When I was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings in 1986, the San Francisco 49ers asked permission to interview me for the quarterbacks coaching position under Bill Walsh. The Vikings turned them down and my chance to learn under Coach Walsh was put on hold. Then, in 1989, I was the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns and had the good fortune to cross paths with Coach Walsh in a TV production meeting when he was an analyst for NBC. I had a number of questions for him and was amazed at his patience. His responses were different from any coach I had ever spoken to. His ability to communicate the science of the game in a unique and articulate fashion was incredible. After leaving the meeting I humbly asked him if I could come out and visit with him when time permitted.
He was extremely gracious in hoping I would look him up. In 1995, that turned into reality when I became the 49ers offensive coordinator under George Seifert. To train for the job I watched tapes of Coach Walsh installing the West Coast offense, followed by Mike Holmgen's and Mike Shanahan's presentation of the offense. It was an incredible experience for me to get into their minds as well as listen and watch Bill teach this offense with his incredible salesmanship, detail, and a dry sense of humor. In my first year the Niners we lead the NFL in passing and were second in total offense. Then the organization brought Bill back as a consultant to the team. Some members of the media seemed to think Bill was brought back to run the offense and oversee George Seifert's coaching staff. I refused to believe that was the case, but there were many in the business who advised me to resign the day I heard Bill was coming back.
I viewed Coach Walsh's arrival differently. I enjoyed working for George Seifert and my wife and I loved the Bay Area. I believed owner Eddie DeBartolo simply thought Bill could be a tremendous resource to the organization. I looked at it as the opportunity of a lifetime and now there would be daily access to his knowledge. My experience with Bill during the 1996 season was an amazing journey into the mind of a football legend. He gave me daily notes of what he saw in practice, which was a unique insight into his original vision of the offense and the training of the quarterback. I asked him to coach a QB workout during the offseason. What I got was a first-hand clinic of training that has helped me dramatically over the last decade, reinforcing my knowledge and passion for the game's most important position. Once again, in 1996 we had one of the better teams and top offenses in the league. Bill always spoke to me as an equal with the utmost professional respect.
When I first referred to him as Coach Walsh he would politely ask me to call him "Bill." As accomplished, knowledgeable and frankly brilliant as Coach Walsh was, he was never arrogant or demeaning. I knew he missed addressing the team, so with Coach Seifert's approval, I asked him to speak with the offense early in the 1996 season. His insights and presentation was amazing. The meeting was blown completely out of proportion, interpreted by some as him taking over the offense. What he gave the players, especially those who had never heard him speak was well worth the negative fallout. Our discussions went way beyond play development and QB reads. Bill opened up to me about his growth in the profession, how Paul Brown helped develop his coaching philosophy and his disappointment in not being named Coach Brown's successor in Cincinnati. When we got on the bus to travel to the airport, hotel, or stadium, I always tried to ride with Bill. I had pre-planned questions to pick his incredible mind on a variety of subjects from QB play to managing the organization, drafting and scouting philosophy and much more. Bill always gave incredibly articulate responses and was unselfish with the information. I really believed he loved spending time with young coaches. I know there were many coaches like myself and many more that were closer to him than I was who owe so much to Bill.
I have talked to coaches over the years that were amazed when they called Coach Walsh or dropped him a note, they would receive a personal response in a reasonable amount of time. I am not just talking pro or college coaches, but high school coaches as well. As the offensive coordinator for the Raiders in 2002, just two days after our offense finished at the top of the NFL, I received a beautiful note from Bill in his large, unique printing style with a warm note of congratulations. I had a chance to start my NFL coaching career working for Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant. He is my mentor and his leadership qualities, game management and observational skills were off the charts, and he would always take time to educate me on many important aspects of life and the game. Coach Grant's long-time offensive coordinator was Jerry Burns, who coach Walsh admitted to me on a number of occasions was a major influence on the principles of the West Coast offense. But Coach Walsh put it together from top to bottom, implementing an organizational style, meeting and practice format, as well as player development and evaluation process that is implemented by so many NFL teams today. I spoke to Bill just weeks before his death.
He was spending whatever time he could with his wife Geri and helping Jim Harbaugh evaluate his program at Stanford. Jim was excited about having Bill around, and Coach Walsh was happy for the opportunity to be of assistance to a program he loved. Like so many others, I had dropped Bill notes over the last year encouraging a speedy and complete recovery from Leukemia. I could sense he was weak and battling through his illness as best he could. During the years I coached on the West Coast, we had an annual lunch date at a small restaurant near his home. I was always amazed that he would take the time out of a very busy schedule to spend a few hours with me. I had made plans to get out to the West Coast in the next couple of months, as much to renew that tradition. I couldn't wait to sit down with him again and catch up on family, world events and, of course, football.
I am sure there are many coaches out there who had hoped to cross paths with him as well, wanting to pick his brain on subjects related to football and beyond. I am not here professing that I had a close friendship with Coach Walsh. I did not, but I had a tremendous opportunity to get to know him. Bill Walsh was tagged with the term, "genius." I am here to tell you Bill was just that, but he was also a gentleman and a class act. Without question, the game and those lives he touched will forever be better.
He used to have a nifty column in SI as well.
[ Edited by Phoenix49ers on Jan 2, 2012 at 3:52 PM ]