these people mentored me and taught me.” “Especially Brown, whom I was with for eight years in Cincinnati. He was a master of the NFL game. Al Davis was brilliant, a unique person and one of the best coaches I ever spent time with. He was charismatic like Terry Donahue. Sid Gillman may not necessarily be the father of the so-called West Coast Offense, but he was a great influence on me, too.”
Bill Walsh has always been remembered as the one man that always had to make the controversial decisions and define whether a veteran player had gone beyond their peak in overall productivity. Also knowing when to say enough is enough in relation to big money salaries that would hold the franchise hostage from signing new and young talent at reasonable salaries. His aim has always been to put the franchise on the cutting edge of athletes that are accomplished in both strength and speed in cohesion with intelligence.
“I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to transition Steve Young and Jerry Rice into a departure from the club that was worthy of their contributions. I’m not sure anybody else could have done that without rancor.”
Bill Walsh will always be identified with some of the great players he had the honor in coaching, such as Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and just mentioned Steve Young and Jerry Rice. But what is not often remembered is for his minority-hiring program he started, giving coaches of color a chance to ply for their trade. He is very much a product of the diverse Bay Area community he grew up in.
Again in many ways, Walsh’s legacy is found in the many coaches he nurtured, and who went on to success on their own. This again goes back to his own main principles in his being a helper and a giver. He is by all means an unselfish man.
On that Wednesday he again gave something of himself, it was a highly emotional day as his handpicked successor Terry Donahue took center stage to accept his position of general manager. Once again Walsh stepped back to allow another one to shine.
“We built a dynasty here,” he says. “That was part of the process, both on and off the field.” Bill Walsh never seems to stop touching people’s lives in one way or another.
Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren and George Seifert are just a few of the prominent names he mentored, just as he himself was mentored by Levy at Cal, Davis in Oakland, Gillman in San Diego, Ralston at Stanford and Brown in Cincinnati.
On a day that was supposed to be Terry Donahue’s, it again suddenly turned to Bill Walsh; the franchises paternal figure, the one man that led the 49er’s to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980’s while actually setting the table for two more that became a reality. He once again drew the attention of the masses.
Bill Walsh, 69, was the man the scribes and members of the press flocked to right after Donahue and owner John York had completed a long discourse on the latest administrative change. The sense of stability had been set once again in just a few years under Walsh’s watchful eye.
Wednesday marked the dawning of a new era for the 49er regime; it is a beginning that is interestingly enough linked directly to Walsh, who chose Donahue as his eventual successor.
And everyone in the organization on down fully understood that. For the past two years, Walsh and John McVay. 49er’s director of football operations, have nurtured and mentored Donahue, the ever perfect pupil, being both respectful and attentive at the same time.
“I wouldn’t be here today if Bill Walsh didn’t call me two years ago and invite me,” said Donahue. “When Bill called I had a chance to come up and learn professional football. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
What was so ironic was the fact that for many years Walsh had considered luring Donahue out of UCLA to take over the 49er’s in the late 1980’s. He was seeking an energetic and bright coach who could come in and take over the franchise; Donahue was one of those in his thoughts.
In that decade Walsh was unable to lure Donahue into the 49er fold, but now a full decade later Walsh has finally landed his man. “I made it,” Donahue said. “It took us a long time coach.”
In this new era in San Francisco Bill Walsh reflected on the past two years and talked a bit about why he returned to the 49er’s for a third tour of duty. One main reason for his return was that he wanted to serve as a bridge in leadership.
Before Walsh entered the scene for his third time, the 49er’s were lacking real leadership. 49er President Carmen Policy had left to run the Cleveland Browns, taking Vice President Dwight Clark with him in the process. Owner Edward DeBartolo was embroiled in legal problems with gambling matters which in essence left the whole organization in a serious state of turmoil.
