You half expect his headset is playing Mozart.
Los Angeles Times
Bill Walsh sits somewhat uneasily at the head table at a Rotary Club of San Jose luncheon. The program began before the stragglers reached the buffet, which features veal bird in tomato sauce. Dr. Gail Fullerton, the president of San Jose State, Walsh's alma mater, is announcing the construction of a recreation and events center. Walsh sits with his fingers clasped before his chin, contemplative, a study.
It is certainly natural to be curious about Walsh. For 11 seasons he was an ambitious and brilliant NFL assistant coach but was never judged worthy of being entrusted with his own team. Word got about that there was something different about him, something that unsettled owners and general managers. He had a mind that saw deeply and in detail, they said; he could encompass two or three sides to a question. In the euphemistic world of football, that meant he was indecisive. They said he was a good, humane teacher, and that meant he was soft. They said he was a genius, and that meant he was too abstruse.
Finally, Stanford made him a college head coach in December 1976 and after two seasons there, he was given the 49ers, the 2-and-14 49ers. Three years later San Francisco was 16-3 and Super Bowl champion. After losing to the 49ers in the NFC championship game, Dallas Coach Tom Landry, certainly not an intemperate man, spoke for his proud team and many of his frustrated colleagues when he said, "The difference is Montana. There's nothing else there but him." Joe Montana was magnificent. But besides the quarterback, Fred Dean was there, and Jack Reynolds and three remarkable rookie defensive backs. And, above all, Walsh. To the casual observer, Walsh's success seemed a rebuke to professional football for not having used him better, for not having understood him. And that is nearly unfathomable, for few men are as capable of making themselves understood as Walsh.
July 25, 1982
Walsh, 50, has a telling face. In profile, his forehead and jaw are windswept and flinty, appropriate in his calling for projecting sureness in the maelstrom of battle. Full on, however, his features are mobile, softer than one might imagine, more complex. At the Rotary luncheon his bright-blue gaze roams the smoky room, straying above the mass of tailored businessmen, all stuck with buttons and ribbons and name tags.
The invocation has included the remarkable assertion, "I reject the stale calm of Utopia," apparently meaning that there must be more to life than contentment with California affluence. The Rotarians have murmured assent. Thus, spread before Walsh seems a prototypical pro football audience, corporate males hungry to add some adrenaline and risk and, perhaps, vicarious concussion to their low-struggle lives. Walsh thinks, "What can I possibly say to these people that they will care about?"
Walsh makes few such appearances. But friends and the school have collared him. Not that he truly minds. Such things are vaguely expected of an NFL coach. "And," Geri Walsh, his wife of 27 years, has said, "he doesn't waste energy being negative about anything that is part of his job."
It is also a measure of his positivism that, as his college coach, Bob Bronzan, rises to introduce him, Walsh doesn't muse about the two occasions he was passed over to coach San Jose State. Instead, he thinks of Bronzan: "He's one of those people who have been saying lately that they always knew I'd be successful. Well, they didn't know. I didn't apply myself at all at school."
Bronzan is 63 and trim, with a sharp, downturning grin that might convey either humor or hardness. Here, it is humor. Apparently clairvoyant, he at once rebuts Walsh's thought. "The good said about him now was said about him then," says Bronzan as he produces a letter of recommendation he wrote for Walsh in 1956. "Bill Walsh is destined to be among the best teachers and coaches San Jose State has ever graduated," he reads. "His ability and knowledge and interest leave nothing to be desired." Dropping the letter in Walsh's lap, Bronzan goes on to compare him with those coaches most influential in football history—Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Clark Shaughnessy—saying, "It is his great work to almost scientifically analyze the skills of his players and to devise tactics based on those."
When Bronzan finishes, Walsh takes the podium, smiling at his friend's tone, which has seemed to him more suited to the canonization of Mother Teresa. Great work, indeed. "I bet I showed that letter to 50 potential employers," he says as the chuckles begin to mount. "And it only took me 20 years to make head coach, so I could try to live up to it."
