By Cam Inman firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: 12/18/2010 08:42:17 PM PST
Updated: 12/18/2010 11:22:19 PM PST
Bill Walsh nobly sat off to the side in Kissick Auditorium, there to usher in Stanford football's rebirth under new coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I look forward to these visions of sitting around a tape projector, a video machine with Coach Walsh and talking football," Harbaugh said at his introductory news conference four years ago today.
Walsh died before Harbaugh coached his first game for Stanford. But Walsh's fingerprints made it onto one final football program, an inspirational link that hasn't been forgotten since his July 30, 2007, death from leukemia.
"We have a picture of him in our football office," offensive coordinator David Shaw said. "Every day, I pass by it, and I miss him. The influence he had on offense is great. The influence he had on my life is great. The meetings I had one-on-one with him were priceless."
Such testimonials are commonplace about Walsh. He had a wonderful zest for life, as well as for football, of course.
Sandwiched between two tours of duty as Stanford's coach (1977-78, 1992-94) was his revolutionary decade (1979-88) with the 49ers. That off-campus sabbatical resulted in a Pro Football Hall of Fame career with three Super Bowl wins to kick off a dynasty. His West Coast offense altered the NFL landscape, as did his practice regimens and minority-hiring crusade.
One of Walsh's final displays of "genius" came when he helped athletic director Bob Bowlsby select Harbaugh, who inherited a 1-11 program.
"There've been times, all through my four years here, I felt Coach Walsh has been watching over the program," Harbaugh recently said. A couple of days later, he reiterated that quote and apologized if it sounded too sappy. (Nope, not if you knew Walsh.)
Stanford has skyrocketed to elite status. It takes an 11-1 record into its Jan. 3 matchup against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in South Florida. This is Stanford's best season since Walsh guided the 1992 team to a 10-3 mark and its own trip to Miami, where it beat Penn State 24-3 in the Blockbuster Bowl.
"I was just thinking of those times," said Shaw, a receiver on that 1992 team. "The biggest thing is the way Bill prepared us mentally, physically and emotionally to go down there, (to) think of it as a business trip and show who we are to the nation."
Stanford ranks fourth in the Bowl Championship Series. Harbaugh won the Woody Hayes Award as the nation's top coach. Quarterback Andrew Luck became Stanford's second straight Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Four years ago, Bowlsby was new to the Farm and sought advice from Walsh, who returned to Stanford's athletic department in 2004 after being foolishly phased out of the 49ers' front office.
"He and I spent a lot of time talking about the viability of Stanford football going forward, and whether or not that job could be done and done successfully," Bowlsby said. "He talked from his perspective of what made him, John Ralston and Ty Willingham successful at Stanford. As it got down to the end, there were some elements of risk hiring Jim. He hadn't been a head coach at our level."
But Harbaugh got the nod over James Lofton, who played on Walsh's initial Stanford team that reached the 1977 Sun Bowl. Harbaugh followed through on that vision to meet with Walsh, doing so 16 to 17 times in the ensuing months.
"I'd walk over to his office and sit sometimes for 2½ hours," Harbaugh said. "If he was being interviewed by a reporter or if players were visiting, I wouldn't say anything. I'd sit up against a wall and listen."
Harbaugh remembered having breakfasts with Walsh at a local restaurant, and watching film with him at the Stanford football office. "It got to the point I was taking notes, but I got a recorder like you (media) guys have," Harbaugh recalled.
Walsh's words still echo in Harbaugh's ears, such as: "The most important thing about a quarterback is his athletic instincts."
One of Harbaugh's first acts as Stanford coach was to recruit a star quarterback. That led him to Houston and Andrew Luck. When Luck visited Stanford in the spring of 2007, guess who greeted him: Walsh.
"We sat down in a room and he talked about a very specific part of football, nothing broad. It was about throwing while rolling out to the left," Luck recalled.
"I thought it was a little odd at the time how specific it was to a high school kid who didn't really know much," Luck added. "But I guess being at Stanford and hearing more about Bill Walsh, I wouldn't expect anything different."
Despite declining health, Walsh shared his wit and wisdom with all comers.
"Every chance he had to touch somebody's life on campus, I'd try to be there," Shaw said. "Every time, there would be a great nugget."
"He was a tremendous resource for Coach (Harbaugh) his first year," former quarterback Tavita Pritchard said. "Anything out of Bill Walsh's mouth was gold."
It was heartwarming to see Stanford's football players form an honor guard leading into Walsh's on-campus memorial. Some of those players represent this season's senior class.
"As he got ill, he gave away stuff," Bowlsby said. "One day he came in with a stack of books, mostly leadership and consulting books. One was 'The Essential Wooden.' I opened the dust jacket, and it was personally signed to Bill from John Wooden: 'Thank you for the impact you had on football and the difference you made on the world of sports.' Bill knew it was something I would treasure."
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[ Edited by PTulini on Dec 23, 2010 at 18:32:56 ]