Back to School

Bill Walsh, a teacher at heart, is free to be himself at Stanford
November 02, 1992

Out in the stillness of the parking lot, you offer a cocktail napkin to Bill Walsh so he can wipe the lipstick from his face. It is bright, Stanford scarlet—the smear, not the face. The face is tan and remarkably good-humored, considering that Walsh has just left a reception at the Los Altos Country Club, outside San Francisco, and it is not yet two hours since his Cardinal football team was dismembered by Arizona, 21-6.

Inside, with rueful candor, Walsh has told a cluster of Stanford alumni and friends how the team's speed was, is and maybe ever shall be reason for worry. "Arizona's defense found us out," he said, "but it's critically important for us to bounce back well." Stanford teams can't be counted on to be swift or deep, so they must never surrender the indefatigable spirit that is their essence, their sparkle.

Walsh had no qualms about pressing upon his Stanford players the offense he had run when he was the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "The whole network of terms had to be learned and applied, with really no room for mistakes," he told the Los Altos gathering. "And it was. The retention has been amazing, even of nuances I only mentioned once. But it was confounding today, against Arizona's tight man-to-man, when our receivers didn't have the speed to get open."

These alumni were extravagantly untroubled by the Arizona loss. This is Stanford. They winced and nodded with Walsh. They invoked the imperishable glory of Stanford's 33-16 defeat of Notre Dame on Oct. 4. Husbands hugged Walsh's wife, Geri. Wives planted so many fortifying kisses on Walsh that he needs the napkin in the parking lot.

"Ah, losing," he says. "It's not quite like this in the pros. It feels about the same to me, but it seems to be easier on these folks. You know, I don't even follow the professional game anymore. That's not a negative, just a state of mind. It's almost as if I never did it. I feel"—he pauses, drawing in air faintly scented by eucalyptus—"I feel like I've always done this."

If anyone is surprised that the NFL's coach of the 1980s took the Stanford job, then they don't know the first thing about Walsh. Or they're so consumed with the notion that the best use of a football mind is in the professional league that they see conspiracy where there is only love. "People say there must be some hidden agenda." says Walsh. "There was a rumor that I took the job to train the staff to be ready to take on a new franchise. People forget my age, which is 60. They act like I'm forever clawing upward to the top rung. Or they say there must be money."

Stanford made Walsh about the fourth-best paid coach in the Pac-10) (at $350,000 a year) and gave him a loan to help with a new house in nearby Woodside. NBC was ready to keep paying him $1 million a year to remain a color commentator. "Our 'negotiation' was hilarious," says Stanford athletic director Ted Leland. "Bill accepted our first offer. We got to perks. I said, Take six cars.' He said. 'No, no, I only need one.' "

He didn't come to drive. He came to teach. When he began to diagram his first play at Stanford, he was flooded with the thought that if he had gone on with broadcasting, he might never have done this again, might never have engaged in his life's defining art, specifying to each player his assignment on the 20 Halfback Curl X Up. The prospect filled him with the dread of a narrowly escaped accident. "I didn't want to do this for anything," he says. "I just wanted to do it."

The real mystery of Walsh then is why he is perpetually regarded as being mysterious. Yes, he created a system of offense rich in deception. Yes, he succeeded in the professional game, where, as Leland puts it, "There is no room to show any human weakness." But football's reluctance to take him at his word goes back further than that. Let us skim the road that has returned him to Stanford and count the reasons why football has resisted seeing him accurately the whole of his working life.

Walsh has coached at Stanford twice before. He assisted John Ralston in 1963-65 and returned as head coach in 1977-78, in part to rise above the reputation he had acquired in between. He had labored for eight years as offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals, developing quarterback Ken Anderson, and then was passed over when owner Paul Brown gave up the coach's job. Stunned, Walsh put in a year with the San Diego Chargers, working his magic on Dan Fouts and solidifying his reputation as a wonderful mentor of quarterbacks and deviser of offenses who was, nevertheless, too abstract, too bloodless to be entrusted with command.

