|Wednesday, July 10
The architects of greatness
By Greg Garber
Bill Walsh surveys the sweep of Pacific Ocean before him. Ordinarily, he can see for miles and miles out into the shimmering expanse from his beach house on the Monterey Peninsula. On this early morning, though, he squints. Don't think for a minute that age -- Walsh turned 70 last fall -- has clouded his uncommon vision.
Walsh has done virtually everything a coach can do in the NFL. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right there between Doak Walker and Paul Warfield. He produced a 102-63-1 coaching record with the San Francisco 49ers and won three Super Bowls. The 49ers won two more Super Bowls after Walsh stepped aside, but those victories bore his stamp as well. When the 49ers found themselves salary-capped out in 1999, Walsh returned as general manager to rebuild the franchise. Today, San Francisco is again a legitimate challenger for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Walsh is listed as a mere consultant on the 49ers' masthead, but he is so much more. He is the architect of more than two decades of excellence in the Bay Area and his influence on today's game -- Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes, Jeff Fisher, Brian Billick, Mike Martz and many, many others say they owe him a great debt -- is unmatched.
Walsh's secret? He loves the business of football. The strategy of matching Xs and Os, the psychological craft of motivating players, the adrenaline produced by game day. It is passion and fire and all the other clichझs you can name. It still happens for Walsh; when others of his station would retire permanently to the beach house, he still heads into the 49ers' Santa Clara office most days. Even in his eighth decade, he cannot get enough.
Ask Walsh what the key component to a sports dynasty is and he answers immediately.
"I think all of the successful teams have a required number of truly great players. In football, it would be five to seven. With the 49ers we had Montana, Lott and Rice, plus another handful of excellent players and a very strong complimentary cast of players. In basketball, it might be one or two great players. And then, when you get that core, it's a continual evolution, in a sense, a reframing of your personnel."
No one did this better than Walsh. While a number of dynasties were built on two or three magnificent athletes who arrived more or less together, the 49ers remade themselves again and again. Walsh found Joe Montana in the third round of the draft in 1979, the rookie season for both of them. Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon were his receiving targets and Earl Cooper the ballcarrier when San Francisco broke through to win Super Bowl XVI at the end of the 1981 season. Four years later, a draft-day trade permitted the 49ers to draft a rookie wide receiver from Mississippi Valley State named Jerry Rice 1985. Two years later, Walsh lifted quarterback Steve Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two draft choices. Montana and Walsh are already in the Hall of Fame and Young and Rice will soon join them. When San Francisco won its fifth Super Bowl (in five appearances) to finish the 1994 season, it was Young throwing to Rice and handing off to Ricky Watters.
The consistent factor in all of those Super Bowl victories? The hand of Bill Walsh. He likes to call it the system.
"We have had the same system here for 20 years," Walsh said. "The Dallas Cowboys, under Tom Landry, had the same system. It never changed. That continuity is critical to success. You can refine it and grow within it, but the system is the key."
The system of Bill Walsh. Here are five more men of wisdom, vision and perseverance that built teams considered dynasties:
John Robert Wooden was a winner at every level of the game. Maybe that was why he never talked about it.
He was a three-time All-State basketball player at Martinsville High School in Indiana, a three-time All-American at Purdue, where the Boilermakers won the national championship, and eventually was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He played pro ball for the Kautsky Grocers in Indianapolis and once made 138 consecutive free throws. And then, John Robert Wooden truly made his name in a second career that would also vault him into the Hall of Fame, coaching.
He began at Dayton High School before heading to Central High School in South Bend, Ind., and later to Indiana State Teachers' College. He got the gig at UCLA and from 1964-75 guided the Bruins to 10 NCAA titles. How did he do it? Well, the best players wanted to play for him, but there was something more. Go back to those 138 straight free throws. Can you imagine the unblinking focus such a feat requires?
"Attention to detail is something that is very important to me," Wooden said. "Focus on the thing in front of you, do it again and again, and the larger picture tends to take care of itself."
In 1997, after the Detroit Red Wings ended 42 years of frustration by winning the Stanley Cup, Scotty Bowman did something he had never done before after winning six previous Cups. He slipped off his street shoes and laced on his skates for the presentation ceremony.
