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Bill Walsh - V

Dwight Hicks


Mike Wilson


Bill Ring


Charlie Young


Steve DeBerg


Dan Audick

Bill Walsh spent the off-season after his first year as 49ers head coach improving his roster.
  • Given a free reign by owner Eddie DeBartolo, who called Bill "the best football coach in the country," Walsh picked up free agents Dwaine "Peewee" Board, a light but fast DE, S Dwight Hicks, WR Mike Wilson, and FB Bill Ring. All four would make significant contributions to the Niners in the years to come.
  • Trades brought TE Charle Young and talented LB Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who wore out his welcome with Tom Landry in Dallas amid rumors of drug abuse. The latter deal would prove to be a mistake.
  • The 1980 draft brought light but fast OLB Kenna Turner.
  • Not believing Joe Montana, who threw only 23 passes as a rookie in '79, was ready, Bill went with veteran Steve DeBerg under C to start the season.
Walsh knew his second 49ers squad would be better but, as he recalled, "I wasn't sure just what that would look like."
  • The season began with a victory at New Orleans to break the 49ers' NFL-record streak of 18 road losses in a row.
  • The next week, the Niners matched their victory total for the entire '79 season with a 24-21 OT victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the home opener.
  • A cross country trip to play the Jets produced the best half the 49ers had played for Walsh. Most encouraging was the play of Montana, who took over from Steve DeBerg and threw two TD passes to Dwight Clark. The only drawback in the 37-27 victory was the defense collapsing after SF bolted to a 24-0 lead.

The euphoria the 3-0 Niners felt afterwards - DeBerg said, I'll say it right now. We're going to challenge for the divisional title. - was short-lived.

  • The 49ers proceeded to lose the next eight games.
  • Walsh, who took every loss as a humliating personal failure, sank deeper and deeper into despair. He recalled, After a loss, there is an enormous doubt that sets in about whether you'll ever win again. Two losses in a row, and it seems like the future is just a void, a kind of black hole in which none of the things you once had confidence in even exist. It's an emotion near panic. But I couldn't let that on to anybody. I had to make sure everybody else had their heads on straight and was ... getting ready for the next game. ... I was too sensitive for my own good. There was just this sick feeling afterward that only got worse with each new loss.
  • The lowest point in the losing streak was a 59-14 Game 6 humiliation at Texas Stadium in which DeBerg completed only 12 of 35 passes and threw five INTs.
  • That game provoked loud criticism of Walsh's handling on his QBs. The volume got louder the after Game 8 when DeBerg threw an INT as the Niners were driving in the last minutes of the 17-13 loss to Miami. On the transcontinental flight home, Walsh sat by himself at the front of the plane starting out the window and crying. He recalled, Sitting there in tears, I decided that I couldn't get the job done. It could be done possibly but it might take two or three more coaches to do it. It was such an overwhelming job. I wasn't embarrassed by my efforts but it just wasn't happening. I mean, eight straight losses in your second year. There was no reason to think I could make it happen. So I decided to step away at the end of the season. I was convinced I was done and planned to tell Eddie that he had to find someone else.

Back home, Bill cleared his head and made a major decision that would end the losing streak and start the franchise on an upward trajectory.

  • He installed Joe Montana as his starting QB.
  • The result was a three-game winning streak starting with a 12-0 shutout of the Giants and ending with a 38-35 OT victory over the Saints in which Joe led the great comeback from a 35-7 halftime deficit.
  • Walsh would later say this about the victory: Modern 49ers history started there. That second half against New Orleans was where we first learned who we could be.
  • Two losses to end the season made the final 1980 tally 6 wins and 10 losses.

Clearly, the Niners needed another infusion of talent if they were to reach the playoffs.

  • But Walsh had to make several additions by subtraction. He cut 300lb LT Ron Singleton. His performance at that crucial position had been good but not good enough to negate the animosity Ron engendered in his teammates. He developed a reputation for taking cheap shots at practice. When the club refused to renegotiate his contract, he threw a screaming temper tantrum in the locker room, throwing things and slamming lockers. Bill felt Singleton had become a virus that infected the team. He moved 245lb G Dan Audick into the LT spot.
  • The other move was made after training camp had begun. Set on Montana as their starter, Walsh and QB coach Sam Wyche decided it would be best for the club to trade DeBerg to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round draft choice. They then executed a trade with the Dolphins to acquire Guy Benjamin, who had played QB for Bill at Stanford. Montana recalled that the changes "helped me psychologically." When Bill traded Steve, I knew the job was mine.
  • The press was quick to point out that Walsh was pinning his hopes on a QB who had yet to start a full season in the NFL.

The 49ers' 1981 draft has entered NFL lore as one of the greatest ever. Since defense was the big problem, Walsh used six of his first seven picks on that side of the ball.

  • Round One: DB Ronnie Lott, Southern California - 14 year career, six-time All-Pro; Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • Round Two: DT John Harty, Iowa - 5 years
  • Round Two: DB Eric Wright, Missouri - 10 years, 2 Pro Bowls
  • Round Three: DB Carlton Williamson, Pittsburgh - 7 years, 2 Pro Bowls
  • Round Five: DB Lynn Thomas, Pittsburgh - 2 years
  • Round Five: KR Arrington Jones, Winston-Salem State - played in only one game
  • Round Six: DT Pete Kugler, Penn State - 8 years

Armed with a much-improved defense, the 49ers were about to embark on the greatest season in franchise history.

To be continued ...
Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers, Bill Walsh with Glenn Dickey (1990)
The Genius
, David Harris (2016)
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Bill Walsh - I and II

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