TWISH: Walsh comes back to Stanford

When their dignity suffers as their careers close, legends get remembered for the wrong reasons. Dare I mention Johnny Unitas in a Chargers uniform, or Joe Namath holding on with the Rams? It's easy to add Bill Walsh's second Stanford coaching tenure to that undistinguished list.

But that's because his three-year term from 1992 to 1994 ended with two straight losing seasons. The conclusion was so sloppy, so disorganized, so unlike Walsh, it offers such a contrast to the glorious way the first chapter began. As the Bay Area's football coaching carousel went into overdrive this week in 1992, Walsh's hiring at Stanford earned the largest headlines.

"This is the biggest thing to happen since Gorbachev was here," Glyn Milburn said at the time.

Cal, San Jose State, Stanford and 49ers all played parts in the drama. By the time it was over, the region's coaching landscape had seen drastic changes. The effects live on to this day.

In Berkeley, Bruce Snyder had bolted for Arizona State, lured by a huge pay raise and spurned by failed promises of a contract extension with the Bears. Dennis Green's three-year stay at Stanford ended when he took over the Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers – stewing from missing the playoffs for the first time in nine years – needed a new offensive coordinator. The departed Mike Holmgren had left to be head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

And where would Steve Mariucci end up? Cal's offensive coordinator under Snyder had no less than six offers to consider since losing out to Keith Gilbertson for the position of head coach along the Hayward Fault. San Francisco needed an assistant, but Mooch wound up joining Holmgren in Green Bay, where the pair would soon trade for a new starting quarterback from Mississippi.

On The Farm, Ted Leland faced his first big coaching hire as Stanford's athletic director. He seemed to have two logical candidates to choose from: offensive coordinator Ron Turner or defensive general Willie Shaw, both of whom had served for the duration of Green's stay. A third candidate entered the mix, once he was contacted by a prominent Stanford booster, Tom Ford.

Bill Walsh already had a job as a color commentator for NBC. The marquee value the gig – he and Dick Enberg formed the network's top broadcasting duo – couldn't diminish his desire to return to coaching, however. A day before he was to depart for Buffalo to call the AFC championship game, he talked at length by phone with Leland. Stanford's vacancy was the topic. Walsh, while also mulling over a front office job offer from the 49ers, assured Leland he was serious about the Cardinal.

Two days later, Walsh interviewed at Stanford. The next night, Leland made the offer. Walsh then contacted Terry Shea and invited the affable San Jose State head coach to become his offensive coordinator. Shea, who had led the Spartans to more wins over a two-year stretch than any coach since, had his own offer ("Can you make me assistant head coach?"). It was official by the next day, a Wednesday.

Local news outlets, who assumed for days Walsh was on his way back the 49ers, hardly knew what hit them. The Spartans scrambled and hired Turner. Shaw was despondent over going from a prime candidate for his first head coaching job to the unemployment dole.

"It all happened so fast," Shea said at the time.

"Welcome Home Coach Walsh! Rose Bowl '92-'93" read a sign at Wednesday night's basketball game between Stanford and Cal at Maples Pavilion.

The triumphant return was presented to the public on Thursday, January 16. The venue was Burnham Pavilion, where hundreds gathered to watch the 60-year-old coaching deity assume power. The audience of luminaries included Roger Craig, Eddie DeBartolo and Carmen Policy. The San Francisco Chronicle called the spectacle "part prom, part wedding and part family reunion."

Walsh quipped and joked his way through much of the press conference. He made digs at USC and reminisced about his living room recruiting visits of years gone by. He'd be back on that old recruiting trail the next day. The coach with three Super Bowl titles was soon in Bakersfield, securing the services of prep offensive line standout Jeff Buckey. "I did have some second thoughts, some post-decision trauma," Walsh admitted years later.

When Green took over in the wake of Jack Elway's firing, Stanford football was a mess. He immediately turned things around, beating No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990 before leading the Cardinal to an 8-4 record the following season. Walsh – who made Denny part of initial Stanford staff back in 1977 – made sure his predecessor received credit.

"I don't know of another man who could have come to Stanford and do the job he did," Walsh told the audience. "Denny brought it up to the national level. It's up to Terry and I to sustain it." They'd elevate to new heights. The club's 10-3 finish and No. 9 final AP ranking in 1992 stood as a high-water mark only eclipsed recently by the 2010 Cardinal.

One of Jim Harbaugh's many attributes is his embrace of the Walsh legacy. The guru succumbed to leukemia the summer before Harbaugh began his Cardinal tenure. "I really know Bill Walsh was here tonight," Harbaugh said after beating San Jose State for his first win at Stanford. That presence was bigger than ever this week 19 years ago.

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