Five years later, after the Red Wings won their third title in six years, Bowman did it again. As it turned out, he skated away from coaching on top of his profession. His ninth Stanley Cup -- five in Montreal (1973, 1976-79), Pittsburgh (1992) and Detroit (1997-98, 2002) -- left him as the first man to ever win championships in three cities and the all-time head coaching leader, one ahead of Toe Blake.
What are the common denominators among champions, Bowman was asked last week. He listed the obvious things, talent and chemistry and forward-thinking organizations. And then he mentioned something else.
"Defense," he said from his suburban Buffalo home. "When you think about it, all the great teams have been able to play strong defense at the right time, you know? As great offensive teams as they are, there is a certain point where you have to defend the lead you have.
"That is what championships are made of."
The victory cigar of Arnold Jacob Auerbach was the Gatorade splash of its day. Even when there was still time left on the clock, that puff of smoke signified that the game was over. It happened a lot for the Celtics under Auerbach.
"Sure, everybody can acquire talent," Auerbach said last week from his Washington, D.C., office. "But how does that talent play together? The coach's job is to get that talent working together toward the same goal."
Namely, winning. So when Bill Russell arrived in 1956, Auerbach gained some defensive intimidation to go with scoring from Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn. Sam Jones and K.C. Jones signed on next and midway through the run John Havlicek added youth and versatility. Under Auerbach, it all meshed. In his later years, as the Celtics' talent broker, Auerbach orchestrated moves that brought Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to the team. The result? More titles.
Could that record, eight straight, ever be broken?
"Yeah," Auerbach said. "The Lakers could do it. They have a great team right now. Say they trade a player for a first-round pick, say it happens again. I still think they've got enough to win with, even with a few trades. And then, if things work out, they could get the first overall draft pick. Orlando had a chance to build something like that with O'Neal and Hardaway. Can you imagine the Lakers with O'Neal, Bryant and a great young player? That's the start of a dynasty there.
"All it takes is a little luck."
Unhappy with the right-field platoon of Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal, the New York Yankees traded last week for Raul Mondesi. And, thus, a weakness became a strength.
Is there any question about who is in charge here? Steinbrenner may be irascible, impatient and, at times, impossible, but he is also a winner. Since he bought the team from CBS in 1973, Steinbrenner has known that the customer is always right. He has spent extraordinary amounts of money to make, well, extraordinary amounts of money.
The Yankees already had won 20 World Series when Steinbrenner arrived, but he his teams have won six times since, in 1977 and 1978 and four times in the past six years. Sure, the Yankees' make more money and spend more than other teams, but they back it up by winning. Tom Hicks, who owns the Texas Rangers, gave Alex Rodriguez a record 10-year, $252 million contract before the 2001 season, but don't expect to see the Rangers in the World Series. The Yankees could be there again because they have again shrewdly retooled the machine by adding Jason Giambi and Robin Ventura and keeping their young nucleus of players.
Steinbrenner, through his publicist, turned down an interview with ESPN.com. That's OK. His results speak for themselves.
This was the spring of 1998, several years before people would start re-pairing the words Lakers and dynasty in the same sentence. The Utah Jazz had just swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals and Shaquille O'Neal trashed the locker room facilities like an '80s hair band tearing up a hotel room.
He was Jerry Alan West, and even though he was one of the game's great players -- he was the NCAA Tournament's outstanding player in 1959 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 -- he won only a single NBA championship (in 1972) in eight trips to the finals while a player for the Lakers from 1960-73.
"I never knew that," O'Neal said. "I was like, `Damn, you went to the Finals eight times and lost?' So I knew that his pain was a million times worse than my pain was."
Perseverance. Persistence. Patience. That would be the signature of West's extraordinary post-playing career. He was an assistant coach in 1980 when the Lakers won the NBA title and served as the general manager when they took home four more championships in the 1980s. As the team's executive vice president, West put together the current team that has won three consecutive titles.
Now, as the man who makes decisions for the Memphis Grizzlies, West believes these Lakers will remain invincible.
"I don't care how angry other people get," West said last week from his Memphis office. "If health and all other things remain equal, I don't see anyone beating them."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com