He takes this willing audience along some of that road. "You go through life wondering if your approach and judgments are the right ones," says Walsh. "Dick Vermeil and I were assistants at Stanford [in 1965] together. Then I worked as an assistant in the NFL with Oakland, Cincinnati and San Diego, while Dick [after one season as an assistant at UCLA and four with the Rams] became the UCLA head coach and won the Rose Bowl. Then, as head coach at Philadelphia, he rejuvenated that program and went to the Super Bowl. I always wondered whether I could come close to doing what he did. Could I turn on that energy and drive? I visited with him a lot, asking him how to do it." Walsh pauses, seemingly caught up in how it was, the doubt pressing in. "Then last year we won the Super Bowl, and now I'm getting calls from Dick Vermeil."
He says this with such astonished satisfaction that the room laughs with him and then falls silent, rapt. At last Walsh speaks of how he does it. "I believe human dignity is vital," he says. "You can only succeed when people are communicating, not just from the top down but in complete interchange. Communication comes from fighting off my ego and listening. Leadership comes from competence. Joe Montana became a leader, at first, because of his feet and arm. Because of performance. Leadership is by example, not talk. The players look to a coach for decisions in games. If those are good ones, the players will begin to have confidence in them."
Walsh describes various underpinnings of the 49ers' success, including the attention to detail, his trying to instill each day with a sense of urgency, the need to challenge his players intellectually. "How you look at your opposition is important," he says. "Rather than being obsessed with others, we work instead for a standard of performance. We didn't talk about winning at first, in 1979, when we were 2 and 14. We talked about improving our standards. The social and financial things in life are distractions. In football the distractions are the crowds, the travel, the officials, the weather, the odds. But if the standards are there, performance will be able to rise undistracted by all that."
He has been speaking with ascending urgency, as if his thoughts had been bottled up. Now he slows. "In 1980 we lost eight in a row. As the weeks went on, privately I'd almost break down and weep. Miami administered the eighth loss. I flew back asking myself if I could keep going. It was the critical point in my career. I knew we'd made progress, but would it take another man to actually win? We won the next three. The lesson is that often you're making the most progress when it seems the worst. You're maturing. The standards are rising. And that led to winning 15 of the last 16 last season. We simply went out and played our game."
Walsh concludes with a few words of praise for the ethics and the innovative approach to coaching that Bronzan passed on to him at San Jose State, and then he is engulfed by well-wishers. He has reached them, and they are giddy. "I'm in computers," says one man, seizing Walsh's hand with both of his own, "and what you said is as good for us as for football."
"I know," says Walsh. "I'll come work for you when things go sour."
The Rotarians are struck by his openness. Few men, in this profession that has always elevated the stoic and the terse, give luncheon speeches that describe themselves as having been on the verge of tears. As he leaves, the crowd parts deferentially, reluctantly, more curious than ever, it seems. "What a guy that would be to get to know," says one, as though wishing for a view from Columbia.
After all this, Walsh has the nerve to sit in his office and say he worries about himself as a public speaker. "I'm not an entertainer," he says, "and stories about football bore me. 'The time we did this....' I'm embarrassed trying things like that because it's not me." Yet Walsh doesn't need to be reassured that what is him, his careful thought, genuinely felt and expressed, may be far more powerful than the most entertaining of old stories. He's simply at pains now, as the glow of the championship fades and a new season looms, to resist the temptation to pontificate. Walsh reached his pinnacle for many reasons, but one of them was not so he could shout how others have been playing football all wrong, even if they have.
Walsh's candor is evoked, rather, by issues that can be turned and scrutinized, and perhaps never really settled. "Unfortunately, in my youth I got in the habit of reading two or three books at a time," he says, though why that is unfortunate is not clear. He has read extensively about the Civil War. "But it got so damned depressing, I've stopped that," he says. "The people are interesting, but the carnage was terrible." Walsh has read almost everything ethologist Konrad Lorenz has ever written. "He seems to me to come the closest to describing the causes of our behavior patterns, seeing us as more instinctive than environmentally influenced." Walsh also appears to have a soft spot for Robert Ardrey, the playwright who took up the study of early man. "Ardrey is kind of the Bruce Catton of anthropology," he says, "the popularizer, the risk-taker, drawing conclusions that others might not make."
