When he obtained his first NFL head coaching job before the 1979 season, Bill Walsh didn't seem brilliant, imposing or anything more than a career assistant who'd received some seasoning in the college ranks and would be little more than a caretaker for a team that simply stank. Ten years later, he retired as one of the best coaches in NFL history. He died earlier today, age 75, from the leukemia that his doctors diagnosed in late 2004.
Dubbed The Genius by his players, Walsh earned every accolade: top-notch talent evaluator, check, just ask Montana (no-arm QB with only middling college numbers), Lott (too big for cornerback, now in Canton), Rice (from the unknown Mississippi Valley State) and Haley (the speed-rushing end); trend-setter, check, just ask every coach in the NFL who scripts his first 15-25 plays in each game and uses a laminated play chart; innovator, check, three words: West Coast offense. More importantly, the mindset of the West Coast offense whereby the offense establishes the effectiveness of its running game off its short-passing attack.
The effects were, in football terms, immediate. From a 2-14 struggle in Walsh's inaugural season, the Niners went 6-10 in 1980. In 1981, Walsh gave the quarterbacking reins to third-year player, Joe Montana, who had run the team in its final five games in 1980. Montana ran the dink-and-dunk Niner offense; the team improved its defense from porous to pounding, shocked the mighty Cowpatties 45-14 during the regular season to announce they were for real (the Cowtippers had whupped the Niners 59-14 in Texas Stadium the previous year), won the NFC title game on The Catch, and the Bay Area had its first of five title teams.
Three years later, the Niners did it again: they steamrolled the league in rolling up a 15-1 record, allowed just one offensive TD in the playoffs and brought home Walsh's second trophy after walloping the record-setting Marino-led Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
Three years after that, Walsh made another indelible mark on the NFL -- he established the Minority Coaching Fellowship program to encourage hiring former minority players to become position coaches, and to thereby prepare them for future head coaching duties. The NFL adopted the program as a league-wide initiative, and it's the primary reason that men like Tony Dungy (a player for Walsh) and Lovie Smith eventually became head coaches.
In 1988, he coached the last of his three Super Bowl titlists -- a 10-6 squad that proved itself more akin to its stats (#3 offense, #3 defense) than its record by demolishing the NFC in the playoffs before the Montana-Rice connection led it to a Super Bowl win. Thereafter, he retired exhausted by the NFL coaching gamut. In 1989, the Walsh-legacy Niners were perhaps the best team ever: 14-2 (two losses by 5 total points), a QB who hit 70.2% of his passes, and a 126-26 scoring margin
As a Giants fan, I knew all too well the effects of The Genius. After all, the Jints were roadkill on the 49ers' title drives in '81 and '84. And the Giants stomped the Niners in both the '85 and '86 playoffs, handing The Genius two of his mere four playoff losses (10-4 overall). The games were old school pound-and-pass by Big Blue versus new school dink-and-dunk by the Californians (except for the formidable Niners defense -- no finesse there). Contrast in styles, coaching demeanor and attitude all the way. And watching each game, I waited for the Niners to pull off some random amazing play because that's just what they did when The Genius coached.
Bill Walsh, RIP.