On top of all this was the underlying facts, that the 49er’s were an aging team holding steadfastly onto players who were well pass their prime. Just to mention a few there was Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Ken Norton. The 49er’s craved a leader, someone who could come in and just clean house without looking back. York, the husband of Denise DeBartolo York who then was in the process of extricating the franchise away from Edward DeBartolo figured Walsh was more than qualified to get the job done.
This is where Bill Walsh could hold his own and clean house without remorse in the sense that he felt it was for the future promise of the franchise. Players he had brought into the organization were now players he was faced with in eliminating. He felt responsible in the sense that he should be the one to close out their careers as 49er’s.
Steve Young was one whom struggled back and forth for many months about coming back or retiring, as a true professional he wanted to continue playing, but on a personnel basis in the interest of his overall health he knew retiring was his only real option.
Jerry Rice is another legendary athlete for making the 49er’s a real dynasty, and a discovery of Bill Walsh, Suddenly Walsh was the grim reaper that informed him that he would be waived after June 1st for salary cap reasons.
In Walsh’s mind he is the one that brought them here and he should be the one to remind them, regardless of how painful it may be, that all great careers must come to an end. In all it is a job he has said countless times that he would not wish on anyone, Donahue or Head Coach Steve Mariucci.
“Their careers are closing in on them,” Walsh said, “and I felt it was my responsibility to be the one to deal with that. It was really sensitive, really difficult. But apparently, we have gotten through that comfortably with both men. My number one priority was to deal with those two men, because I brought them to the 49er’s.”
“The whole team had begun to age and erode. So dealing with that, I felt that responsibility. I don’t know how anybody else could have.”
Certainly the realization that the team was aging became a real concern not only to Walsh but to the entire organization, the time had come for injections of youth as the consensus was reached that the team’s glory days were over. The only way to elevate back to that level was to begin the lengthy process of rebuilding the foundation and this is exactly what Walsh began focusing on.
Terry Donahue even admitted that coming into an organization as a general manager and being faced with ending the careers of certain veteran players would be difficult. “If I had to come in and done that,” Donahue said, “it would have been a very difficult way for a general manager to start a career. You’re talking about two immensely popular people, and it would have been difficult to navigate through.” Even Mariucci admitted: “It would have been a very difficult thing for a coach to do.”
I know that as a devoted fan of both Steve Young and Jerry Rice I felt sick to realize that they both had passed the prime of their careers, it was a reality I faced with both of them as they themselves question their decisions even as this is written. Probably the most difficult realization for fans of The San Francisco 49er’s was coming to terms within themselves that Steve Young and Jerry Rice could not carry the team like they once did several years ago.
It has to be the most excruciating decision a professional athlete such as Steve Young and Jerry Rice ever can be confronted with, the single most darkest of decisions in knowing when to hang up the cleats. Although the situation with Young was straight forward and related to medical reasons, as concussion after concussion had taken their toll the decision still haunts Steve Young even to this day.
Jerry Rice still holds onto the belief he still has a few years left in his body that is productive enough to make a huge impact. He has come to terms within himself that he will not retire as a 49er but to end his career as a wide receiver somewhere else as the salary cap has in all cut him after June 1st from the 49er roster.
Walsh also inherited a bloated salary cap that the 49er’s had manufactured over many years, that was so enormous it would take years to bring back under control and redeemed as normal. The 49er’s had made many back-loading contracts with signing bonuses that essentially robbed the 49er’s of any fiscal maneuverability. He set about working hand in hand with John McVay director of football operations and salary cap coordinator Dominic Corsell; Walsh slowly but surely rid the 49er’s of their cap burden, which reached about $21 million during the off-season.
“Of course, there was the salary cap, which was abominable,” Walsh said. “No one will ever go through a salary-cap crisis like this organization. Maybe we set the standard that everyone will take a look at.” “We in a sense had to purge the squad to get under the salary cap. Some really great campaigners, great players, had to be released. I thought I was the guy who had to do those things. They (the players who were eventually cut) knew I was thinking in there best interest. Honestly, we’ve done that and we’re out the other side.”
