- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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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 f-- 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."
So he decided to write a book.
Pat McDermott has a dream: He wants to coach in the NFL. He is 26 years old, with bulky shoulders, a round face and an eagerness in his blue eyes that shines in the ravenously ambitious. He is in his first job, coaching running backs at the Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa. Like all coaches, he is drawn to football's impossible challenge, to somehow perfect a series of collisions on each snap into something as coordinated as a symphony. He was drawn to that challenge as a running back, first as a Pennsylvania prep
standout and later at West Chester University. After graduating in 2009 with a business degree, he decided to make football his career.
In 2010 McDermott called Andy Reid, the then-Eagles coach now with the Chiefs whose sons he had played high school ball with, and Reid gave him an internship during the following summer's training camp. His tasks were menial -- organizing the coaches' dorm rooms and driving staffers around -- but offensive line coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg recognized a precociousness in him that once lived in themselves. They invited McDermott to join their early-morning and late-night film sessions. McDermott watched them obsess over the game's never-ending details -- a quarterback's footwork, a guard's hand placement -- and realized that if he wanted to be an elite coach, he needed to learn to think like one.
Last spring he heard about a book written by Bill Walsh that supposedly had a cultlike following among coaches. McDermott searched online and found two books authored by Walsh. One, called The Score Takes Care of Itself, was $13. The other, Finding the Winning Edge, cost a minimum of $100, with special leather-bound, signed editions fetching $1,000. It had been published in 1997 and was no longer in print.
McDermott, earning $2,000 a year at Episcopal Academy and working part time as a personal trainer, bought the cheap one. It was a breezy leadership read, not a hard-core football tome. A few weeks later, McDermott pulled up Finding the Winning Edge and skimmed the reader reviews. "Walsh goes through football from A to Z. Everything, and I mean everything that you would ever want to know about football ... Walsh fleshes out ALL of the details of all of his philosophies on how to run a football organization from management to players ... This book is a NFL Head Coach's blueprint, bible and handbook ..." McDermott purchased it, joining Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer and hundreds more coaches who have it on their shelves. As Billick says, "I
don't sit in an office at an NFL facility where I don't see a copy." Last August, interning for the Eagles again, McDermott dived into it, unaware that he had bought a manual for ruining his life.
WALSH BEGAN WRITING alone at his beach house in Monterey, Calif., always at 8 a.m., on yellow legal pads, in pencil, in all caps, his penmanship so clean that it could be its own font. He would tear off sheets and stack them neatly in piles on the floor. This was in 1995, and Walsh didn't know what kind of book he wanted. A leadership guide? A playbook? A coaching manual? A blueprint for front offices? Walsh told Craig he wanted it to be a "real football book," not some light autobiography, waxing poetic about Super Bowls and Montana-to-Rice touchdown passes. He wanted his first book to motivate coaches, not delight fans. The truth was that a career that began in 1956 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, San Jose State, almost ended many times. He was fired as Cal's offensive coordinator in 1963 because the team didn't win. He resigned as the Raiders' running backs coach in 1966 after one season because the grind overwhelmed him. Owner Al Davis expected coaches to work until he called to allow them to go home for the day. After a few too many nights of Davis not calling, Walsh quit and applied to Stanford business school, ready to leave coaching forever.
What haunted Walsh went deeper than pink slips and long nights. It was his drive to be great at something he couldn't control. His colleagues recall him as the most intelligent coach they'd ever seen, which Walsh not so discreetly agreed with. But he could be sensitive to the point of devastation, crushed by failures large and small. It began in high school, when his coach moved him from quarterback to running back. It continued when he wrote his master's thesis at San Jose State and 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."
At his beach house in 1995, surrounded by rising stacks of legal paper, he was training others to attack theirs the same way. Walsh wanted to include everything. In the '80s, he had written job descriptions for everyone in the organization, from the GM to the executive assistant. Those had to be included. So did some of his classic West Coast plays, like 22-Z In, the slant pattern that became the NFL's most unstoppable play. So did his team speeches. He had videotaped most of them over 10 years, using them as a reference and an archive, and hired Craig to transcribe them. Craig spent eight hours a day in front of a VCR, staring at grainy footage, a glimpse of a man whom he seldom saw as a child and struggled to understand as an adult. Walsh had a solution for every situation, from planning pregame meals to always calling basic plays in the tightest situations to give the players confidence. "You realize how complex of a man he was to have all of this going through his brain," Craig says. "How could he have ever relaxed? He didn't."
Craig transcribed the speeches in a month. His dad promised to pay him but never did. Those papers became another pile on Walsh's floor. Craig said, "Dad, you have too many notes."
"No," Walsh said. "You have to understand all these components to get a full understanding."
"Have you read any other sports books?"
"It's not a sports book," Walsh snapped back. "It's a thesis."