His two seasons as Stanford's coach allowed him to bury that notion. His teams went 17-7, won the 1977 Sun Bowl and the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl, and moved San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo to present him with the 2-1449ers. Three years later, with the blossoming of Joe Montana under Walsh's guidance, the 49ers were 16-3 and the 1982 Super Bowl champions.

His first postchampionship team went 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. But Walsh brought the 49ers back better than ever the following season, and they blew out Miami, 38-16, in the 1985 Super Bowl. They were better still after selecting Jerry Rice in that spring's draft. Always, Walsh crafted his high-percentage, short-passing offense according to his sense of the particular gifts of his athletes. Always, he chose assistants who welcomed and employed human diversity.

In an important sense, Walsh football could not be divorced from Walsh the man. He was president, head coach and offensive coordinator for the 49ers. So his football was the sum of his personal judgments of players, coaching and tactics. Five current NFL head coaches—George Seifert of the 49ers, Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Holmgren of the Green Bay Packers and Bruce Coslet of the New York Jets—make up a short list of the many in whom Walsh has seen an ineffable something. Walsh could not have done what he has done without being a very sensitive man.

And this made for a lasting irony. "In the pros," Walsh says, "I felt great affection for the players, but I couldn't demonstrate it. I was the employer. If I were to keep a player on too long out of friendship, I would be compromising the interests of the entire venture. I remember thinking, in a game we were losing, Here's Joe Montana, the greatest quarterback ever to play, and he is not up to what we need today, and Steve Young should be in there. Is friendship going to overshadow the ethic of the job? I made the substitution. I did the job. And in a way, Joe's never forgiven me for that."

The more the 49ers became a dynasty, the more difficult Walsh found it to release players who had sacrificed for the team. "Looking into the future of Joe, Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Mike Wilson, I really wondered if I could sit down with them and ask them to step away from the game, when they'd been so much of my life," says Walsh.

As the 49ers struggled to a 6-5 start in 1988, Walsh took emotional stock. "I had a waning intensity. I was weary of the daily press-sparring. I thought of delegating more. The guts of our success on the field was my being offensive coordinator. But the longevity of the team's excellence was through drafting and developing talent. I knew I couldn't say, 'Someone else run that, I'll just coach.' And I knew that after 10 years I didn't have the drive and the insensitivity to family and friends to continue as I was."

The 49ers roared back to win Walsh's third, and most dramatic, Super Bowl, defeating Cincinnati 20-16. Four days later Walsh resigned as coach, though he stayed on as general manager until July. He prevailed on DeBartolo to ensure continuity by making Seifert, his defensive coordinator, the 49er coach. Yet he never called the team together to say he was retiring, and many of his players were offended. "He used to be a players' coach," said Lott. "He'd crack jokes, be sarcastic. But he started to change after the second Super Bowl. The media started calling him a genius and prying into his private life. He was really distant after that."

"He was the type who had everything, but he could never enjoy it," said tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "He was miserable."

Perhaps he was, but not because he lacked feeling for others. "I could have left the 49ers in a more dramatic way," says Walsh. "You want to get up and make an emotional speech, and you can't because your nerve endings are exposed. You know you'll never be able to finish. I was determined to go out the way my players went out, with the emphasis on my replacement. But I have had a hard time talking to 49er players after retirement."

Because he had hewed to the coach's "ethic" and stifled his affections, few players sensed his real feelings, and then only dimly. Walsh's tone is a mixture of irony and embarrassment when he says, "I'm called 'calculating' and 'insensitive' when I can't speak my heart, because I know I'll break down."

"A lot of us never knew," says Wilson, who has joined Walsh at Stanford, "but as we've matured and thought and talked, we've understood that there was a great deal we didn't see of Bill."

