Bill Walsh ... A Mind Worthy of Stanford
Bill Walsh on the sideline (September 19, 1992)
Staff Columnist
Posted Jul 31, 2007

Football will always remain a physical sport. Violent collisions at the line of scrimmage will always determine how most games unfold. But in the late 1970s and the early 1990s, a man who made his name in pro football brought his vision to the college game. How entirely appropriate it was that Stanford became the collegiate football home for head coach Bill Walsh, who died Monday at age 75.

Before and after the white-haired wizard became a pro football legend with the San Francisco 49ers, he took Stanford--you know, the program that floundered under Walt Harris and has generally been a Pac-10 whipping boy over the past half-century (in marked contrast to the first half of the 20th century)--to bowl games. The 1977 and '78 seasons delivered bowl berths to Palo Alto, and on New Year's Day of 1993, there was Walsh--once again in Stanford colors--presiding over a 24-3 Blockbuster Bowl beatdown of Penn State and Joe Paterno. Two tours of duty roughly 15 years apart with different generations of college kids, and it didn't matter: Bill Walsh won at Stanford. No wonder the "genius" label fit him so easily, even when Joe Montana and Jerry Rice weren't on his roster.

As William Ernest Walsh is laid to rest, the nation's football fans are remembering three main accomplishments from his decorated career: the three Super Bowl victories (in just ten NFL seasons), the longer-than-long coaching tree he started, and the West Coast Offense he formulated. But those achievements--towering as they are--are unable to fully express the enormity of the contributions Bill Walsh made to football.

Why is it fitting that Stanford became Bill Walsh's collegiate football home, the scene of his successes at the NCAA level? It's because the academic powerhouse was a worthy venue for a man who, more than any other, turned football into equal parts professorial seminar and visual showcase. With Walsh on the sidelines, Stanford students in the late '70s and early '90s were able to add two classes to their already massive credit loads when they sat in the bleachers on Autumnal Saturdays. Cardinal football became a combination of graduate school philosophy and fine arts courses, a display of both theoretical brilliance and gorgeous artistic expression. While a number of SEC schools (and a few others around the United States) have coaches teach low-credit courses on how to compile playbooks, Walsh--at Stanford--could have made a truly rigorous and legitimate academic discipline out of a football class, had he possessed the desire to create such a thing. If football ever had a professor, Bill Walsh fit the part.

In the history of football, there have been a number of great innovators and teachers. But when Bill Walsh began his career as a head coach, the sport--for all the advances it had made over the first several decades of the 20th century--still followed some basic patterns that had yet to be questioned. First and ten was a running down. Third and two was a running down. Passes were meant to either move the chains or hit the long bomb for six points.

Walsh had a different vision for how the sport could and should be played in the final decades of the 20th century. He didn't just create new formations and plays the way other great football minds have done over the years; Walsh managed to overturn some central assumptions that had dominated the sport since its humble and primitive beginnings.

Tom Landry, the man Walsh defeated in the famous 1981 NFC title game (which marked a passing of the torch from one great football figure to another), was a great football innovator who brought the flex defense and the shotgun offense into being. Those two creations profoundly influenced the sport of football, but they still didn't change the ways in which basic down-and-distance situations were handled. How great was Bill Walsh's legacy? Simply stated, he was the man who forced the football world to view third and two in a new light. More than anyone who came before him, it was Walsh himself who truly changed the way football was played.

Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant are the two coaches (pro and college) revered more than any others. That's no accident, because the prevailing image of the ultimate football coach is still found in the rugged, old-school motivator whose teams win with toughness and maximum effort. Lombardi's and Bryant's teams won championships by running--and stopping the run--in short-yardage situations, maintaining the idea that real men flex their muscles in football when the going gets tough.

Bill Walsh, however, showed the football world that the sport could be played in an inherently different way. Third and two was not an occasion for a toss sweep or a counter trey; it was the perfect time for a short, severe-angle quarterback rollout, followed by a quick flip to a slot receiver breaking toward the boundary if the defense didn't bust into the backfield. Third and short, thanks to no one other than Bill Walsh, became an attacking down instead of an all-too-typical wrestling match at the line of scrimmage. Walsh was one of many football innovators who found new ways to move players around a football field, but Walsh was the first man to redefine when special plays could be pulled out of the playbook.

What does this all mean? It means that while other great football coaches have been superb scientists and strategists, Bill Walsh was the ultimate football visionary, the thinker with the big-picture vision that substantially redefined the sport. While other legendary coaches could look at the opposition's tactics and devise ways to counter them, Bill Walsh--at a level unmatched by any other man--developed an entirely new style of football and dared the world to stop it. Scoreboard? Graduate school professor Walsh 1, football world 0.

Football's appeal, for many fans, is still tied to the sport's violence. Bone-crushing hits, ferocious tackles, and flying bodies still sell videos, fill highlight films, and keep stadiums packed. But for Bill Walsh, football didn't have to have an excess of testosterone to be beautiful. As he once said to the San Francisco Chronicle, "If I have any talent, it's in the artistic end of football. The variation of movement of 11 players and the orchestration of that facet of football is beautiful to me."

A new philosophy. Masterful orchestration. High art. By proving that football can be about creativity and beauty more than violence or brute strength, Bill Walsh cemented a legacy worthy of a Stanford man. Football diehards will remember him for his Super Bowl titles, but fifty or even a hundred years from now, historians and sociologists might remember Walsh as the man who enabled football to become attractive in a number of ways for a diverse array of people and personalities. That's a contribution no other football figure might ever be able to match.

Related Stories
Walsh Legacy Will Live On Forever
 -by  Jul 31, 2007
Clardy's Corner: Remembering Coach Walsh
 -by  Aug 2, 2007
Keeping The Memory of Bill Walsh Alive
 -by  Nov 21, 2007

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