Football Profiles - VI

Dak Prescott at Haughton High

Prescott and Dan Mullen

Prescott and Tim Tebow

Prescott and Tony Romo

Dak Prescott
This profile is based on an ESPN the Magazine article on Cowboys QB Dak Prescott during his sensational rookie season (2016).
  • When he was eight or nine years old, Dak proclaimed, "I'm going to win the Heisman Trophy and I'm going to play for the Dallas Cowboys." (His affinity for the Cowboys is explained by the fact that Dak grew up in Haughton LA due east of Shreveport. Folks in that part of Louisiana watch the Cowboys games on TV rather than the Saints.)
  • Dak often played tackle football (without pads) with his older, bigger brothers and their friends. When 6-year-old Dak took a nasty hit, it started a fistfight between his oldest brother and the guy who delivered the blow. Dak went running to his mother, who raised him as a single parent. "Don't come in here crying," Peggy scolded. "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch."
  • At Haughton High, Dak played the spread offense that required him to both run and pass. His toughness was confirmed when he threw for nearly 400y while playing with a torn MCL. He also impressed coaches with his ability to connect with everyone on the team. (He once made sure Haughton players carried an autistic team manager off the field in the boy's final game.)
  • However, the major programs questioned whether Dak could become a big-time QB. LSU recruited him as a TE at first. "I don't think that sat well with him," says Haughton's head coach at the time.
  • Mississippi State, however, wanted Prescott as a QB. By the time LSU decided to recruit him as a QB, it was too late. MSU had a big advantage because head coach Dan Mullen had been Tim Tebow's offensive coordinator at Florida, and Tebow was Dak's favorite player. Mullen told him, "If you want to know more about me, call Tim Tebow." Says a friend, "Dak's love of Tebow was more about his character, his leadership, how he gave 100 percent all the time and put the team on his back." Prescott even had a dog named "Tibeaux."
  • At Mississippi State, Dak modeled his game after Tebow's. He even wore Tim's number 15. Prescott threw for more than 9,000y and rushed for more than 2,500y. He also emulated Tebow by his "generosity of spirit."
  • Dak quickly became known as a "relentless grinder in the weight room and film room." His brother Tad remembers Dak reviewing plays on his laptop for five hours of an eight-hour round trip to visit their grandmother. "Dak wanted to understand how to beat teams with his mind," says Brian Johnson, his QB coach in Starkville. "He wrote down his goals before each season, and he wanted to master the game. Dak's got an extensive memory bank where he can recall things, and if you go back and clearly watch the film, you'll see him at times appropriately getting to the fifth read in his progression."
  • All this made Prescott NFL-ready although pro scouts didn't see it that way. "Despite his success on a roster of three-star recruits pitted against some SEC powers that had five-star recruits on the bench," Prescott was compared to Tebow, "a wobbly-armed first-round pick who won a playoff game in Denver but was out of the league in three years."
  • Prescott carried the Bulldogs to the school's first-ever No. 1 ranking in 2014, less than a year after his life's inspiration, his mom, died of cancer.
  • Of course, Dak is the Cinderella Story of the 2016 NFL season, leading the Cowboys to a 7-1 record after replacing veteran Tony Romo, who went down in the preseason.
  • One of Dak's admirers is none other than Cowboys Hall of Fame QB Roger Staubach, who called Dak "a wonderful QB for the future. You can tell that the players respect the heck out of him and that he's already a leader. He is amazing at making decisions when ... there's a difficult situation there, and he needs to dump the ball off. He also can throw to lead a receiver."
  • Another admirer is former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. "I'm so impressed with this young man; he's done a tremendous job. But he hasn't been down 14 points yet. [Dallas did trail 14-0 early in Week 4.] He hasn't thrown four INTs yet and then had the press and the fans getting restless and the players looking at him sideways, and maybe his nose is broken too. That's when you find out about a QB."
Bill Walsh - I
Bill Walsh's road to a head coaching job in the NFL was more circuitous than most.
  • William Ernest Walsh was born in Los Angeles November 30, 1931, at the height (or depth) of the Great Depression.
  • Bill characterized his father as a "lout" who stayed distant from his children.
  • Young Walsh played various sports, including baseball, basketball, and gymnastics, but football was his favorite.
  • His high school gridiron career was disrupted by two family moves, first to Oregon, then to the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • His senior year took place at Hayward High School in 1949. Bill wanted to play QB, but two veterans blocked his road. So he played HB on both sides of the ball.
  • His coach noticed early on that young Bill knew not only his own position but every other position on the field. Recalled one of his teammates: Football is a lot of instinct, and he had those keen instincts even back then.
  • Off the field, Bill was an extremely jovial and carefree guy who loved to party.
  • In 1950, he became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

He entered San Mateo Community College, where students with limited finances could start on a college degree.