Because he is not above drawing a conclusion or two himself, Walsh is thus a tempting man to talk football with, if you can get him on the subject. Yet, given a reasonably sensible question, Walsh often will construct a wondrously expansive answer. Asked whether it is fair to call coaching differences conflicting ideologies, he says, "In the Midwest, there's a philosophy or approach that people become students of, or parties to, personified by Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, which is based on fundamentals and disciplined play. Individual ability isn't much of a factor. Not that players are clones, but parts of a unit that functions methodically. Certain precepts control it. In each situation here is what you do. It's a sound approach, and the drills and appearance and values are similar from school to school. It's predictable, but they feel comfortable with that. It's as if one side says, 'We know where you're going and we're going to stop you' and the other side says, 'We know you know, but no, you're not.' Success then is related to execution, to superior personnel. If you have the best players, you want to create a situation in which the best win, if only marginally. That's conservative football—siege warfare. The somberness and drudgery can be overstated, of course. Hayes is an intelligent and scholarly man with more feeling for his players than almost anyone I've met. The problem is when an Indiana, say, without the personnel, tries again and again to compete that way. I'm not sure that such schools take full advantage of the game's rules."
Walsh, of course, has explored the rules. "In basketball the players are so good that they have gone beyond the rules," he says. "In football we have yet to reach their limit. Rock-solid fundamentals are important but don't give you the flexibility and options that we'd like to see. We talk about skills, not fundamentals. Skills you adapt to a person's abilities. We might teach the same pattern to Renaldo Nehemiah and Dwight Clark, but we'd allow for Skeet's speed and Dwight's strength; each would perform differently to take full advantage of his gift."
Once those skills are honed, the 49ers are better able to take advantage of Walsh's gift—a seemingly unending supply of plays and formations designed to baffle and amaze, and so create the certainty of an open man, an undefended area. The result in San Francisco has been a quirky, iconoclastic, emphatically unpredictable sort of football. It is true California football, never quite grasped before it changes, irreverent toward tradition, pressing at imagined limits and upsetting the doctrinaire to the point of causing moral disapproval.
Walsh is exuberantly Californian. The 49er offices in Redwood City are so casual that a visitor might think he had stumbled into a YMCA. The august silver football of the Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the Super Bowl champion, sits in a glass case just inside the front door where you can't look at it for all the hearty people going in and out. Walsh's office, presided over by his secretary, the euphonious Nicole Claudine Gisele Langerak, contains a sculpture in soldered brass of a receiver making a leaping catch, the defender in good position but outjumped. Tennis rackets abound. "Tennis is what saves me," says Walsh. When a visitor remarks on how the nutmeg-like fragrance of the star jasmine blooming outside evokes memories of childhood trips to the Bay Area, Walsh says, "Oh, yes. Smells can be the most powerful trigger. When we were in Cincinnati [where he was the Bengals' offensive coach from 1968 to 1975], there was a pine tree a block or two from our house. We'd go stand under it and close our eyes and imagine we were in the Sierras."
Walsh was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 1931. "We lived near the Coliseum and sports were just part of my life," he says. "There was no sense of it being ordained, my becoming a player or coach." As a sophomore, Walsh played on the George Washington High team with Hugh McElhenny, but then moved with his parents to tiny Central Point, Ore. A year later the family moved to Hayward in the East Bay, and Walsh graduated from Hayward High in 1949. He was a running back and a sprinter at Hayward. He ran 10.0 for 100 yards and, more impressive, 22.0 for 220. His speed was cut his senior year, however, by a torn quadriceps muscle, an injury made more lasting by a track coach who did not appear to believe it was real. "It related to my personality," says Walsh. "I was an easygoing, good-time guy. and I wasn't writhing in pain." You can see the scarred muscle in Walsh's right thigh today, and, as with most things in his life, the lesson has not been lost. "It illustrates the weight of a coach's responsibility," he says, "especially in football, where emotions can run to a savage degree. There, it's not just the danger of a pulled muscle, but of brain injury."
