Bill Walsh | 1931-2007

Former 49ers Coach, NFL Innovator, Dies at 75

As one of the greatest minds in the history of football, Bill Walsh's innovations have trickled down through the NFL for more than 20 years.
As one of the greatest minds in the history of football, Bill Walsh's innovations have trickled down through the NFL for more than 20 years. (Steve Castillo - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh, the professorial coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and molded the playing style of pro football as it neared the turn of the century, died yesterday at his Bay Area home after a three-year battle with leukemia.

Walsh, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was 75.

"In the recent or modern history of the NFL," said Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick, "no coach has been more influential and innovative than Bill Walsh."

Walsh coached the 49ers for only 10 seasons but that was enough for him to become known as "The Genius" for his offensive wizardry. Football as it was played by Walsh's 49ers was more poetry than brute force. His skillfully choreographed system of short, quick-hitting passes became known as the West Coast offense and was widely copied by other NFL coaches in the decades that followed.

"The offensive philosophy that he installed in those great 49er teams more than 25 years ago will remain his legacy and is still very much a part of the NFL to this day," said another Hall of Fame coach, Don Shula.

After graduating from San Jose State and a stint in the Army, Walsh began his career as a high school football and swimming coach in Fremont, Calif., and reached the pro ranks working for Al Davis with the American Football League's Oakland Raiders in 1966 and also worked for Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals. He took his first head coaching job at Stanford in 1977, winning two bowl games, before going to the 49ers in 1979 at age 47. He inherited a team that had won only two games the previous year, but installed Joe Montana as the starting quarterback and won the Super Bowl after the 1981 season, Walsh's third with the team.

The 49ers also won Super Bowls under Walsh after the 1984 and '88 seasons, and the club won two more championships under his successor, George Seifert. Walsh left the 49ers' sideline but returned to the front office after a stint as a broadcaster and coaching at Stanford a second time for three seasons. He also helped out in the athletic department at San Jose State and wrote books and taught graduate business classes at Stanford, where he also served as interim athletic director last year.

"He set a mark on the game that is admired by everyone, and he will be greatly missed," Bengals owner Mike Brown said.

Said Billick, who once worked for Walsh as the assistant public relations director of the 49ers and co-authored a book with him: "We should call what many teams currently run exactly what it is -- the Walshian offense. His mark on the NFL is also seen by the Walsh [coaching] tree. He doesn't get enough credit for the work he did behind the scenes to advance his assistants. He was tireless in promoting his fellow coaches. Like others, I could never repay him for how he helped me. The best we can all do to salute Coach Walsh is to do the same for our fellow coaches."

Walsh's football legacy also included a commitment to promoting the careers of minority coaches. He created a fellowship program for minority coaches in the late '80s, years before the NFL pushed for more diverse hiring practices under the threat of litigation in recent seasons. He helped to establish the NFL's now-abandoned overseas league that was designed to develop players and spread the sport's global appeal.

"His Hall of Fame coaching accomplishments speak for themselves, but the essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary teacher," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released by the league. "If you gave him a blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of wisdom. He taught all of us not only about football but also about life and how it takes teamwork for any of us to succeed as individuals.

"He helped the league on many important initiatives, from improving opportunities for minorities in coaching and the front office to our executive training and international development programs. Bill Walsh was a mentor to me and many others. He revolutionized the game with his West Coast offense and will always be remembered as one of the most influential people in NFL history."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company