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ESPN celebrates the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth with the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series, saluting the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.
Bill Walsh, considered an offensive genius and father of the West Coast offense, turned the San Francisco 49ers into a dynasty in the 1980s. In 10 seasons under Walsh, the 49ers won six NFC West titles and three Super Bowls.
The offensive philosophy that Walsh originally subscribed to was the Sid Gillman passing attack, which Walsh adopted from Gillman disciple Al Davis as a Raiders assistant in 1966. Walsh's big break, however, came in 1968, when he joined the staff of the legendary Paul Brown with the expansion Cincinnati Bengals after considering quitting football in favor of law school. In Cincinnati, Walsh modified Gillman's system and incorporated a heavy dose of short passes, creating what ultimately would become known as the West Coast offense in San Francisco.
The relationship between Walsh and Brown was icy and often punctuated by friction. Walsh felt constricted by Brown and believed his boss was holding him back from becoming a head coach. Following eight seasons in Cincinnati, Walsh left the Bengals when he was passed over to succeed Brown as head coach in 1976. Offensive line coach Bill Johnson got the job instead, and Walsh believed that Brown subsequently tried to blackball him in NFL circles.
After helping to develop future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts while serving as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers for one season, Walsh became head coach at Stanford, where he remained for two seasons. Walsh was named head coach and general manager of the 49ers in 1979. The previous season, the 49ers had gone 2-14, having won only 31 of their previous 86 games. The 1981 team won the Super Bowl, and the 1984 and 1988 teams repeated the feat.
Walsh retired after Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989, but the 49ers -- coached by his former defensive coordinator George Seifert -- returned to the Super Bowl the following season and won.
Mike Holmgren followed Seifert as another former Walsh assistant who went on to win the Super Bowl. The Walsh coaching tree boasts no fewer than 25 descendants, including Super Bowl champions Holmgren, Brian Billick, Jon Gruden and John Harbaugh.
-- Shawna Seed
The thing about Bill Walsh is he had this certain swagger about him. I know they called him a genius for his play calling, but really it was the way he carried himself. If you stepped on that practice field and you didn't practice well, then you could tell by his body language, "Hey, we better pick it up. If we don't pick it up right now, we're probably going to start practice all over again."
|The 49ers won three Super Bowls under Bill Walsh and another the season after he retired.|
Seriously, that happened sometimes. It's one of those scenarios where your father, if he gives you that certain look. You know the one I'm talking about, where it's, "You better straighten up and start acting right."
There was such a sense of urgency about him that you wanted to win football games not only for yourself but for him. I find that to be very special when a coach has swagger like that.
Bill always used to say this: If you don't put the time in during the week, you don't have a chance on that given Sunday or Monday night. That's why we practiced the way we played during the week. If you came to a 49ers practice, you would not believe the speed of play, the tempo, the attention to detail. We had done it during the week.
Now, all of a sudden, we didn't have to think about it when you get to the game. It's ingrained in you. You just go out there and do it. That's coaching right there.
-- Former 49ers wide receiver and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, as told to Greg Garber
ESPN "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" voting panel: Chris Berman, Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Colin Cowherd, Mike Ditka, Gregg Easterbrook, Herm Edwards, David Fleming, Ashley Fox, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Suzy Kolber, Eric Mangini, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Bill Polian, Rick Reilly, Mike Sando, Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, Trey Wingo.