After two years at San Mateo Junior College, Walsh enrolled at San Jose State, majoring in education. Bronzan switched him to end. By then it was clear that if he were to make a memorable contribution to football, it would have to be as a theorist rather than as a player. "That letter Bronzan wrote was after grad school," Walsh says. "I was 24 and had been in the Army and was married and had a son. By then I was a better teacher for having played under Bronzan, who was organized and contemporary and without question overqualified for that job."
In retrospect, Walsh thinks he took his own sweet time in measuring up to Bronzan's example. "My first job as a head coach was at Washington Union High in Fremont [also in the East Bay]," he says. "I was 25, and I stumbled through. The team did well [having gone 1-26 over the three seasons before he arrived, Washington was 9-1 in Walsh's second year], but gosh, I needed seasoning. The kids liked me, but I was too emotional, too negative."
In 1960 Walsh was hired by University of California Coach Marv Levy. "He felt a local high school coach was needed," says Walsh, "and I happened to make the right impression. I was a good recruiter. I brought Craig Morton to Cal. But then Marv made me his defensive coordinator, which might have been his undoing." In 1963 John Ralston hired Walsh as an assistant coach at Stanford, where again he was to recruit. Later he coached defensive backs. He does not reflect on this period with much fondness. "I was a poor coach at Cal," says Walsh. "I was too demanding, too authoritarian. I was going to be the next Jim Owens." He tells no stories of haunting mistakes, but clearly the thought of the pushy young Walsh is sobering him.
"I feel an obligation to young coaches," he says. "At a clinic, for example, I'll go rapidly through a lot of technical football until they can't follow me anymore—until they know for sure that there is more to this than they know. Then I'll talk about the thoughtfulness that is needed in coaches. In the classroom it is sad, but not killing, if you're dull or negative. The kid can go to the next class. But on the field, his physical well-being, his ego and his basic character are at your disposal. Strong young men, with the chemicals flowing, are as emotionally charged as young men at war. It can be a tremendous experience, or it can leave permanent scars. We don't always entrust the responsibility for that experience to the right people. Young high school coaches, young college assistants—of every 10 you meet at a clinic or camp, maybe two or three are too hungry, think too much of themselves. They relate to the youngsters, know the buzz words, have the clothes, make a bright impression on parents, but the ambition is there, and with it the chance for recklessness, or misleading a player. They may be O.K. later, but not at that point."
It seems a point he feels fortunate to have escaped. "At all levels, the need is simply for experience," he says. "A man in his 40s is a better coach than a man in his 30s. He's generally mellowed, and he has fewer personal needs that control his behavior. He can see the athletes."
Walsh's vision began to clear in 1966, when Oakland hired him as backfield coach under Al Davis. Walsh, until then a defensive strategist (he had written his master's thesis at San Jose State on stopping the pro-spread offense), has called Davis "a truly great football coach," especially as an exponent of the passing game. "The Raiders had everybody catching the ball," says Walsh. Davis had worked for Sid Gillman at San Diego, and Walsh regards Gillman as one of the two coaches who brought intelligent passing to pro football. The other is Paul Brown, who before the 1968 season became Walsh's next employer, taking him on as quarterback and receiver coach for the new Cincinnati franchise. Walsh was then 36.
"Leaving Stanford and going to the pros might have been dumb," says Walsh, "but I was attracted to the technical, artistic part of the pro game. That reduced my chances for a head-coaching job because I got into the pro assistant syndrome, where you may be well paid, but you're perceived as possibly too much the specialist to be a head coach."
If he was a specialist, Walsh was certainly a spectacular one in Cincinnati, developing quarterbacks Virgil Carter, Greg Cook and Ken Anderson. Gone, or suppressed, was the earlier impatience and authoritarian bent. Sam Wyche, now Walsh's assistant for quarterbacks in San Francisco, was, as Wyche puts it, "a free-agent, walk-on, tryout, hopeful" quarterback at Cincinnati. "Bill was very precise," he says, "as was Paul Brown. Walsh taught in advance of our trying something, first drawing the play and describing your sequence of options. 'If he's covered, go to this man; if he's covered, go over here.' Then we looked at it on film, to see what we'd been visualizing. On the field we'd master it against one defense, then others. The advantage was that he got more plays in a game that way." Walsh also developed a swiftness of play-learning that allowed him to dream up and teach a play on Saturday and see it executed on Sunday, which he regularly does in San Francisco.
