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Bill Walsh, 1931-2007

Bill Walsh didn't fit the image of great head coaches when he took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. Not to say the man was soft, but his countenance didn't fit the stiff-jawed portrait of Lombardi or Landry, and his relative calm was the diametric opposite of John Madden, who'd just left his job across the bay. That somewhat fits with the laid-back character of the town his team represented, which can't hurt.

But it also supports his legacy as one of the great thinkers of the game. Bill Walsh didn't just perfect the most influential offensive strategy since Sid Gillman took the passing game downfield; he practically started a whole new ecosystem of teaching the game. No other coach in NFL history had quite as many "disciples" as Walsh did, those who became head coaches later: Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, Jim Fassel, Paul Hackett, Dennis Green. And their descendents fill the ranks as well -- Brian Billick, Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden. It all gets back to Walsh, so much so that Wikipedia has its own "Bill Walsh coaching tree."

On paper, the West Coast Offense is so simple a refutation of traditional NFL thought, it's almost a parody. "The pass sets up the run." It defied common assumptions of the time, even the laws of science a bit. You keep pounding away at the interior to loosen up the sides -- how can you play the edges of the box to free up your runner? Makes no sense. None 'tall.

Which is why Walsh worked and perfected his vision with a football player that also worked against stereotype: a third-round draft pick named Joe Montana. The two of them turned the offense into a living organism. You play the West Coast giving and taking, working with resistance and timing. It's more plotted, rather than a series of repeated attacks. Walsh scripted anywhere from the first 5 to the first 25 plays of his game, another apparent dissonance. Don't you work out strategy on the fly, with what the defense gives you?

The normalcy of the plan not only grounded the 49ers and confused their opponents, it turned Montana into the picture of cool, calm determination. For about 15 years, under Walsh and his disciple George Siefert, San Francisco fans never had to worry too much about their team not making the playoffs. Five of those years they came home with championships. Even with the focus on shorter pass patterns and aerial patience, they also nurtured the greatest receiver in the game's history in Jerry Rice. There was something in it for everybody.

And the picture of the NFL coach changed from hard-nosed general to careful strategist. Walsh turned the game of football, against all odds, into a thinking man's game. It went along with his character -- unabrasive, good-humored, a little self-deprecating, but never letting doubt derail his mission too much.

I don't speak much about the man himself -- or the massive credit he deserves for the great work of the Coaching Minority Fellowship Program -- because Walsh himself seemed deferential to the moment. His mood never intruded, and I certainly know of no instance when he let his emotions erupt. He seemed like a man of warmth, not heat; his cool confidence on the sidelines seemed to take more cues from Zen Buddhism than Pop Warner. But as with a lot of intellectuals, the strength of their character is often best seen in the personalities of those he's mentored, those who were willing to follow his guidance. Bill Walsh had a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of willing students. I think he still will in the future, in fact.

Even as his diagnosis of leukemia came in 2004, he didn't want to draw too much attention to himself, as John Ryan quoted him. "I'm not sure being tough or being a fighter has anything to do with it right now," he said. "You just live with it. And then be ready for whatever occurs. I've lived a great life."

Not to cramp the thinking man's style, but a holy amen to that, sir.


Niners Nation would no doubt appreciate your kind wishes.