You have to take your hat off to Bill Walsh for being the acute surgeon and going in after the cancer that was strangling this organization and eliminating it with great precision. He has done so without complaint and with no turning back, If ever there was someone you needed in a crisis or in rebuilding a team from the ground up Bill would be the one man I would call in a heartbeat.
Although the salary cap problems still exist to some extent they have been immensely reduced to clear room so that we can secure the services of our core young players, such as fullback Fred Beasley and quarterback of the future Jeff Garcia.
“I think Bill has brought the team back to stability,” Donahue said. “I feel very fortunate and lucky, very lucky. The team is so much more stable today than it was when I first came here.”
And as if Bill was not working on these projects he was in essence really showing Terry Donahue how to handle every conceivable situation a professional football franchise faces almost every day, he worked diligently with Donahue on all sorts of scenarios and ongoing projects. His aim was to season Donahue from college ranked football into the professional market with great haste.
Walsh worked side by side with Donahue on the past three NFL Drafts. While his first one together was abysmal, his second; the one in which Donahue was given the most input, was a gem indeed. It produced five starters for a young and much improved defense.
Last month, Walsh and Donahue traded up in the draft, a rarity for Walsh, who tends to move back in an attempt to garner more picks. They picked California defensive lineman Andre Carter, who is expected to start and have an immediate impact in 2001.
The long line of success that Walsh has generated stems from his incredible knowledge and hard working ethic, he shares everything of himself with and through others that they may be wiser in the process. Bill Walsh now settles in as a team vice president/consultant and he will still have a strong voice in all related matters.
However Walsh knows that as he settles down and turns the volume down on his career, he does so after leaving a significant mark not only on the 49er’s but on the entire NFL as well. He initiated the formation of the NFL’s Coaching Fellowship Program, which allows minority coaches to gain experience necessary to further their careers.
But most of all, all you have to do is look over the entire National Football League and see the great number of head and assistant coaches who are disciples of Bill Walsh and his system. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “The men who had learned the business, not only just coaching on the field. They learned football, so they were able to adapt to management and coaching roles elsewhere.”
Terry Donahue turned out to be Walsh’s last parting shot, as he wanted to leave the organization in well-trusted and knowledgeable hands. Donahue in his infinite mind was just the man for that job. He groomed Donahue with great detail, and he believes Donahue will be an astute and productive general manager.
“It’s the satisfaction that Terry Donahue is in place and it worked smoothly,” Walsh said. “This doesn’t come close to the feeling I had when I left coaching. That’s why there isn’t a lot of emotion in this for me. It’s just a straightforward thing, and I take pride in it.”
Back in the 1990’s when Bill Walsh served as a consultant to President Carmen Policy, he was often just referred to as the, “old professor” His advice and concerns were often taken only at face value by Policy. He endured almost demeaning treatment for a man of such vast knowledge and achievement. As an alleged consultant, he was rarely consulted on important matters, but he noted this time, “The biting my tongue era has passed.”
One of his most delicate matters he was in handling was the ownership transition from Edward DeBartolo to Denise DeBartolo York and her husband, this was a very delicate endeavor as it was Eddie that asked Walsh to come back initially. In one revealing moment, York said to Walsh, “You told me when you thought I was wrong and I appreciate that.”
Walsh’s relationship with Head Coach Steve Mariucci can also be termed as strained and comforting at the same time, as when the team spiraled out of control in 1999 to a 4-12 finish. Walsh reassured Mariucci not to worry about one or two seasons but to look at the big picture.
Now it is time for the era of General Manager Terry Donahue, “I think we’re very close to being a contender,” Donahue said. “I think Bill has brought the organization back to stability. I am fortunate because Bill has seen us through a lot of the tough road we had to hoe.”
“I’ll still be here full-time, but nothing that won’t keep me from playing a lot of tennis,” Walsh said after the press conference announcing Terry as the new general manager. “I’m glad the organization is pointed in the right direction again. We’ve accomplished what I wanted to do when I came back for my second turn here.”