"Credit Paul Brown for giving me the latitude to explore," says Walsh. Yet Brown's old friends disdained Walsh's short passes to backs as second or third options. " 'Nickel and diming' they called it," says Walsh. "The pass just wasn't used that way."
The Cincinnati years, in the telling, seem a time when Walsh became more comfortable with himself, when his coaching character began to take on a richer individuality. "Bob Trumpy and I played golf with him once," says Wyche. "I'd taken up magic, and on one fairway I switched an exploding ball for Bill's. He went at it with a wood, and when it blew up he had such a look of amazement that Trumpy and I were rolling in the grass. We were players. Sure we respected him, but we weren't so much in awe that he couldn't be a friend. Lord, we wouldn't have done it with Brown."
No. Brown seems to have been the archetype of the hard, distant overseer. "He was a stickler for punctuality," says 49er Defensive Coordinator Chuck Studley, who rode to work with Walsh, arguing offensive and defensive theory five of the eight years Walsh was in Cincinnati. "On the other hand, Bill isn't acutely sensitive to time. Once our plane was heading out to the runway when the captain announced he'd been radioed to come back and pick up one of our party...."
"...I'd gone to the wrong gate," says Walsh, "and when I got it right, I came running up and saw the plane move away. Then I did the worst thing I could possibly do. I told the guy with the headset, 'I'm supposed to be on that plane.' He called it back. I should have taken a different flight, but there was no hiding then...."
"...And the only seat on the plane..." says Studley, who tells this with loving sympathy, "...was right next to Paul Brown," says Walsh, twisting in his chair 12 years later. "He stared straight ahead. So did I. We made our explanations later."
Communication between Brown and Walsh apparently was not the fullest. By 1974 Walsh knew he was ready to be more than an assistant coach. Brown was 65. Walsh faced a choice. Should he remain in Cincinnnati in hope of succeeding Brown, or think of going elsewhere? "I was eager to be a head coach," Walsh has said. "I at least wanted to be involved as a candidate. But Brown is a loyalist. The mere mention of another job might have messed me up with him and the Bengals. So I stayed quiet."
Walsh says that while he and Brown never spoke of who would replace the patriarch, Walsh came to feel he was the logical successor. "I think now," he said last January, "that I was never as close to getting the job as I believed at the time."
But he believed. Thus he was, to use his word, "shattered" when Brown turned the reins over to Bill Johnson in 1976. Walsh has long since rid himself of that disappointment, even before the 49ers beat Brown's Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Still, Walsh dislikes discussing it. It is past. "I think I accept the explanation Paul gave me for not giving me the job," he has said. "And that is, he was concerned I would return to California as soon as I got the opportunity, whether I was a head coach or not." Walsh says he was prepared to stay in Cincinnati indefinitely, but he does love California. One can understand Brown's worrying, especially if he got a look at Walsh inhaling under that pine tree.
But now Walsh had to move, or linger in the role of permanent assistant. He immediately took the job as offensive coordinator under Tommy Prothro at San Diego. In one year he worked his magic on Dan Fouts, turning him into the league's most prolific passer. But had Walsh not simply exchanged one assistantship for another?
"Tommy Prothro knows systematically where he stands in his own mind," says Walsh. "He showed me how strong a man can be in professional ethics, because he finally transcended his own interests." The occasion was when Stanford offered Walsh, at 45, his first head coach's job since high school. "Tommy spoke highly of me to Stanford," says Walsh. "We discussed the advantages. When I chose to go, he understood, even though it was a distraction to the team. That example is one I'd like to think I could live by. That standard."
Walsh's oldest son, Steve, 25, is a writer for Channel 4 News in San Francisco. An independent soul who left home at 17 to get into radio, he maintains a cheerful objectivity concerning his father. "I saw the frustrations under Paul Brown, though I wasn't able to recognize them," says Steve. "I thought Brown wasn't a half-bad guy when I was 12. My mother and I would watch the Bengals lose, and I'd say, 'So what, they're new. It's a game. It's only a game.' And my mother would say, 'You don't understand.' I could see the strain near the end. My dad seemed to be aging. But when he got to Stanford, it was like he was on vacation. His face was relaxed. He was coming back."
