Millions of football fans called him "genius." Time magazine called him "the antithesis of panic." In many circles, he was called a "Hall of Famer." His players at Stanford wanted to call him "sir," but he insisted that plain old "Bill" was just fine.
Call him what you want, but make sure you call Bill Walsh one of the greatest coaches, teachers, and contributors in the history of any sport. And if you have a Stanford affiliation, make sure you call him one of us.
After fighting leukemia for several years, Bill Walsh died Monday at the age of 75.
Bill touched many lives and shaped many careers on all levels of football. He was one of the most influential figures any sport has ever seen. The list of players and coaches who came under his influence reads like the Who's Who of football. Walsh brought football into the Renaissance. He brought brains to a brawny game, and he won. From game planning to scouting, he did more things, and did them to a more refined degree, than any other coach before or since.
Most people saw Bill Walsh as many fans saw him: on the sidelines, wearing a headset and carrying a playsheet, and orchestrating another meticulous drive by his offense.
Some people saw Bill Walsh as most of the media saw him: reasonably accessible yet often distant, sometimes condescending, sometimes pleasant, just as apt to dash off a sarcastic quip as he was to launch into some tangential monologue.
Some people saw Bill Walsh as a man on the street, like when he traveled with Stanford to Annapolis for football's 2005 season opener against Navy. Several times during a tour of the Naval Academy, people stopped him to sign autographs and take pictures. Some of the midshipmen even did double takes as they marched by him.
Some people saw Bill Walsh as a very complex man fraught with insecurities, paradoxes, and overall brilliance (this story is told throughout Lowell Cohn's 1994 book, Rough Magic, which I wrote about in one of the very first Clardy's Corners).
But the best way to see Bill Walsh was to spend time with him one-on-one. I was lucky enough to spend an hour with Coach one day in his brand new office at Arrillaga, which had just opened a few months before. My freshman year at Stanford, I was working as a sports reporter for KZSU then, and I covered Coach's weekly press luncheons during the fall of 1993. That was my introduction to Stanford Football.
That spring, I was taking a Communications class, and we were given the assignment of interviewing someone in the Stanford community. Being young and brash, I called Bill Walsh's office to see if he could be my interview subject. Amazingly, he accepted. So, one afternoon in early May 1994, a college freshman sat down for an exclusive interview with the most famous coach in football.
The other night I found a transcript of my conversation with Walsh, a portion of which follows:
TC: "What's it like to be a 'genius'?"
BW: [Rolling his eyes slightly] "Well, 'genius' is one of those two or three words that's just misused in our language – ego being the other one – but to be recognized in the sense of being a tactician, that's fine. I felt over a number of years that I was a good strategist, a good tactician, and at times felt I was on the frontiers of football, the cutting edge of football… 'Genius' is one of those superfluous words, but to be appreciated for the strategic part is great. [When I was with the Bengals] we were really on the cutting edge of football and we were doing things that people maybe had done in the past, but not in the form we did them. I feel good about that."
TC: "To you, what are the most important aspects of coaching football?"
BW: "Your ultimate ethical responsibility is to the physical and mental health of the students. It's also important to develop an atmosphere where the players demand and expect a lot of each other…and that takes time. You can't do that through just one inspirational talk. It takes months and years to develop an atmosphere where the players can manage themselves, and that's what we're seeking at Stanford. We're close to that right now.
"Other than that, it's to give the athletes an opportunity to win and make it a most positive experience. Because guys in football lay it on the line… there's no sport like it. You purposely knock someone else down, so your nerve, courage, and concentration are really taxed. And I think the coaches' job is to make sure that's done in a positive way."
TC: "Magic Johnson quit coaching the Lakers because he literally couldn't stomach losing. What's your approach to losing, and how does it affect your assessment of what happened last season?" [After starting the season ranked in the polls, Stanford finished 4-7 in 1993.]
BW: "You lose by degree. It's how you deal with the loss that's critical. You want to be progressing while you lose. My football team with the Niners in 1979 and '80 had really bad years. But we won the world championship in '81. And while we were losing, we were making a tremendous amount of progress. But no one could recognize that, especially the newspapers. So [while] losing, you can be making progress.
"You have to figure that losing is part of what you do. That's basically what we went through here last year. We might have been able to squeeze out another game or two. We weren't really lucky. But we probably ended up about like we should have with a very young and inexperienced team, and not a very talented team. The talent lay in our freshmen, basically, but they were so inexperienced that they had a heck of a time demonstrating it because they were just learning how to find the locker room, so to speak. It was just brutal to go through those things. It was embarrassing. You don't like to lose, and you don't like to feel that other people are letting you down…
"In Magic's case, he had never been in the arena of coaching before and he felt helpless to it. Now, if he had made up his mind that 'I'm going to be a coach. I'm going to learn to coach. I'm going to learn to teach and develop talent,' which I don't think he'll do, he could certainly do it. But what happens to the really great athletes is that their capacity to teach other people is really limited because they concentrate so much on themselves and it's really hard to share it. Rarely does an athlete like Magic ever become a very good coach because of their background and their history of competing."
TC: "What do you think your biggest contribution to coaching and football have been?"
BW: "Hopefully you get to a point in your life where you can, in a real positive way, give back. And that's hard for anybody, because you'd like to think that your thoughts and ideas are unique to you, and you protect that. But then as you mature, you realize that sharing is more important than anything…
"More practically, I think I've given back to the African-American athletes and coaches. We just had a clinic here for black coaches, and that was the best clinic I think we've given on football. I think that hiring black coaches and working with them, and I think that working with Denny Green and helping with his career, I'd like to think that I'm more involved in that area and of more value than my contemporaries. I take great pride in that."
And I'm sure that Stanford fans worldwide take great pride that Bill Walsh was an integral part of this program, both on and off the field.
Thank you, Coach. Rest in peace.
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