  • He played football both years and, as a sophomore, finally got to start at QB. The 6'2" 200 lb lefthander made the All League team.
  • Several four-year colleges recruited him, and he chose San Jose State.
  • The SJSC coach, Bob Bronzan, would have a major impact on Bill's life and especially on his coaching philosophy.
  • 33-year-old Bronzan ran an offense that was ahead of its time in the college ranks - a pro system with pulled guards, blitzing safeties, the option, split ends, and three-receiver sets.
  • The 1952 Spartans went 8-2 playing the likes of Colorado, BYU, and California.
  • Bill remembered Bronzan as a theorist and an excellent teacher who set a standard as to the detail of everything he coached and the organizational system he set up. He coached football like it was a science, a skilled sport instead of just head bashing.
  • Walsh acknowledged Bronzan as being an inspiration for his own decision to become a football coach.
  • Once again, though, Bill found a logjam at QB and was transferred to E. But he won a scholarship and, by his senior year, was starting on both sides of the ball.
  • Bronzan's recollection of Walsh: He wasn't all that impressive as far as physique was concerned, but he was an ideal person to coach. He was always alert. You never had to paint the whole picture for him. Just give him a few of the elements, and he'd have it right away.
    Walsh made more of a name for himself at San Jose State with his performance in the annual intramural boxing tournament. He won the championship of the heavyweight division. I loved to fight, remembered Bill. He gained a reputation among the students as a tough guy.
  • Right after graduating with a BA in physical education with a minor in history, the 22-year-old Walsh eloped with 18-year-old Geri Nardinii, a freshman he had met earlier that year.
  • A month later, Bill began a two-year hitch in the Army. During his last months in the service, Geri gave birth to a son, Steve.

As his discharge date approach, Bill tried to figure out what he could do to support his family.

  • He considered boxing professionally but rejected that idea as impractical.
  • That left coaching, his real interest.
  • So the Walsh family returned to San Jose in 1956 so that Bill could enter a master's program in the P.E. Department.
  • He put food on the table by doing odd jobs like pumping gas and umpiring high school baseball games.
  • His 192-page master's thesis was entitled "Flank Formation Football, Stress: Defense." His faculty committee complained that he included only one footnote. But fortunately his faculty adviser was his former coach, Bob Broznan, who informed the professors that no one had ever written on the subject before.

Armed with his master's degree and a California teaching certificate, Bill joined the faculty at Washington Union High School in Centerville (now Fremont) CA.

  • He made $4,650 to teach PE, be head coach of the football team, and drive the team bus.
  • The team he inherited had lost 26 of its last 27 games. But Bill arrived at a propitious time when a population boom increased the Washington Union enrollment from 750 to 3,000.
  • The new coach immediately installed what he called "the Walsh offense." In those days, Bill remembered, almost all football coaches were afraid of the passing game. People thought it made you weak, that you couldn't have a tough team if you passed too much.
  • His players loved the new system. One recalled, Everyone was running three yards and a cloud of dust. Under him, we ran three wide receivers, a lot of motion, and sprint-out pass pattern. Most teams we played only had two receivers in the pass patterns. We had three to five every play. ... At that time everybody played a three-deep zone defense. He really attacked that area. He'd flood the zones with two or three receivers.
  • Students also liked the manner in which Walsh treated them in PE class and on the football field. The basketball coach noticed that Bill's PE classes had more fun than anyone else's. I couldn't figure it out so I watched him teach one day and what I saw was that he treated everybody in the class with tremendous dignity. Little fat guys who hated to dress out and hated to come to class all dressed for his class and were glad to be there because he treated them with great respect. It wasn't just the ... good athletes. He treated everybody the same way.
  • The result on the gridiron was a rapid improvement in victories: four the first season - the most in ten years - then eight against no defeats and a chance to play for the Bay Area championship, the result being a heartbreaking defeat.
    Bill's Huskies lost when a back ran the length of the field for a sure TD only to fumble at the other team's goal line. A defender picked up the ball and ran it back the the other way for the deciding score. Almost 50 years later, Walsh would still replay that game in his mind and wonder what he could have done to change the outcome.

#21 is teenager Bill Walsh.

Bill Walsh in college

Bob Bronzan

Bill Walsh coaching Washington Union High

Marv Levy, head coach of the California Golden Bears

Word about the dynamic young coach spread to Marv Levy, the new head coach at California.
  • The future coach of the Buffalo Bills hired Walsh for his staff. The increased salary came at an opportune time as Bill's family gained a new addition, Craig.
  • In three years at Cal, Bill rose to become defensive coordinator. But Bill moved up too quickly, by his own assessment. I wasn't ready for the job, and I floundered a bit. To be honest, I made a fool of myself trying desperately to succeed before I was really ready. I was, in many ways, an immature young man.
  • Through it all, Walsh applied the same approach he had developed in PE class. There was this religion of "toughness" in coaching circles those days, and all coaches were trying to be like marine drill sergeants and scare people into playing well. I got caught up in that for a while, but I concluded it didn't come close to working. It was a kind of mass delusion. All the coaches thought the players loved them despite how badly they treated them, and all the players were doing was putting up with the coach so they could play football. Instead of loving and revering the coach, they couldn't stand him ... but they wanted to play football. They wanted the fellowship, ... they wanted the excitement, and only put up with the bullying because they had to. Most played football in spite of the coach. By the time I left Cal I had decided that if you taught people to play the game better, that was real coaching - being a teacher rather than a thug.