It quickly began to haunt Walsh that as long as he was a part of the 49er operation, Seifert would have a hard time relating to players as an authoritative head coach. So when NBC sounded out Walsh's interest in broadcasting, it found a receptive man.

Television and Walsh did not bring out the best in each other, and Walsh quickly sensed the reason why. He wanted to teach. TV wanted to entertain. Few of Walsh's hopes about making clear a game's tactical shape, its coaches' moves, adjustments and adjustment to adjustments came to fruition. Walsh wasn't bad by anyone's standards. But he was unrevealed.

"Substance is not a major factor in broadcasting," he says. "They look for the good lines, the quote of the day."

But for two years Walsh was a game apprentice, calling his new craft an adventure. He needed it to fill the astoundingly large hole left by the loss of his old craft. He craved his game. "It was the aesthetic end of the art form I'd spent 20 years developing. My offensive system was the essence of my recognition and feeling of accomplishment, and to step away from that and have it become someone else's in a matter of hours.... I watched with envy. I watched with a sense of this being...plagiarism."

Coaching was inextricable from life. "I am a man who draws pass patterns on his wife's shoulder," Walsh says.

After two years in broadcasting, he was ready to quit. DeBartolo and Seifert suggested some sort of nebulous but well-paid consultant's role with the 49ers, and last January, Walsh said he would drive to the 49er offices so he and Seifert could try to define his place. On the way Walsh saw an entirely different light.

Stanford had lost Green to the Vikings, and Leland had let Walsh know he was welcome to the job but held out no hope because Walsh had already recommended San Jose State coach Terry Shea. Suddenly Walsh realized that if Shea would join him, and if he could attract some former 49ers—what better way of reaching out to them?—he could fill the void. Shea was touched and eagerly agreed to assume a subordinate role. Walsh was finally home.

Walsh had been fascinated by Joseph Campbell's lectures on public television on the power of myth. Walsh always seeks what moves most deeply in men. So when he was grilled by the press on his reasons for accepting the Stanford job, Walsh summoned a Campbell phrase. "This is my bliss," he said.

A day after he took the job, as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling of a Bakersfield, Calif., motel room on his first recruiting trip in 14 years, an icy thought stole in: "What on earth have I done to myself?" That question reverberated until the next day, when he convinced tackle Jeff Buckey, 6'5", 290 pounds, a 4.0 GPA who had eliminated Stanford from his list, to change his mind.

After the Arizona game, which dropped the Cardinal to 5-2 and out of the Top 10 in the polls, the nature of that bliss became something of a running joke, but Walsh fits Stanford well. It is the style of both to blend informality with high performance. The school has 12 Nobel laureates and six Pulitzer Prize winners on its faculty of 1,380. Stanford teams won more NCAA titles last year than any other school (five) and was runner-up in two others. The athletic budget is $26 million, yet the football offices are modest, and no space in the dusty parking lot is reserved for Walsh's Chevy Silverado truck.

Undergraduates make up half of Stanford's enrollment of 13,000. For each place, 10 high school students had applied. In Stanford's football media guide, 54 of 97 players are cited for academic honors. "At other schools," says Walsh, "you see groupings of serious students and groupings of mercenaries. That hurts teaching. Here everyone is serious."

If the top 50 Division I football schools each sign 20 recruits per year, that means they are dragging their nets through a pond of 1,000 high school players. The NCAA requires incoming freshmen to score at least 700 on their SATs, and doing so will get a player admitted to most of those colleges. But not Stanford.

"We'll quickly admit an athlete with a 1,200 SAT score and a 3.5 grade point average in high school," says Walsh. "We'll struggle with someone with 1,000 and 3.0. Our [team's] average is 1,200 and 3.4."

Stanford's entrance requirements winnow the players Walsh can court from 1,000 to 45 or 50 extraordinary scholar-athletes. "And those 45 players with the grades might be all kickers," says Walsh. "So it's very possible for us to go years without receivers or defensive backs."

