Bill Walsh, known in football circles as "The Genius" for coaching the San Francisco 49ers to three NFL championships and designing the...
Bill Walsh, known in football circles as “The Genius” for coaching the San Francisco 49ers to three NFL championships and designing the “West Coast offense” that has attracted countless devotees in the college and pro ranks, died at his Woodside, Calif., home Monday morning. He was 75.
Diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, Mr. Walsh had been in failing health for several months, according to officials at Stanford, where he coached for five seasons (1977 to 1978 and 1992 through 1994) and served as special assistant to the athletic director from early 2004 until his death.
Cerebral, introspective and innovative, Mr. Walsh had an uncanny eye for scouting players and designing refined game plans. His offensive scheme — predicated on short, timing passes — fueled a dynasty in San Francisco with Super Bowl victories after the 1981, ’84 and ’88 seasons.
George Seifert, Mr. Walsh’s defensive coordinator who retained the same offensive system after Mr. Walsh retired, led the 49ers to additional Super Bowl victories after the 1989 and 1994 seasons.
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John Madden, a Hall of Fame coach with the Oakland Raiders, longtime NFL broadcaster and analyst, said, “Bill’s legacy is going to be that he changed offense. What offense is today is what Bill Walsh was. Offense before Bill Walsh was run, run defense, establish the run. Run on first down, run on second down, and if that doesn’t work, pass on third down. Bill Walsh passed on first down, passed on second down and used that to set up the run.
“People use the word ‘genius’ and we usually scoff at that. In his case, I don’t think you can scoff at it. If there is a genius in football, Bill Walsh was one of them.”
Joe Montana, a Hall of Fame quarterback and the player most closely associated with Mr. Walsh’s tenure with the 49ers, said, “This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the [San Francisco] Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers. For me, personally, outside of my dad, he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him.”
Instantly identifiable on the sideline with a shock of white hair under his headset, Mr. Walsh amassed a remarkably consistent record as an NFL coach. His 49ers were the winningest franchise of the 1980s. In 1979, he took over a rudderless club, a perennial doormat that won two games the previous season.
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, a quarterbacks coach on Mr. Walsh’s staff from 1986 to 1988, said, “For me, personally, he gave me my chance to coach in the NFL. And he took a chance on me. I was four years removed from a high-school coach, and that usually doesn’t work that way. He was hard on me. I was mad at him a fair amount as an assistant coach. But looking back on it now, he was my mentor and then, later in years, he became my friend.”
Holmgren said Mr. Walsh looked at the game differently from other coaches.
“I always said he was an artist and all the rest of us were kind of blacksmiths, pounding the anvil where he was painting the picture,” Holmgren said.
Mr. Walsh’s concepts are used by many current NFL coaches, including Holmgren, Denver’s Mike Shanahan, Tampa Bay’s Jon Gruden, Baltimore’s Brian Billick and Philadelphia’s Andy Reid.
Unlike many in his profession, Mr. Walsh wasn’t a wild-eyed screamer. He seemed scholarly, and at times plagued with self-doubt. He was aware he didn’t fit the standard mold.
“I know there were coaches who were certainly more intelligent than I was,” he said in December. “There were firebrand coaches who fired up their teams and all that kind of thing. But we basically understated everything publicly. We never talked about, ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl,’ or, ‘We’re the best; come and get us,’ all that kind of thing. We just quietly went about our business, and I do think people resented that. They wanted confrontation, and they didn’t get it until we played.”
Mr. Walsh retired from NFL coaching in 1989, after leading the 49ers to victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII. Including playoffs, his pro record was 102-63-1. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At the news conference to announce the coach’s retirement, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo called Mr. Walsh “the greatest coach ever.”
William Ernest Walsh was born Nov. 30, 1931, in Los Angeles. He graduated from Hayward (Calif.) High School.
Although Mr. Walsh had hoped to attend California or Stanford on a football scholarship, he had neither the grades nor the athletic ability.
Mr. Walsh played two seasons at San Mateo (Calif.) Junior College before transferring to San Jose State, where he played offensive and defensive end — and also boxed as a heavyweight.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement released by the NFL, said, “His Hall of Fame coaching accomplishments speak for themselves, but the essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary teacher. If you gave him a blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of wisdom.”
Seattle Times staff reporter José Miguel Romero contributed to this report.