Just last year, some in the media questioned Donahue’s commitment to the 49er’s since he hadn’t sold his house on Balboa Island, off of Newport Beach in Orange County. Donahue’s wife Andrea was on hand for Wednesday’s ceremonies; along with his grown daughters Nicole, Michelle and Jennifer and all laughed at the logic.
“He grew up in North Hollywood and his family would vacation in Newport Beach,” she said. “When we got married, we thought that it would be fun to build a house there. So we built our dream home, and maybe we can pass it on to our children.”
The Donahue’s now live in Los Gatos, but head south to the beach house for holidays and family get-togethers. “Our home is here now, but it’s nice to have a home base down there,” Andrea said. “We love this organization, and I think Terry feels he and the 49er’s have made a long-term commitment to each other.”
Terry Donahue agreed to a four-year contract with San Francisco as their general manager, and has plans to keep Bill Walsh around for advice. “We will have Bill’s voice in our decision making, hopefully for many, many years,” Donahue said.
Walsh just after the announcement and the transition of power was made official was off to a month-long vacation in Hawaii. Now Donahue will resume answering all the important phone calls and making the delicate decisions that need to be made on a daily basis, not that he is at all intimidated.
“I’m supremely confident in myself,” Donahue said. “I’ve been in some big arenas before myself and I’ve survived. Anytime you follow someone of such immense stature, the bar is raised. But that’s not a negative. That’s a positive.”
The very day that Donahue began taking over the draft-day operations over the last couple of years, that was when owner John York said “that’s when Terry became the guy” too eventually replace Walsh. Terry was a mastermind in draft preparation and selection with the sure advice of Bill Walsh in the background he proved his worth over and over again.
“In 1998, the process (leading into the draft) wasn’t there,” York said. “Terry really took the bull by the horns. He brought the coaches and scouts together and made us look at the calendar and set up a timeline. When I saw Terry develop that process, I knew he was someone I could count on.”
Even Head Coach Steve Mariucci was in awe of the Donahue stigma especially when talking about the draft selections that were made. He called Donahue a “fantastic evaluator of talent;” a tag that seems to be warranted given that five of the 49er’s 11 draft picks last year started.
“The business of the 49er’s is to win world championships,” said Donahue, who was attired in a dark suit and maroon tie. “That’s why we exist.”
Certainly if the past is any indication of that Donahue fits that bill to the letter, The 49er’s without question made the right choice in Terry Donahue a man of practicality and steadfast professionalism he lives for the opportunity to make winning happen.
During 20 years as the head coach at UCLA, Donahue amassed 151 wins, making him the most successful coach in Pac 10 history. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he stayed in one place for his entire collegiate coaching career. “I never found another job that I thought was better than the one I had,” he said.
Terry Donahue epitomizes what a true teacher of the sport of football really is, he never lets up until his goals are accomplished and demands unprecedented allegiance from his players, being the most successful head coach in collegiate history testifies to that very fact.
When asked to choose one word to describe Donahue, UCLA athletic director Pete Dallas chose organized. His second choice was persistent. For Donahue, it seems those qualities are intertwined. In any case, they are common threads throughout his career.
The core of this organization revolves around the general manager as he sets the standard and shows the rest what is to be expected, certainly Terry Donahue will raise that bar high after stepping into the big shoes of Bill Walsh.
He is without question very talented, knowledgeable, precise, calculated, manipulative, organized and aggressive key qualities a productive general manager needs to succeed in the league today. He comes with awesome credentials and the best collegiate record in football to boot. He has had the proper amount of time and one on one training by Bill Walsh himself to take the reins with sound confidence.
His success with the past two NFL drafts adds bearing to the merit of his evaluations and close analysis of collegiate player. He listens and studies with great intensity and makes final decisions only after he has considered all data and listened to all of his personnel in the related field.
Donahue in my best analysis is the perfect fit for The San Francisco 49er’s he brings a championship attitude back to the organization that Bill Walsh has already built a foundation for. Now all Donahue has to do is finish framing it in and filling it with playmakers that will take this franchise back to glory.
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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