Yet Walsh's tone as he lays out Stanford's plight is curiously exultant. "That's why it's important for Stanford to succeed," he says. "It can be done. I defend our entrance standards. Stanford coaches have to draw from our athletes all they're capable of intellectually, so the players will find themselves caught up in and thriving on the work."

"One day in spring practice," says Shea, who is the offensive coordinator, "the coaches were taking a fairly aggressive tone. Suddenly Bill stopped the drills. 'Stop screaming,' he said, 'and start teaching.' "

Of course, bliss isn't always nirvana. This is college football, after all. Walsh is made most combative by the things that opposing recruiters say about Stanford. "They are like little Ollie Norths—reckless, aggressive, running around letting someone else be their conscience," he says. "Once a head coach says to an assistant, 'I don't care how you get him, just get him,' that assistant is free to say Stanford is stifling, that Stanford doesn't care about athletes. They ask kids not, will [Walsh] go to another job, but, how long will I be around, period? Or how can I coach at this stage of my life?

"My fundamental rule in recruiting is, Don't plead," says Walsh. And so it is a mild surprise to learn that his 19 recruits are said to be the equal of any in purely football terms. Walsh told his players that he couldn't stand being called sir, and that plain old Bill was fine. It took months before a few tried it. "But they're getting more comfortable with me," Walsh says. "I hope that will continue. Unconsciously, I conceive of myself as more of an assistant coach, having been one far longer than I've been a head coach. When people pay homage, I get kind of stuck." What can seem craggy aloofness in Walsh is more a kind of shyness, a wish to head off gushy praise.

The photos in Walsh's office speak of a wide-ranging acquaintanceship. Neil Simon is there, and Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate. While still with the 49ers, Walsh called Stockdale after being staggered by his book on his experiences as a POW in Vietnam. "I invited him on team trips and into meetings, and he became fascinated," says Walsh.

Stockdale was the only civilian, as the admiral puts it, in the 49ers' team meeting the night before Walsh's final Super Bowl. He speaks of the experience as one of his honored life's highest honors. "What a great leader Walsh is," says Stockdale. "He is absolutely straight with his men. No matter what pressure he was under, he never lashed out at anybody. I've had experience with tough guys all my life. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society is full of them. No one can top Bill for compassionate, clean effectiveness."

Stockdale is a senior research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, whose tower, with a little craning, can be seen from Walsh's office window. Also there is former Secretary of State George Shultz, who last spring had the Walshes to dinner along with a select group of eminent scholars on economics and foreign affairs. Each spoke about problems the country faces in his or her area. When it was Walsh's turn, he was not without ammunition.

He began by saying that SAT scores are up marginally in San Francisco and Oakland inner-city schools because, he said, so many of the kids have dropped out and don't take the tests. Formerly ferocious football high schools have faded because manhood and money are now bestowed less through sports than through gangs and drugs. Walsh said he saw the ghetto turning inward and that we have to change that before it explodes. He proposed a plan to lure children back to schools by doubling the number of teachers and maintenance workers, doubling security to create a structured environment and offering sports, art, drama and vocational training. "That's to get them back," he said. "Then you teach them a little English."

He went on to propose some sort of universal service for young people. "Costly, but a way of breaking down the concrete social strata, a way of getting kids out of the inner city to serve and learn. Then, if they go back, they'll be changed."

Two weeks after the dinner, the Los Angeles riots erupted. Walsh took no comfort in being right, but his grasp of the issues was evidently impressive. Says Stockdale, "If I were president, I'd appoint him to a commission on the problems of the inner cities. He draws an audience of all social classes, from high-rolling fans to the horribly downtrodden."

Walsh will have other chances to influence opinion. The business school and the psychology department at Stanford want him to lecture. He has been interviewed by the Harvard Business Review about keeping executive ego from stifling communication and how to foster individual creativity within a disciplined framework.

