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Original Issue

Bill Walsh: 1931-2007

A brilliant innovator, he also opened doors for a new generation of NFL coaches

Bill walsh, who died of leukemia on Monday at age 75, will go down in history as one of football's greatest offensive minds. Deservedly so: His 49ers led the NFL in scoring over the decade he coached (1979 to '88); his short-passing, precision offense changed the game; and he mentored Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. But we would be doing Walsh a disservice if we remembered him just for his X's and O's. In truth he was a renaissance man, applying his ample intellect to a brutish culture. In 1991 he considered why it took him so long to get an NFL head-coaching job. "Owners wanted someone who'd yell and scream and whip their players into submission," he said, "and I don't believe that's how to coach. I think you have to treat players intelligently."

As a team architect he was the best of his era. He selected Montana in the third round in 1979 and traded a second-round pick to Tampa Bay for Young in '87. In all, his 49ers drafts yielded 17 Pro Bowl players, and in '86, through eight trades and some keen gambles, he engineered one of the alltime great drafts, picking eight future starters to replenish an aging Super Bowl team.

As a caretaker of the game he was without peer among coaches. His internship program laid the groundwork for minorities to break into the NFL head-coaching ranks. As much as he meant to pro football, said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Monday, "he meant just as much--or more--to minority coaches. I wouldn't be where I am without him."

And always, Walsh exuded a confidence that bordered on brashness. "You're going to get a chance to work for the best organization in professional sports," Walsh said when Lewis interned with the 49ers in 1991. "You know why?"

"No, Coach," Lewis said.

"Because if I screw this place up," Walsh said, "I know I can fix it."


Photograph by Michael Zagaris


Walsh and Montana drew up victory plans in the grass at Candlestick Park duringa 23-0 NFC Championship Game rout of the Bears in January 1985.