At first, McDermott tried to read Finding the Winning Edge cover to cover.
But he quickly discovered it's not meant to be absorbed that way. Belichick once referred to it as football "literature," but it's more like a textbook -- 550 pages, 1.8 inches thick, 3.2 pounds, loaded with charts, graphs and bullet points. For example, Walsh includes 57 keys to negotiating contracts ("The negotiator's need for food and sleep can affect his/her ability to function effectively"), 13 pages of sample practices and 108 in-game scenarios.
Its humor fails. "The fundamental goal of passing the ball is to make sure it's caught ... by the intended receiver." Some of the wisdom is painfully obvious. "A quarterback should lead by example." But McDermott understood why Belichick calls it a bible. In a secretive profession, it shows how a legend thinks. It teaches a coach to view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. It provides the tiny details that add up to a philosophy for building a team, winning games and running a franchise. Mostly, it can lure a coach into the illusion that if all the steps are followed, perfection can be attained.
McDermott finished it in a month. Now he revisits it weekly. On this September Wednesday, he's worried that his players will become overconfident. Episcopal Academy is 3-0, outscoring opponents 134-0. Saturday night the Churchmen play Hill School, a rival they should smoke. McDermott is haunted by the specter of a meltdown. So what would Walsh do? McDermott turns to a section titled "An Extended Winning Streak." "Overconfidence can have disastrous consequences if your players feel that they ... have already mastered the basic fundamentals."
McDermott has always been a perfectionist. But since he became a coach, everyone has told him that success requires that instinct to be amplified. Sometimes McDermott pauses to consider the costs of that mentality, but ambition usually overrules. So he flips to Chapter 11, "Preparing to Win." "The core of any type of detailed preparation is the need for maximizing meaningful repetitions ... A 'wasted' rep is a lost opportunity that will be very difficult to make up later."
He jots it down on 3-by-5 cards to use in tomorrow's practice.
WALSH DIDN'T HAVE a ghostwriter, an agent or a publishing contract. So in 1996, he approached Billick at the NFL combine. Walsh was there to give a lecture about hiring minority coaches -- he was an early advocate of coaching diversity, a huge source of pride for him. The two men had known each other since the '70s, when Walsh hired a young Billick to be a 49ers PR staffer; his former pupil was now the Vikings' offensive coordinator. "Brian, I want to put something together, and I need help," Walsh said. "You gotta find someone with a writing background, that knows the game, that understands my structure, that I can work with regularly ..."
"Well, there's a number of guys," Billick said.
"No, no," Walsh interrupted. Right then Billick knew that Walsh wasn't asking but insisting.
"Bill, do you want me to do this with you?"
"Well, I was thinking you'd be good."
"We can do one of two things," Billick said. "We can do a 250-page Bill Walsh's Keys to Success, aim it toward corporate people and make a lot of money. Or we can do a legacy piece. I don't know how financially successful it'll be."
Walsh chose the latter. A week later, Billick opened a new computer file. Thinking for every coach, owner, GM and scout, he asked, "If you could sit with Bill Walsh, what would you want to know?" He wrote up a 150-page outline and four times over the next few months visited Walsh in Monterey, armed with questions and a tape recorder, filling dozens of cassettes, which Billick now calls "my prized possessions."
For some reason, Walsh never gave Billick any of the stacks of paper that he had compiled over the years. He just answered Billick's questions, usually until late afternoon, when the former coach, then 65, would become exhausted and start to repeat himself. Billick, not wanting to embarrass his hero, would say, "I'm tired now." And they'd pick up the next morning. Faxes from Walsh always greeted Billick when he returned home, labeled as "points," because that's how Walsh thought. Point One would be the relationship between the GM and the scouting staff. Point Two would be how marketers should approach selling a first-year coach. Point Three would be how a linebacker should handle a pulling guard. Over months Billick incorporated everything into a 500-page manuscript. He asked a writer friend, Jim Peterson, to take a look. "It was disjointed," Peterson says now. "It didn't have a purpose. It was a mind-dump, not a book." He called Billick and said, "We need to start over."
Working off the note cards at practice, McDermott is not just about good reps. He's about good Walsh reps. He repeatedly orders the scout team to "go hard." When running backs make lazy cuts, he sternly reminds them of their "aiming points." When a tailback catches a pass with one hand, McDermott sighs and yells, "Two hands!"
He is walking a fine line between nitpicking and instructing, knowing that instructive nitpicking is the Walsh Way. And the Walsh Way is the Episcopal Academy Way. At least three of his colleagues, it turns out, also own the book; it sits in head coach Todd Fairlie's office, a resource at the ready to feed what the coaches think will make them happy, on game day, in practice, in life. The rush of coaching a perfect play, McDermott admits, is addictive.