For more than a year Geri Walsh has been ramrodding the remodeling of a 1927 adobe ranch house on four acres in Wood-side, 10 minutes from Stanford. "The grounds were untouched for 35 years, and impenetrable," says Walsh as you pass within a thick adobe wall and see the red-tile roofed structure. "There were roses 50 feet high." Now the earth is bare save for groupings of redwoods, oaks and olive trees. The walls and the dust are the same dun hue. "Kind of Tijuana-jail," says Geri.

Walsh takes you through the house, and in room after room he lifts his gaze to new skylights. It seems a joy to him, metaphorically and actually, to let in light.

The house has only two bedrooms, but there will be a wine cellar, and a putting green, and a pool, and beyond the wall two acres of chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes, and above the vines, a view of the wooded Santa Cruz foothills.

"If coaching has a payoff, this is it," says Walsh, acknowledging that college coaches ought not aspire to quite such a retreat. "It took a couple of Super Bowls to afford this."

The vineyard should yield a hundred cases a year. "Walsh Wine sounds kind of flat." says Geri, who is ready to start designing a label. "We'll have to think of another name."

It is tradition on game days that anyone can join the Stanford players as they walk the quarter mile from Encina Gym, where they dress, to Stanford Stadium. Before the Arizona game, as the helmeted, scarlet-and-white-clad athletes passed adoring kids and tailgating families, they seemed suspended a finger's breadth above the earth. Perhaps it was just that they wore long cleats. You found yourself with Keena Turner and Wilson, both former 49ers, both brand-new Stanford assistant coaches.

"A lot of people were upset at Bill hiring us without coaching experience," said Turner. "But it's just a case of his vision, nothing new. It's like back in '82 when he put in three rookie defensive backs, and we won it all.

"The fun did leave for him near the end with the 49ers," continued Turner, who kept in touch with Walsh. "I just felt it was so stupid, considering what we'd been through together, to feel any reason we couldn't be lifetime friends."

Some hours later, well after the game, linebacker Ron George, an All-America candidate, is one of the last players to make the long walk back. He will not hear any listing of reasons why Stanford was at a disadvantage in the game.

"If you believe, as a player," he says in a fine wild rush, "that Arizona was fresher because they had a week off, or that we were down after playing Notre Dame and UCLA, you begin to look for excuses, and then you forget the inner element that got us here. What's hard is asking yourself, as I often do, What do I play for? A lot of the reason is in playing well, and a lot is in the win. When you don't get the prize.... I mean, it's a fleeting prize at best. How long does it last, an evening? So you honestly think, Why am I doing this? As long as I've played, I always forget that I will be eager again by next Monday."

The fans have thinned. "You want every fan to be as consumed by the fire of the game as you are," says George, "and of course not all of the fans at Stanford are. There are a lot of other fires here."

Thirty yards ahead, Bill and Geri Walsh walk hand in hand, apparently wordless, their privacy intact. You ask George, this fount of honesty, how Walsh is doing. "We don't talk about the coaches much," he says. "But for some reason, some players sat last week and tried to figure how much of our going 5-1 was us and how much was them. We took a lot of credit, sure, but we had to admit that Coach Walsh is a teacher at many levels. Of coaches, of players, of the community. Look, all our players got here because we had a thirst for the game. So Coach Walsh stays excited with us because he's excited about teaching. I mean, what's hard about seeing that?"

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERFor tight end Ryan Wetnight and his teammates, a Walsh practice is like a classroom. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERArizona defensive backs like Brandon Sanders (18) were too fast for Cardinal receivers. PHOTOTOM LYNNLinebacker Toby Norwood flattened tailback Lee Becton in the Cardinal win over the Irish. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWalsh was in his element with Stanford in '77 (above) and with the Super Bowl champion 49ers in '85 (left), but he and TV were ill-matched. PHOTODAVID MADISON[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWalsh's recruits must be able to measure up to Stanford's tough academic standards. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERGeri attacks the Walsh home renovations with the same drive that Bill brings to football.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)