Under Walsh, Stanford went 9-3 and 8-4 and won the '77 Sun and '78 Blue-bonnet bowls. His quarterbacks were Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils, each of whom led the NCAA in passing for a season. He was revered by the faculty and the administration. Yet Geri, for one, suspected that for all of its rewards, Stanford would not be the last stop. "Even in Cincinnati," she says, "I couldn't understand why, if in a company you had good ideas and worked hard you got promoted, why not in football? But no, it's like show business. It calls for the big break."
She recalls the time after the 1977 season when Carroll Rosenbloom was looking for someone to replace Chuck Knox as coach of the Rams. Rosenbloom had amicable talks with Walsh. Indeed, Ram General Manager Don Klosterman, who sat in on them, reportedly said he thought Walsh was a cinch to be hired. But Rosenbloom delayed making a decision, and, after Walsh withdrew his name from consideration because he couldn't keep Stanford waiting, Rosenbloom hired George Allen, whom he would release two games into the exhibition season. Geri shakes her head. "I rest my case," she says.
The final break came in January 1979. The 49ers had just staggered through their worst season in history, 2-14. General Manager Joe Thomas had gone through four coaches in two years and had traded 14 draft choices. Owner Eddie DeBartolo fired Thomas and presented the jobs of coach and general manager to Walsh. Three years later, thanks to determined standard-raising and happening onto players like Reynolds and Dean, who were available because of contract difficulties with their old teams, San Francisco was 16-3 and the Super Bowl champion. "The longest continuous silence in professional football history," in the phrase of San Francisco Chronicle writer Lowell Cohn, was at an end.
Of course, as Walsh has said, there was far more to the 49ers' success than that. He once again molded a splendid quarterback, allowing the mobility and poise of Montana to find full expression. "It was intimidating the first year," says Montana, "having to learn the volume of things he taught. I had to forget college and start over."
Montana even now puzzles over his coach. "He's not a simply described man," he says. "I've never felt I've figured him out. You think you know him, and then he'll dress up as a bellhop, like he did at the Super Bowl. Once, when we were losing in his first season and players were in and out all the time, he showed up in a taxi-driver's cap and leather jacket, saying, 'Anyone need a lift out of town?'
"There is method in that. It's to take the pressure off. But even so, it's hard to be on any kind of intimate terms with the head coach. I know he cares about every player, but he'll help you in personal things only if you ask. It can't be any other way. He has to cut. He has to hire. He can't be a personal friend to players. I hope to be a good friend of his later, after playing."
One of Montana's prime targets, Freddie Solomon, echoes the quarterback's tone. "I love to watch the coach operate," he says. "He sees everything. I'm inquisitive, I want to ask more of him, but there's so little time, so much to do."
"Now don't totally glorify him," says Wyche, who as quarterback coach engages in perhaps the most constant dialogue with Walsh. "We're always irritating each other and making up," he says. "He's less tense now, but I can remember yelling, white knuckles. His patience is short with people who can't keep up." Indeed, Walsh has said apropos of his assistants, "I picked them because of basic respect for their intelligence. All you need to have anarchy is a dull person who's aggressive. If you've got one of those who thinks he's intelligent, you've got chaos."
Walsh also maintains that intelligence is related to the moral content of coaching. "You have to live with yourself," he has said. "If you are a reflective person, things stick in your craw. Misusing, misleading people, every instance affects you until you can't go on. The most sadistic are often the least intelligent. That's the extent of their reasoning."
Harsh sentences in black and white, those last two. "I want desperately to avoid the theme that I stand in judgment of others," says Walsh. "I haven't led a fully compromised life. I haven't cheated in recruiting, I haven't lied about a player's health. But so much of what we do is non-verbal. Experience and basic instincts combine to give you a sense of what to do next. To be finally successful, there has to be a little larceny in you. I don't plead innocent to everything. There is manipulation. We treat people differently, pat some and kick some, to get them going, to challenge them. You have to decide if it's damaging. Or permanently damaging."
