As the achievements and disappointments of the recent Super Bowl become more distant with each passing weekend, a lasting Super Bowl “high mark” stirs my memory. This reflection evolves from a man who coached in three Super Bowls and won all three Super Bowl games to become a three time champion. There have been other great coaches, and there will be other great coaches to come along, but it is doubtful whether there will ever be another quite like Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s sad that he is gone, but it was a deep pleasure for all of football to have had him. Just ask the men who coached with him, the players who played for him and the media who covered him. Creator of the West Coast Offense, Bill Walsh created winning football programs at every level; High School, College and NFL teams that fired on all cylinders. Every person who was a part of his journey was driven. Coach Walsh gave it all to football and the game today is better because of him.
Having coached alongside Bill Walsh for three years at Stanford University I learned how to instill in players the drive to shoot for perfection. His commitment to “perfection” was illustrated for me during an early practice session. Our Stanford Quarterback for all of these three years was always near or at the top of the PAC 10 (now the Pac 12) Conference in Passing Efficiency and Total Passing Yards. Coach Walsh and I watched our QB throw a pass slightly behind the receiver on a 9-12 yard slant route. The receiver opened his hips on the run and snatched the ball in flight. In making this catch, the receiver’s body mechanics caused him to alter his speed. It was a catch most of the Stanford receivers would make a high percentage of the time in practice. Most football people would applaud this completion. NOT Coach Walsh! He turned to me and explained in a most graphic and detailed manner why a pass intended for a receiver running a slant route had to be delivered exactly “one foot” (twelve inches) in front of the receiver’s numbers on his jersey, and not “six inches” behind him. This was my initial introduction to passing the football with “superior” accuracy and chasing perfection.
A story related to me that best described Coach Walsh’s obsession for detail, involved his Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana. Joe, who was fresh out of Notre Dame and a 3rd round draft pick, reported to the 49ers for some early QB work prior to his rookie training camp. Coach Walsh called for Joe to meet him at 9:00am at a secluded area of the 49er practice facility. For two hours Coach Walsh and Joe worked on quarterback technique and mechanics. Following the two hour session, Joe was informed to meet Coach Walsh again at 3:00pm for another two hour workout. These one on one sessions went on for three days totaling 12 hours of intense QB training. Following the final two hour session Coach Walsh turned to Joe and declared, “Next time we work, you can bring a football.” (Imagine reporting to the gym for 12 hours of basketball drills without a ball). Twelve hours (720 minutes) of QB mechanics with Coach Walsh and all the attention was focused on Joe’s footwork. No wonder the media often described how watching Joe Montana move around in the pocket was like watching “poetry in motion.” This was Bill Walsh’s coaching signature, to instill in the player “an attention for detail” when developing his techniques and fundamentals that would lead to a consistent and winning performance.
Bill Walsh coached with creativity and an uncanny ability to get the most out of players and coaches. He had a knack for bringing the Playbook to life. His “West Coast System” of football was bigger than those three highly visible words. His system of football was not something you could just read in a book and out pops a way of winning football. His management skills, personnel manipulation and his ability to put players in a position for success made his coaching style “a cut above.” The X’s and O’s on the field were certainly the creation of Bill Walsh. But his greatness was in his presentation of the offense and how he installed the game plan with his players, and especially the Quarterback. With the flare of an artist, Coach Walsh was not only instructing the Quarterback on “how” to paint, but “why” to paint. This was his “GENIUS.”
With his sudden retirement from coaching while we were at Stanford in 1994, I found myself having coached as Bill Walsh’s last Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach. So this final quote, that defined Coach Walsh, I share with you is on loan, because in a certain way it was Coach Walsh’s final expression he shared with me about playing Quarterback. “When you chase PERFECTION and fall short, you can still catch EXCELLENCE.”