Golden Football Magazine
Football Profiles
Bill Walsh - IV

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. with Mr. and Mrs. Bill Walsh

James Owens

Sam Wyche watches Bill Walsh make a point

Steve DeBerg

Joe Montana




Randy Cross

It was during his second year as Stanford coach (a season that would end with an 8-4 record, including a Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Georgia) that 47-year-old Bill Walsh met the man who would change his life - Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
  • After making a fortune developing shopping malls, Eddie D. bought the 49ers in 1977.
  • Impressed with the job Walsh was doing at Stanford and ignoring the negative opinion that Cincinnati's Paul Brown had been circulating about his former assistant, Eddie arranged a meeting to determine whether Walsh might be the man to take over the Niners, who were suffering through what would become a 2-14 season.
  • Within ten minutes, DeBartolo became convinced he was talking to his next head coach and offered the job before the first meeting ended.
  • Walsh, on the other hand, was not ready to make a commitment until he checked out the 49ers owner and his football operation. Bill told Eddie he would not work for GM Joe Thomas who was universally reviled for running the Frisco operation into the ground. Bill further demanded that he be given complete control over football operations. DeBartolo agreed to both stipulations.
  • The long-rumored hiring was consummated in January 1979. Bill finally had his dream job - coaching an NFL team. And DiBartolo was paying him $160,000 the first year!
The magnitude of the challenge he faced became apparent to Bill when he settled into the 49ers headquarters.
  • "There are high schools with better facilities," he thought. With insufficient acreage for a full 100y field, the Niners settled for two 50y fields side by side, one natural grass, the other synthetic turf.
  • A cramped locker room sat beside a meeting room not quite big enough to hold the entire squad.
  • The shower room had only six shower heads. Be ready to jump from under the scalding water when someone flushed a toilet.
  • But a more pressing need for Walsh was finding a general manager to handle the business side of the organization. Since the management model he envisioned had rarely been implemented in the NFL, Bill had difficulty finding someone to fill the bill. So he ended up as both GM and coach with the blessing of his owner, who was 15 years younger than the man he gave total control of his franchise.

It took time and patience to rebuild the team acknowledged as "the least talented, least experienced" in the NFL.

  • Bill thought that the Cincinnati Bengals, in their first year of existence as an AFL expansion team, had better talent than these 49ers.
  • With free agency not in existence yet, Walsh had to improve the team through the draft and some shrewd trades.
  • Normally a team coming off a 2-14 season could look forward to one of the first draft choices, but Thomas had traded the first choice in the '79 draft to Buffalo for the rights to O. J. Simpson.
  • Walsh first focused his organizational skills on the draft. He instructed his scouts to tell him what a prospect could do to help the 49ers win and not just what he couldn't do.
  • The many streams of information were distilled onto "the board," which listed every player the scouts and assistant coaches considered worthy of consideration on draft day.

Topping Walsh's list of needs for 1979 were offensive speed and QB.

  • For speed, Bill liked James Owens, a RB and hurdles champion from UCLA, whom Walsh envisioned as a WR.
  • Finding the QB was a bigger challenge. The Niners had only one QB on their roster, Steve DeBerg. "We (Bill and his QB coach Sam Wyche) thought Steve DeBerg just might be our QB for the future," Bill recalled. "I had not had time to evaluate Steve, but all reports were very positive."
  • Going into the draft, Walsh had his eyes on Phil Simms but figured the QB from tiny Morehead State wouldn't be on the board when San Francisco finally drafted.
  • SF's new scouting director, Tony Razzano, had another QB ranked as the best in the draft despite the fact that none of his scouts agreed with him. Joe Montana had been inconsistent in his career at Notre Dame, bouncing back and forth between starting and 2nd or 3rd string. But Razzano insisted that Joe's intangibles were first class. "Joe has a feel, a second sense. He knows where everybody is around him. It's an uncanny ability. There were question marks, but somehow I just knew."
  • Wyche also recommended Montana to Walsh. "He was nifty and quick, and he had a kind of charisma in his presence that was special ..." After putting Joe through his paces in Los Angeles where he was staying with his girlfriend, Wyche convinced Bill to fly the young man (as well as Owens) to the Bay Area for another workout.
  • "You could see his abililty right away," Walsh recalled. "It's so important that a QB be able to get back quickly and set up, and then be able to improvise if the play breaks down. I sensed just watching Joe in that workout that he'd be able to do that in time. He had such quick feet ... People said he didn't have a strong arm but he threw the ball fine. ... I was really excited by his potential."
  • Walsh picked Owens in the second round and Montana in the third. At a press conference after the draft, Bill predicted that Owens would be a great player and Montana had a chance to be "pretty good."

Walsh approached coaching from a teacher's point of view.

  • He believed in coaching his coaches, then letting them teach their subgroups how to play their positions.
  • Bill went against the norm in his approach to training camp. Most coaches stressed conditioning and toughness in the preseason. They often scheduled scrimmages twice a day and exercised their charges to the point of exhaustion. But Walsh found studies that showed that players trained that way were more fatigued going into a season than they were coming out of it. He was willing to endure charges that his players were "soft" in order to keep them fresh for the long season.
  • Above all, Walsh wanted to establish a "positive learning environment" at practices. Coaches didn't scream at players but instead kept their position groups busy improving themselves. Endless repetition at game speed would create a muscle memory that would allow players to execute confidently when games were on the line.

The 49ers would not show much improvement in Walsh's first year at the helm.

  • With DeBerg starting every game, they scored 89 more points than the '78 team but, plagued by a weak secondary and a past-their-prime line, gave up 66 more than their predecessors.
  • The result was a second straight 2-14 finish.
  • Fortunately for Bill, Eddie D. understood the challenge his coach faced and sensed that progress had been made.
  • O lineman Randy Cross described the '78 Niners as "the worst 2-14 team ever" but now called the '79 version "the best 2-14 team ever."
To be continued ...
The Genius, David Harris (2016)
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