Says Wyche, "He calculates. If you're on board, you're going to be a small part of a big plan. For example, his theory is that players and assistant coaches are in the same pot, equally able to be hollered at. He feels if an assistant has to take it, the players will ally with the assistants. Sometimes, for a second or two, I really disagree with that; on the field, say, when he yells, 'Sam, can't you get him to move his feet!' Now, I know that he is speaking to the player at times like that, and I'll always be loyal and roll with the punch, but right when it's happening you tend to grit your teeth."
In a way, Wyche's complaint, made as it is in public, is a compliment to Walsh's open system. Would Brown have countenanced such dissent? In another way, it is probably good for Wyche to disagree with his boss on something. "He's contagious," says Wyche. "You always retain more than you discard. Lately I'm picking up his mannerisms. I stand with my fingers touching my chest. I use the same phrases. I even happened to get the same glasses. People in the office said, 'Uh, oh, what's next? Silver hair?' "
Walsh met Geri while they were students at San Jose State. "The immediate attraction was that he was very good-looking and the senior hero," she says, as if disappointed at having allowed any of that to sway her. "He was kind.
"A lot of luck goes into a long marriage, in growing in compatible ways. We both had a deep interest in the children [besides Steve, they have Craig, 22, a senior at UC Davis, and Elizabeth, 11], but one reason we made it is that Bill is reasonable. I think I've had some input in his having empathy for the wives of his assistants [Walsh often writes "Take your wives to dinner at Ming's" on the blackboard during a long week]. He loves to go out to eat. He sees it as an act of mercy, saving me from cooking. I marvel at his helplessness in the kitchen when he's proficient at other things. He's been recalcitrant in that area."
She's saying this in the living room of the Walsh home in Menlo Park. Walsh and Elizabeth are away, rafting a section of the American River above Sacramento. Trained in interior design, Geri is the artist behind the whites and grays of the tile and carpet and furniture. White louvered doors open upon a pool and bird-song. Even Elizabeth's cat, Maui, fits the color scheme, being Siamese. There is a baby grand, which Geri plays. And now that the pinnacle has been reached, has she come to anticipate his quitting eventually? "I'm ready," she says. "But he'll be found dead at his desk at age 89."
Not if Walsh is to be believed. After last season he found himself exhausted. "Sometimes people are suited for things because they don't feel the full press of a situation," he says. "It doesn't seem to quite register what they've gotten into. In football, routine people can thrive. They don't necessarily do well, but it doesn't break their backs.
"Others become more aware all the time of the enormity of the job. The work expands endlessly, it seems, when they really understand all you can do. And they're borne down by it. I'm among those, and I've felt the press of the years. I've been at it 26 seasons without a break." The thought of retiring passed as quickly as he recovered from his exhaustion, but such is Walsh's nature that he will enter that region again each year.
A visitor has asked Steve how he might begin a story on his father. "It would be, 'There is compassion here, for the game, for the people,' " he says. "Something like that. Because that's the core of it. His constant drive is tempered by his humanity, his knowing the difference between reasonable demands and unreasonable ones. Perfectionism without obsession."
It sounds so simple. Of course, it's true. Even Walsh, at this self-effacing age, must agree with his son's assessment. "It's a basic and probably hereditary part of my character," he says. "If I have a facility, it is to sense people's feelings."
And if that sensitivity is what allows Walsh to teach, the game of football calls him always to do research. All his associates speak of his drifting away in conversation, his fork absently tracing elegant pass routes on the tablecloth. "If you can make decisions," he has said, "and you can convey thoughts to others and be organized, and you wish to coach, then all you need is a comprehensive sense of the game and its history—not the names, but the tactics that have been used, the basic moving equations that have developed. It's not quite like music, but it is not unlike it, either."
Bill, Geri and Elizabeth are trying to enjoy a week's vacation at a Lake Tahoe condominium. The unit in which they're staying is jammed in with dozens of others along the main highway. "The density of a development like this is disturbing," he says. "That it's here, and no one stopped it."