Practices on Thursday and Friday are crisp and clean. Aside from a few errant shotgun snaps, the players flawlessly execute the first 15 scripted offensive plays, another Walsh touch. But because the coaches are coaches, they push harder. Huddling with the running backs after practice, a day
before the game, McDermott says, "We have a lot we can do better. A lot."
THEY STARTED OVER. Peterson became Walsh's de facto co-writer and produced a new outline. He reworked Billick's draft, trimming as he went. Walsh loved military references, even from Nazis, all of which Peterson cut. "Having an excessive number of quotes from the bad guys distracted from the point," Peterson says.
But for every quote that was cut, Walsh wanted to add 10 pages. He wanted a chapter on salary cap management, about which he had only rudimentary knowledge. He put Peterson on the phone with an NFL capologist, and Peterson wrote the section as if it came straight from the legend's lips. Then Walsh wanted a chapter about the media, and as Peterson says, "His only contribution was 'The media sucks.'" So Peterson researched media strategies and wrote a chapter about deflecting questions and never allowing reporters to get under your skin -- skills that Walsh neither possessed nor practiced.
All along, Peterson was working on spec. He never signed a contract or even talked money with Walsh. Spending hours mining the coach's psyche was worth it. Though Walsh had decided not to write an autobiography, it ended up being autobiographical anyway. In the third person, he encouraged assistants who worried they'd never become a head coach. "Many people erroneously think they have only one chance to succeed, and if they miss that chance, they are doomed to failure. In fact, most people have several opportunities to succeed." And he warned about the perils of retirement. "Life after football can be an extremely traumatic experience."
In 1996 Peterson sequestered himself to write. He gave Walsh pages to review, and Walsh would blanket them with comments, always in pencil. Then new ideas would occur to him, and he'd fax over additional notes. Walsh hated to waste paper, so he'd send Peterson torn magazine pages with
feedback in the margins. As Peterson neared completion, Walsh's perfectionism kicked in. Walsh suddenly wanted the book to be about coaching and business, a niche read and a bestseller, everything to everyone. Then he wanted a chapter on the Catch, Montana to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC championship game. Peterson argued that if they included X's and O's, booksellers wouldn't put it in the front of the store but back in sports. Walsh ignored him, adding 82 pages of inside-football appendixes and 55 pages of play diagrams. As Craig says, "He wanted people to know that he had that all in him, that all his success didn't just happen."
Then Walsh wanted people to know that it wasn't all him. He insisted on including inspirational quotes from his coaching buddies, so, as Billick says, "We had to put in every slapd -- he'd ever met." The book swelled so much -- to more than 800 pages -- that Peterson suggested breaking it into volumes. But Walsh wanted one comprehensive guide. Finally, in mid-1997, Peterson cut it to 550 pages and, acting as an agent, sold it to Sports Publishing Inc. Walsh received a $20,000 advance. Walsh never paid Peterson but did put his name on the cover, in small type at the bottom, under a photo of Walsh waving to the Candlestick crowd after his Hall of Fame induction in 1993, appearing neither happy nor satisfied. Still, as Peterson says, "I was honored."
THE BOOK WAS published in December 1997. All 36,000 copies quickly sold. Coaches would approach Billick before games and ask whether he could get them one. Nearly a decade after Walsh retired from the NFL, his influence on football had never been greater. Seven of his former coaching pupils had become head coaches; nearly every team ran at least some West Coast offense concepts. For those who coached under Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge was a study of the genius beyond his playbook. For those who coached against him, it was a window into the mind of their nemesis. For Belichick, it was validation. It was published during the crossroads of his career, while he
was working as a Jets assistant. The book reinforced Belichick's own belief in detailed planning, which is why he calls it and Jack Welch and the GE Way the two most influential books of his career.
For most, though, Finding the Winning Edge was a painfully bracing shower. In 1997 David Shaw thought he knew football. His father was an NFL assistant coach, and Shaw had played at Stanford under Walsh and now was an Eagles assistant. But as he read, "I realized I had no idea what I was doing." Armed with a highlighter, Shaw started over again, both with the book and what he thought he knew about the game. He learned that therapy should be considered during a losing streak, because, as Walsh wrote, "Typically, the head coach has no emotional support system." He learned the 29 ways Walsh used to determine whether a player had a drug problem: "No. 6: He began playing the entire game in a lethargic manner." Shaw learned how to evaluate centers: "A large body can be a hindrance in a small area." He learned how a head coach should fire assistants: "You must take painstaking care in detailing and documenting his lack of production."
Now age 40 and Stanford's head coach, Shaw sits in his office and flips through one of his two copies. He stops at the quarterback section and reads aloud. "Good passing involves accuracy, timing and throwing the ball with enough touch so that it's catchable, and having a great sense of anticipation. He must be able to handle situations in a composed, systematic manner. He must be courageous and highly competitive." Shaw shakes his head. "I unknowingly quote this all the time when talking about Andrew Luck."
