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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007
Coach left indelible mark on the game he loved
"The Genius" is gone but his legacy lives on.
An era came to an end on July 30 when Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh passed away at 75 following a long bout with leukemia.
Walsh's death reverberated across the landscapes of the NFL and college football, where legions of his former charges now spread the gospel of his famed West Coast offense. More than 15 of them have been or currently are head coaches in the NFL.
But Walsh's passing hit home even harder for those of us who loved him most — the fans of the San Francisco 49ers. What he did for the franchise and the Bay Area endeared him to the "49er Faithful" forever.
When he took over as coach of the team, in 1979, it was literally in shambles.
In just three short seasons Walsh revived it with his magical offensive schemes and ability to identify talent, coached the club to three Super Bowl titles and helped set the table for two more.
Having grown up a 49ers fan in San Jose, I experienced firsthand the frustration that went along with rooting for the Niners.
Going all the way back to the team's beginning in 1946, in the All-America Football Conference, the 49ers had never won a championship — until Walsh arrived on the scene.
The victory that still resonates to this day was in the 1982 NFC Championship Game over the Dallas Cowboys, the contest best remembered for Dwight Clark's catch of Joe Montana's touchdown pass in the final minute.
With that one play the 49ers were able to exorcise the ghosts of years past — particularly losses to the Cowboys — and open the door that would lead them to become the first franchise to win five Super Bowls.
Walsh was so dynamic in his approach that he frequently had his opponents off balance. The drive that led to "The Catch" was a perfect example.
The 49ers had rumbled into the NFC title game that season with a 13-3 regular-season record on the arm of Montana, who was then in his third season as a pro.
When the 49ers took possession of the ball at their own 11-yard line, trailing 27-21 with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, just about everybody at Candlestick Park — and the millions tuned in on television — expected to see Walsh have Montana try to drive the team down the field via the pass.
But in typical Walsh fashion, he did exactly the opposite.
Instead of throwing the ball, he relied on journeymen running backs Ricky Patton and Lenvil Elliott to run the ball and put Montana in position to hit Clark with the decisive score.
It was a pure stroke of genius from the man who came to be known by the same nickname.
With the Cowboys in a "prevent" defense to guard against the pass, Walsh saw the opening.
That game was 25 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of those seminal moments in sports where a master at his craft was performing on a big stage — in this case two masters.
Though Walsh, who coached Stanford to three bowl victories during two tenures there, will be remembered most for his on-field accomplishments, what he did off the field was just as impressive.
He founded the Minority Coaching Fellowship Program in 1987, which gave young coaches of color a long-overdue chance to get a foot in the NFL door.
Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, participated in the program, and last season became the first black to lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl.
Walsh was always identified with Xs and Os, but there was so much more to the man.
His drafting of Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, plus the acquisition of Steve Young and Fred Dean, illustrated just how skilled he was at assessing potential, but he also recognized that being successful at the highest level took more than just physical ability.
Early in his tenure he brought in the noted sports sociologist, Dr. Harry Edwards, to counsel players on the 49ers. It was a progressive move by a progressive individual.
"He walked with generals, senators and secretaries of state, but never lost his common touch," Edwards said of Walsh at a memorial service on Thursday.
Something Walsh said many years ago, about the importance of improving his team each season, remains with me to this day. I reflect upon it frequently.
The wisdom could be applied to anybody in their personal or professional lives:
"You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse. If you stay the same, you are getting worse."
Truly words to live by.