But the beach is only a few yards from their deck. Bill sits in intermittent sun in the one place where he can see only lake and trees and a gray front coming in, dropping early July snow on the surrounding peaks. Geri serves strawberries, slices of elk sausage and frosty glasses of wine. They watch Elizabeth running on the beach, throwing bread to a dozen or so gulls. She runs beautifully, balanced and strong and light. She has won the sprint and long jump in her school track meet. Heredity.
"I said, 'Let's race!' in the parking lot," says Walsh, "and here she was, flying past with her legs way high in front of her and way behind her, and I thought, 'What's this? A real runner, my daughter.' " Cold drops begin to fall, but Walsh continues to watch Elizabeth, who has blonde hair, clear eyes and a wonderfully expressive face that is now filled with the breathless joys of gull chasing. Geri has gone into the house, chilled, before he moves.
A favorite phrase of Walsh's, one Wyche has found himself using almost involuntarily, is "comfort zone," by which he means the natural tendency of a player or coach to be so happy with attaining a certain level of achievement that he fails to strive to improve himself. Now Walsh is asked whether he, whose job it is to shake people out of such stagnation, himself has reached a comfort zone.
"That hasn't seemed to happen," he says, "because I'm staring failure in the face all the time. It's a lack of confidence. There's an uneasiness about some people who are determined to do well, an anxiety at not reaching one's standards. Vermeil is that way."
This leads more or less logically into a short study of one ingredient of coaching he hasn't addressed—decisiveness. "It's not always best to be decisive, you know," he says, sitting up in the Tahoe condominium couch into which he has sunk. "Decisive shades into spontaneous, which goes right away to impulsive, and then you're in trouble."
The idea, he says, is to have a plan and still allow for the unforeseeable. "I've been reading about Nelson's battle with the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805," says Walsh. "He had 25 days to make his plan. He was outnumbered, but his plan worked. He had steps prepared for the contingencies, and the plan left a certain flexibility in the choices of his captains. That is the basis of football.
"The goal is to attack the other side with clean, sharp blows while you're moving faster than the opposition. That was Wellington. That was von Clausewitz. I don't relate football to warfare other than in those dynamics, but the military axioms of von Clausewitz about people under stress, about the individual soldier, make the best book on football."
To Elizabeth's delight, he tells a story from his Cincinnati days, when he took the two boys, then perhaps 12 and nine, fishing in Appalachian Kentucky, to a stretch of stream that had just been stocked. "The word had got out," says Walsh. "The whole town was lining both banks." He was dressed as a Californian; that is, white slacks, white tennis shoes, a dark blue shirt. He could have been sailing on the Bay. "Those mountain people wore overalls," he continues. "They had never seen anyone dressed like that. But they didn't say a word."
His first cast got hung up in a tree, which he had to climb, sending bark and twigs down on the crowd. Silence. His second cast became ensnared with the line of a fisherman across the river. Untangling it got the white slacks well soaked. "Still, no one said anything," says Walsh. "Except the kids, who shouted that the tackle box was floating down the river." Walsh ran after it, apparently for some distance, because when he returned, muddy and bedraggled, the natives had taught Craig and Steve how to fish. "But they never said a word to me," he says. "I was a three-time loser. I didn't deserve a fish." The story, as he tells it, is an assertion of common humanity. Elizabeth shakes her head at the train of mistakes. She stands near her father's elbow, as if to comfort him, and gets a hug.
Watching this scene, Walsh with his family at sunset, one is almost jealous that he has reached so high and stayed so normal, so modest, so reasonable. He confounds one last expectation—that attainments are somehow bought with a loss of human warmth. He has achieved success by using his sensitivity, moving his players and coaches with it, and never speaking ill of opponents. In a similar manner he has chosen, instinctively he would say, not to harbor bitterness from his treatment in Cincinnati, but to exult in the moral superiority of Prothro's example. To walk toward the light. Is it simply a matter of sartorial taste that he wears a white tennis sweater on the sidelines? One thinks of his silver Volvo, of all that white throughout his home. What can all this stand for? Goodness, obviously, and a man rightfully feared by all those steeped in ignorance and its concomitant violence.