Some called Bill Walsh the Coach of the 1980s. Others simply dubbed him The Genius. Executive producer Terry O'Neil, the man who raised CBS Sports to preeminence in the early '80s and who two months ago was charged with doing the same at NBC, offers a third tag for the former San Francisco 49er coach: "the x factor." In his recent book, The Game Behind the Game, O'Neil writes, "San Francisco had replaced Dallas as "America's Team.' ...This was...an acknowledgment of Walsh. He was the x factor. It was downright engaging to watch him coach."
Now O'Neil is betting that NFL fans will find it just as engaging to listen to Walsh dissect games. O'Neil and NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol announced last week that Walsh will pair with Dick Enberg to form the network's No. 1 NFL broadcast team. In taking the position, Walsh resigned as the 49ers' executive vice-president of player personnel, a job he assumed after the team's Super Bowl win in January. Merlin Olsen, once the pride of the peacock and Enberg's partner for 11 years, has been reassigned to work with Charlie Jones this fall.
The signing of Walsh is important to NBC, because next year, for the first time since 1947, the network will not broadcast any major league baseball games. So it will have to spotlight football, and in recent years CBS has clobbered NBC in the Sunday afternoon ratings wars. CBS has two built-in advantages over NBC: 1) It covers the NFC, whose markets are generally larger than those of the AFC, which airs its games on NBC; 2) it has John Madden.
The new adversaries, Madden and Walsh, are old pals. "I've been a friend of Bill Walsh's, hell, for 30 years," says Madden. In the early '60s, when Madden was the head coach at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Calif., the guest speaker for his football banquet was a young assistant coach from Cal named Bill Walsh. Last Friday, Walsh told Madden that he was going to call this week to pick his brain for some broadcasting tips.
Walsh couldn't ask for a better teacher. Madden has the ability to quickly communicate his knowledge of the game to the fans at home. He also has a warm personality that plays well on TV. Whether Walsh will come off as winningly is uncertain. As a coach he was not known for being especially at ease in front of the cameras, sometimes appearing in press conferences to be as impenetrable as a State Department spokesman. "The one hindrance for Bill may be that he's quite reserved by nature," says Olsen.
However, Walsh has strengths that could compensate:
•Brains. "I think he'll do very well," says the magnanimous Olsen. "No one knows the game as well as he does. At least, no one I know."
•Enberg. Walsh calls him a godsend. Adds Olsen, "Dick Enberg does one thing better than any play-by-play man in any sport and that is to showcase the man sitting next to him."
•Preparation. Who can forget the list of 25 plays that Walsh would clutch in his hand during every 49er game? "You can't be overprepared," says Madden. "The game isn't scripted."
Indeed, the motto of the troop at NBC will be, Be prepared. In the past the NBC staff often failed to meet with the players and coaches before games. Now those briefings will be mandatory. O'Neil thinks that better "staff support" will also help Olsen become "harder edged, more opinionated, more reportorial." In his book O'Neil describes Olsen as "he of the Shakespearean earnestness" and talks about his "deficiencies in analysis." Still, Olsen took his reassignment like a trouper, Shakespearean or otherwise, and conceded that the change could help him sharpen his skills.
O'Neil is also planning to streamline NFL Live!, NBC's pregame show. Last season, the show had half a dozen principals. This fall, it will feature two, host Bob Costas and analyst O.J. Simpson. Simpson is a gamble, given his disappointing performance on ABC's Monday Night Football. Ahmad Rashad and Paul Maguire will go back to covering games.
The focus, however, will be on Walsh. Before he was hired, Walsh went through an audition with Enberg, using a tape of last season's AFC Championship Game. O'Neil says he knew three minutes after the audition began that he had found his man.
Walsh and Enberg will do dress rehearsals at six exhibition games, and the tapes will be critiqued by O'Neil and his cohorts. Walsh will make his debut on a nationally televised game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Chicago Bears on Sept. 10. That's when football fans will decide if he still has x appeal.
O'Neil (left) hopes that Walsh and Simpson will stack up well against CBS's Madden.