Monday, July 30, 2007
Updated: July 31, 4:45 PM ET
Bill Walsh dies at 75; led 49ers to three Super Bowl titles
ESPN.com news services
SAN FRANCISCO -- Bill Walsh changed the look of the NFL with
his offensive innovations and legion of coaching disciples,
breaking new ground and winning three Super Bowls with the
San Francisco 49ers in the process.
Nicknamed "The Genius" for his creative schemes that became
known as the West Coast offense, Walsh died at his Woodside home
Monday morning following a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.
"This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to
the Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers," said the
49ers' Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. "Outside of my dad he
was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to
Walsh didn't become an NFL head coach until 47, and he spent
just 10 seasons on the San Francisco sideline. But he left an
indelible mark on the nation's most popular sport, building the
once-woebegone 49ers into the most successful team of the 1980s
with his innovative offensive strategies.
The soft-spoken native Californian also produced an army of
coaching disciples that's still growing today. Many of his former
assistants went on to lead their own teams, handing down Walsh's
methods and schemes to dozens more coaches in a tree with
"The essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary
teacher," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "If you gave him a
blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of
Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14
postseason games along with six division titles. He was named the
NFL's coach of the year in 1981 and 1984.
Few men did more to shape the look of football into the 21st
century. His cerebral nature and often-brilliant stratagems earned
him his nickname well before his election to the Pro Football Hall
of Fame in 1993.
He visited with friends until the end. Tyrone Willingham, the
former Stanford coach now at Washington, and Stanford donor and
alumnus John Arrillaga went to see Walsh on Sunday, presenting him
with the Stagg Award for his outstanding service to football.
"It's not just how he prepared his teams and his attention to detail and his training camps that all of football is still emulating," Willingham told ESPN's Joe Schad on Monday. "As a minority coach, here is a guy who stood on a table and said, 'A door should be opened.' His impact is so far beyond football. He opened a door worldwide that made a better America, not just a better American football."
Raiders owner Al Davis and Hall of Famer John Madden stopped by
Saturday, and Montana on Friday. Hall of Fame quarterback
Steve Young was headed to see Walsh on Monday when he received the sad
"He knew me well before I knew myself and knew what I could
accomplish well before I knew that I could accomplish it," Young
said. "That's a coach. That's the ultimate talent anyone could
have. I said in my Hall of Fame speech that he was the most
important person in football in the last 25 years, and I don't
think there's any debate about that."
Walsh twice served as the 49ers' general manager, and George
Seifert led San Francisco to two more Super Bowl titles after Walsh
left the sideline. Walsh also coached Stanford during two terms
over five seasons.
Even a short list of Walsh's adherents is stunning. Seifert,
Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet
all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh's San Francisco
staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. Most of his former
assistants passed on Walsh's structures and strategies to a new
generation of coaches, including Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian
Billick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and
Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program in 1987,
helping minority coaches get a foothold in a previously
white-dominated profession. Willingham and Marvin Lewis were among
those who went through the program, later adopted as a league-wide
In 2004, Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia, the disease that
also killed his son, former ABC News reporter Steve Walsh, in 2002
at age 46. He underwent months of treatment and blood transfusions,
and publicly disclosed his illness in November 2006.
Born William Ernest Walsh on Nov. 30, 1931 in Los Angeles,
Walsh's family moved to the Bay Area when he was a teenager.
He was a self-described "average" end at San Jose State in
1952-53. He married his college sweetheart, Geri Nardini, in 1954
and started his coaching career at Washington High School in
Fremont, leading the football and swim teams.
Walsh was coaching in Fremont when he interviewed for an
assistant coaching position with Marv Levy, who had just been hired
as head coach at California.
"I was very impressed, individually, by his knowledge, by his
intelligence, by his personality and hired him," said Levy, who
coached the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls.
Walsh did a stint at Stanford before beginning his pro coaching
career as an assistant with the AFL's Oakland Raiders in 1966,
forging a friendship with Al Davis that endured through decades of
rivalry. Walsh joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 to work for
legendary coach Paul Brown, who gradually gave complete control of
the Bengals' offense to his assistant.
Walsh built a scheme that included short dropbacks and novel
receiving routes, as well as constant repetition of every play in
practice. Though it originated in Cincinnati, it became known many
years later as the West Coast offense -- a name Walsh never liked or
repeated, but which eventually grew to encompass his offensive
philosophy and the many tweaks added by Holmgren, Shanahan and
"He was a perfectionist," said Keena Turner, a linebacker with
the Niners for 11 years before going on to coach. "When writing
his script, he didn't believe that running the football was the way
to get there. It had to be prettier than that -- beautiful in some
By the 1990s, much of the NFL was running some version of the
West Coast offense, with its fundamental belief that the passing
game can set up an effective running attack, rather than the
opposite conventional wisdom.
Walsh also is widely credited with inventing or popularizing
many of the modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of
plays held by coaches on almost every sideline, to the practice of
scripting the first 15 offensive plays of a game.
After a bitter falling-out with Brown in 1976, Walsh left for
stints with the San Diego Chargers and Stanford before the 49ers
chose him to rebuild the franchise in 1979.
The long-suffering team had gone 2-14 before Walsh's arrival.
They repeated the record in his first season. Walsh doubted his
abilities to turn around such a miserable situation -- but earlier
in 1979, the 49ers drafted quarterback Joe Montana from Notre Dame.
Walsh turned over the starting job to Montana in 1980, when the
49ers improved to 6-10 -- and improbably, San Francisco won its
first championship in 1981, just two years after winning two games.
Championships followed in the postseasons of 1984 and 1988 as
Walsh built a consistent winner. He also showed considerable acumen
in personnel, adding Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Roger Craig and
Jerry Rice to his rosters after he was named the 49ers' general
manager in 1982 and then president in 1985.
"I came to San Francisco, and I found another father, Bill
Walsh," Rice said. "He was always there for me, when I was
dropping balls, doing everything, when the media were trying to
crucify him, 'Why did you go draft this small college player out of
Mississippi Valley State?' He hung in there with me."
Walsh left the 49ers with a profound case of burnout after his
third Super Bowl victory in January 1989, though he later regretted
not coaching longer.
He spent three years as a broadcaster with NBC before returning
to Stanford for three seasons. He then took charge of the 49ers'
front office in 1999, helping to rebuild the roster over three
seasons. But Walsh gradually cut ties with the 49ers after his
hand-picked successor as GM, Terry Donahue, took over in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, Geri, and two children, Craig and
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.