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.
Game day. McDermott wears a headset and sits in the coaches' box, an unpainted shed above the stands, during the action. His copy of Finding the Winning Edge is at home, yet its blessings and curses hover. At halftime Episcopal Academy leads 35-0. But Walsh wouldn't be pleased, and McDermott and Fairlie aren't. "I'm challenging you to improve," Fairlie tells the team. "That was a sloppy half of football. We have to get better."
The final score is 42-7. After the game, the coaches stand at midfield, waiting to address the players. Nobody is happy. McDermott's arms are crossed. Fairlie's hands are on his hips; he's angry that the team was flagged for five personal fouls, angry that his quarterback changed the depth of a route so that the receiver would score a touchdown, not just get a first down. "It's a win," Fairlie says. "But the greed and selfishness? F--ing unbelievable. They're starting to care about their stats."
Fairlie turns to address the players. "You can't be thinking about yourself and not the team." McDermott nods, like he thinks a great coach should. But as he looks at the players' chastised faces, he wonders if maybe, just maybe, the coaches are too tight. After a few minutes of lecturing, Fairlie seems to realize it too. "Hey, guys," he says. "Smile. You won." Nobody does.
Two hours after the game, the coaches sit at a bar, downing beers and wings. Any of the half a dozen other patrons would assume that these coaches are there after a loss. In a way, they are. As one round of drinks becomes two and soon three, the coaches dwell on mistakes but not successes, what each player can improve on but not what he did well, as if they're trying to out-angst each other.
McDermott sits at the end of the bar, more observer than participant. The dark room is lit only by the flat-screen TVs showing college games, filled with shots of coaches throwing headsets and screaming at refs, players and their own assistants. Sometimes at moments like this, McDermott is able to see his profession clearly, and through it, himself. Why try to find the winning edge if winning isn't enough? "That nobody was pleased ... I'm not sure that's a good thing," he says later.
He vows to ease up. But as the team keeps winning, McDermott uses another Walsh technique -- "the one-point underdog attitude" -- to make his players believe that unless they improve on their almost-perfect play, they're beatable. The Churchmen finish the season 10-0, winning the league championship 21-14. Afterward McDermott says, "It would have been more gratifying if it had been a two-score game."
CRAIG WALSH SITS in a conference room of the Silicon Valley real estate firm where he works. He's 53 and barely resembles his father. Craig's hair is still dark. He smiles easily and frequently. On this summer day, Craig opens Finding the Winning Edge to his father's dedication note to his family. "My dad," he says, shaking his head. "Right off the bat, the first thing he says is, 'We shared the disappointments.' This is a guy who won three freaking Super Bowls, coach of the year twice, and is in the Hall of Fame! He was a modern Shakespearean tragedy."
Craig is as conflicted about the book as he is about his old man. He
remembers how his dad blew up after holding a first galley. Pages were upside down. Entire chapters were upside down. After the printing mistakes were corrected and it was published properly, Walsh mailed signed copies to his friends and traveled around the country to discuss it with coaches and owners. But Walsh being Walsh, he couldn't bring himself to actually read it. He hated the book the way he hated his legacy -- it wasn't perfect. He regretted using a small publisher and blamed Peterson for it, cutting him off forever. He sued the publisher for rights, a case that was later settled. And he hated how dense, dry and narrowly focused it was. Immediately, Walsh began writing another book, which he wanted to be easy to read, filled with stories about Montana-to-Rice, published by a major New York outfit and, finally, a commercial hit.
But in 2004, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and the project got derailed. Three years later, when his life was measured in days, not months, one of the last things he told Craig was "Finish this book." Craig, along with a co-writer, did just that. The Score Takes Care of Itself was 250 pages and hit shelves in 2009. It's not in every coach's office.
ON A HIGH SHELF that can be accessed only by forklift, in a nondescript warehouse in downtown San Francisco, there are crates filled with an idea and a person and an obsession. After his father died, Craig hired a packing company to pack up his dad's house and move its contents. In this warehouse sits boxed-up memorabilia -- game balls, trophies, photos -- and boxed-up secrets, the yellow legal pads that once grew from Walsh's office floor, the early drafts of Finding the Winning Edge, the scribbled notes and faxes.
Craig thinks of his father when he drives by, because in a very real way his dad lives in that warehouse, everything he was and wanted to be. Sometimes Craig wonders what to do with those notes. He has considered reorganizing and republishing them into something less arduous, a final gift to football.
But in the end, it's too much to unpack.
In ESPN The Magazine, Seth Wickersham writes that Bill Walsh's first book was an unwieldy 550-page mind-dump. But 15 years later, it lives on as a Super Bowl road map -- and a haunting reminder of the tortured genius it takes to win the big one.