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The imperfect perfectionist
On the eve of Super Bowl XLVII, which once again (after 18 years) features the San Francisco 49ers, we’d like to recommend a story about legendary innovator Bill Walsh that illustrates both his genius and his limits.
Coach Walsh’s West Coast Offense won the 49ers four (or five) Super Bowls, spawned copycats around the league and forced defenses to innovate in response. Not a bad day’s work. But obsession with perfection left him badly burnt out and his organization unable to implement his vision without him. The 49ers carried on under momentum (and Montana, then Young), but soon languished in mediocrity even after Walsh briefly returned in a GM/consultant role.
The story about Walsh and the process of writing his book Finding the Winning Edge is taken from The book of coach in the February 4 “Perfect Issue” of ESPN The Magazine. The entire piece is well worth the time, but here are a few brief excerpts:
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL football coach of the past 30 years hated his legacy. He hated it from the moment he retired at age 57, in January 1989, days after winning his third Super Bowl as head coach of the 49ers. Bill Walsh had felt fried for years, and during that last season he was in “a claustrophobic panic,” as a friend later described it. Or “just eking by,” as his son Craig recalls. That 1988 season had been the most wrenching of his career, because the 49ers were not a great team. They were a 10-6 team that happened to win it all, and the grind swallowed Walsh to the point that he was, as his son says, “like a zombie.” So he secretly decided to retire during the season, and in the whooping and wet locker room after the Super Bowl, Walsh wept alone, head in his hands. He wasn’t happy. He was relieved. It was over.
That image, of course, doesn’t square with the Walsh in old footage: elegant and confident, handsome and professorial, walking a damp Candlestick Park sideline in a sweater and khakis, fog-white hair neatly combed, holding a pencil to his lips as he plotted his next move, which always seemed to be two ahead of his opponent. But that’s how he was. He always coached through existential torture, with alternating bouts of believing that he was brilliant and that he was incapable of fulfilling his own idea of greatness.
So it was no surprise that Walsh instantly regretted retiring. Believing that he left at least one Super Bowl on the table, Walsh was “melancholy and terrible,” according to Craig. That the 1989 49ers were more dominant in the playoffs under new coach George Seifert than they ever were under Walsh made it worse. Walsh hated that Seifert won a championship that year with his team, his West Coast offense, his philosophy; he so hated the ring that the team awarded him that he gave it away. “He didn’t want them to win,” Craig says. “He couldn’t hand over the team he had created to someone else, because he wasn’t capable of it.”
He tried broadcasting but quit in 1991. “I’m not going to sit for three hours and let some 27-year-old (kid) in my ear tell me about the game,” he told Brian Billick, former Ravens coach and one of his many protégés. In 1992 Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had coached in the ’70s, but left after two losing seasons in three years, his magic gone. “He needed to be Bill Walsh,” Billick says. “He needed to be a genius.”
…when he wrote his master’s thesis at San Jose State, the 192 pages on the evolution of the passing game in football was panned by professors. The only reason he graduated, according to biographer David Harris, was that his paper included only one footnote; he had done most of the original research himself. And he couldn’t get out of his own way during his first head coaching job, at Washington High in the East Bay in the late 1950s. He refused to throw to his best receiver for fear that the team would score too quickly and rob him of the chance to test his new plays.
But Walsh was back within one year. While Walsh’s business-school application was being processed, legendary coach Paul Brown, on the recommendation of others, offered Walsh a job coaching tight ends with Cincinnati. Walsh accepted, and three years later, in 1971, he took over the offense, which had been limited by a weak offensive line. Altering the concepts he’d learned in Oakland — attacking defenses vertically with five receivers — Walsh devised a system of short, quick passes designed to pick up small chunks of yardage, the West Coast offense in its infancy. Over the next few years, as Walsh turned Ken Anderson into one of the league’s most accurate passers, the system worked so well that Walsh began to think he could do something no coach had done: conquer the game itself. His offense became so precise that it couldn’t be stopped when executed perfectly, so Walsh became obsessed with always executing perfectly. “It would grind on him,” says longtime friend Dick Vermeil. “He was so perceptive and detailed and emotional, and he put so much of himself into a game plan, that he took it personally if it didn’t work.”
And he took it personally when his brilliance was ignored. He constantly bumped heads with Brown, who was smart enough to keep Walsh around while at the same time — Walsh believed — blackballing him from becoming a head coach elsewhere by tainting his name to owners. In 1976 Walsh left Cincinnati to become the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. One year later, he got a chance to be a head coach, at Stanford. After the 49ers hired him in 1979, Walsh won a total of eight games in his first two seasons. Ridiculed in the media, he grew so despondent that he considered resigning, convinced he didn’t have the answers. Even after Walsh turned an inconsistent Notre Dame quarterback named Joe Montana from a third-round pick into a future Hall of Famer, winning Super Bowls in 1981 and 1984, he felt more angst than validation. “Bill had to prove himself to himself all the time,” Vermeil says. “His past success could never overcome a recent failure, and nothing was enough to fill that little hole in his personality.”
So he took the technocratic obsession that led to the West Coast offense and adapted it to the entire franchise. As president, GM and coach, Walsh would devise game plans, negotiate with agents, interview secretaries for jobs, instruct marketers, everything. As his offense became the offense around the NFL, opponents marveled at and then copied the so-called 49ers Way. But it was really the Walsh Way, a system flowing from one man’s ingenuity and insecurity. By the late ’80s, as Walsh’s definition of success became so narrow as to be unattainable, the Walsh Way started to cripple the coach. He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. “I was a tortured person,” Walsh later told biographer Harris. “I felt the failure so personally … eventually I couldn’t get out from under it all. You can’t live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times.”
The book has held up over time. Walsh correctly predicted that hurry-up, one-word offenses would come to dominate football. His light, fast practices became the template for what the NFL’s CBA now mandates. Urban Meyer has chapters bookmarked for when he needs a problem solved. James Harris, the football program’s chief of staff at Oregon, used the job descriptions to reorganize his department last year. Browns personnel executive Michael Lombardi, a former scout under Walsh, bought it for Arizona State basketball assistant coach Eric Musselman and for Indiana football head coach Kevin Wilson, who read it on a Florida beach last summer and highlighted so much that in certain chapters “there’s more yellow than white.”
And yet the book’s limits are as obvious as its strengths. As veteran NFL coach Al Saunders, a close friend of Walsh’s, says, “It can’t win for you. You can’t adopt Bill’s ability to react. You can’t get the human element.” In other words, as much as the coach wrote the book to make you Bill Walsh, you can’t be Bill Walsh, the great coach. Only Bill Walsh, the imperfect perfectionist.