In the last four seasons, the San Francisco 49ers have made it to the NFC championship game three times. Both times they won that game, they went on to win the Super Bowl. Discounting the strike-shortened season as an aberration, the overall record of those three San Francisco teams is 45-11. This year's team won 18 of 19 games, allowed the fewest number of points in the league, and in Sunday's Super Bowl, not only scored 38 points but also shut down the most prolific passing offense the NFL had ever seen. All this might not make Bill Walsh a genius, but it gives him the right to say something other than "Aw shucks, it wasn't nothing." Given the choice of listening to false modesty or immodesty, I'll pick immodesty every time.
So will Walsh.
Which is, apparently, why he is not the most popular fellow in the league.
It's one thing to be a coach and have to watch Walsh pluck you clean and leave your feathers blowing in the wind. It's quite another to have to watch Walsh pick his teeth with your bones.
For example, immediately after the Super Bowl, Walsh said, "All in all, I'd have to say it was a great performance by what is truly a great football team . . . . We are clearly the best team competing today -- including some of the major universities."
He did it again today, summing up a variety of reasons why his 49ers won, saying, "It just came to pass that Miami played a better team and was beaten."
Thank you, Miss Jones. Next.
Walsh stands there, a cultured pearl of a man with silver hair and steel rims, delivering body shot after body shot to a corpse. No, he wasn't surprised at anything Miami did. No, he wasn't surprised at the relative ease with which his defense handled Dan Marino. "We were simply a superior defense." Nor was he surprised at the way his offense marched methodically -- and at the same time almost casually -- up and down the field. "We saw that we could move the ball on them immediately." Nothing about the scope of the victory surprised him. Very few football coaches on this level would even dare think such things, let alone say them. Walsh not only says them, he says them authoritatively.
And then there are the things he doesn't say, the things he leaves implicit, for the rest of the world to say for him. By now almost everyone knows that the 49ers -- exclusively on offense and generally on defense -- are an extension of Walsh personally and of his philosophies that defensive football should be stunning and decisive and offensive football should be controlled and acquisitive; there is probably no team in all sports that has been more carefully selected and finely calibrated by one specific hand than the 49ers. So if the 49ers are "great" and "dominating," then who should get the credit but Walsh? And when he says of Marino, as he did today, " . . . this awesome passer, going into the game it appeared he couldn't even be slowed down, let alone stopped . . . ," and you know, because you saw, that Marino was throttled out there, who should get the credit but Walsh? And when he calls Joe Montana "without question the greatest quarterback in football today, the greatest quarterback football has seen in some years," and you know, because Montana has said it, that all he does is drive the car he's given, who should get the credit but Walsh?
Make no mistake, Walsh's profession is football coach. But he is not on the same page as the rest of them in the NFL. Sometimes, I suspect, by design as well as good fortune. He often seems too delicate, too urbane, too clean and polished to be wasting his time around fat men in cleats. It took him so long, until he was 50, to become a head coach in the NFL, and now, every other year or so it seems, he's threatening to quit and saying something about how the game is draining too much out of him, exhausting him, until once again becoming convinced that it's in everyone's best interests for him to stay on. On the one hand, he is like Hamlet brooding how "the time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." And on the other, a little like Diana Ross telling a stagehand to "turn up the house lights, baby, so I can see all the people who love me."
Yet with all his transparencies, I find Walsh refreshing. Not so much because he can talk about things other than football; there's merit in that, but there's no shame in devoting yourself to one discipline. I like Walsh because he's not afraid to cut himself away from the herd. When you ask him if winning this Super Bowl gives him a feeling of personal accomplishment, he doesn't hide behind a team, or a set of coaches and players, or a library of game films. He says, "It's a great personal satisfaction. You have to be so darn guarded in my business, because every week you play someone else who's ready to take you out. But there's no game next week, so I can talk now. At this point I take a lot of pride in our offense, the dimensions of it, the fact that we use all our receivers. I think absolutely that we are the most prolific offense in football." And that's his offense he's talking about. He built it from the ground up, then found just the right kind of intelligent yet malleable players to execute it. As much as he likes to talk about art and wishing he was an artist, his are the clean, precise lines of an architect.
And I like him because he's not ashamed of his ambition. A couple of years ago, after his first Super Bowl, Walsh conceded that becoming a head coach so late -- he was 47 when he was hired at Stanford -- would surely limit his contribution to the game he had loved since his California childhood. "I'll never dominate the game like a Bear Bryant did," Walsh said. "I'll never own it. But I'd like to have pushed it a little."
There's an old story about great coaches gathered in a room together around a blackboard. The offensive geniuses diagram something unstoppable only to see the defensive geniuses thwart them with something impenetrable. It goes on for hours until only one coach is left awake, and it is he who says, "Last guy with the chalk wins."
I'd give my chalk to Walsh.