Bill's next job took him across the Bay to Stanford, where John Ralston assembled an impressive staff of young coaches.

Continued below ...

Reference: The Genius, David Harris (2016)
Bill Walsh - II
John Ralston assembled an impressive staff at Stanford for the 1963 season.
  • Ralston met Bill Walsh at a coaching clinic and coached against him when Bill ran San Jose State's JV team. He thought Walsh was "brilliant."
  • Bill's assignment was to coach the defensive backs.
  • Two other future head coaches served on the Stanford staff during Walsh's tenure there:
    Mike White - future head coach of California and Illinois
    Dick Vermeil - UCLA, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Earning $7,500 each, the assistants lived in the same area and became good friends, as did their families. They worked long hours. Walsh's son Steve recalled, Hour after hour and night after night, Dad would be sitting in his den watching film. You'd want to say, "Let's go do something." But there was just no point in arguing because you couldn't win.
  • Vermeil recalled, As a football thinker, Bill was always ahead of the people he worked with. So he was always frustrated at being held back.

    1963 Stanford staff, with John Ralston kneeling in the center and Bill Walsh at far left

Walsh's next stop was the NFL in 1966.

  • The job came about as a result of meeting Oakland GM Al Davis at a banquet. The two spent an hour talking football in the parking lot afterward.
  • Davis hired Bill to be RB coach on John Rauch's staff.
  • Bill would later say that he learned more football that year than he had in the previous decade. Davis had developed his ideas about the passing game while serving as an assistant to the legendary Sid Gillman of the Chargers. Bill would later say that what he imbibed with the Raiders would form the foundation of my philosophy of offense. The first coach to use the pass as his primary weapon, Gillman believed in using the entire field horizontally and vertically. It was a fully dimensional approach, explained Walsh, utilizing the backs and TEs much more extensively than other offense. A typical NFL team might have three of four pass patterns for the HB, but the Raiders' system had as many as 20 ...
  • However, he paid a price for that knowledge. The hours he put in at Stanford paled in comparison to his work load with Oakland. The family had continued to live in Palo Alto while he commuted across the Bay to Oakland. You couldn't have a home or family under those conditions, Bill recalled. It became clear to me I might very well lose mine if I kept on like that. His wife Geri made it clear to him that she couldn't continue like that.

So Bill resigned his job with the Raiders with the intention of leaving coaching.

  • There had been little financial reward or career developments to offset the sacrifices I had made, he decided.
  • He applied to the Stanford Business School. He taught a class at San Jose State and oversaw the San Jose Apaches, a minor league team in the Continental Football League.

An out-of-the-blue phone call changed those plans.

  • Paul Brown, the Cleveland Browns coach who, more than anyone, made "professional" football professional, had been fired by new owner Art Modell following the 1962 season.
  • Brown got another chance to coach when the Cincinnati Bengals became an expansion team of the AFL in 1968.
  • Walsh was stunned when Brown invited him to be a member of his staff. Looking for someone to help him develop a passing game after his first choice turned him down, Paul had heard about Bill from several friends.
  • When Walsh flew to Cincinnati for an interview, the Bengals head man offered him $20,000 a year. Now all he had to do was convince Geri that this was the opportunity he had been longing for.
  • She consented, and the family moved to the Midwest. A lifelong Californian, Bill said he hadn't known exactly where Cincinnati was in Ohio until he came there to meet with Brown.

More an administrator than a head coach, Brown gave his assistants wide latitude. He increased Walsh's responsibilities year by year.

  • Bill started as receivers and tight ends coach.
  • QBs were added to his purview the second year.
  • In year #3, Walsh served as de facto offensive coordinator.

The offense Bill developed can be described as combining the essence of Brown's old system with Cleveland with the Gillman approach.

  • Walsh wanted his QB to get the ball away quickly to receivers running short timing patterns. The passer threw the ball to a predetermined spot even before his receiver made his cut. He also flooded zones with as many as five receivers.
  • His players praised Bill for being precise and detailed in his coaching. All three of the QBs he coached at Cincinnati led the league in completion %.

    Bill Walsh with Paul Brown at a Bengals practice
  • During games, Walsh sat in the press box, told the play to an assistant sitting next to him who would use the phone line to an assistant on the sideline, who would relay the call to Brown on the sidelines. Using the system he invented at Cleveland, Paul sent in a messenger to the huddle with the play Bill called.
  • Bill recalled: It was the most inefficient, cumbersome process imaginable, but it preserved the fiction that Paul was pulling all the strings. Since observers saw only what was happening on the sidelines and the field, Brown received credit for the offense's success even though, as Walsh said, he wasn't even sure what the system was.
  • Walsh accepted the arrangement because Brown, for whom he had developed a genuine fondness, had given him the opportunity of his lifetime. Bill even described the venerable head coach as his "mentor."
  • For his part, Brown became even more cold and aloof than he had been in Cleveland. Still, he gave Bill a $6,500 raise for the fourth year of his tenure, telling his chief offensive assistant, "You know what I had in mind." Walsh took that to mean that he would replace Brown as head coach whenever the old man decided to retire to the front office.

The Bengals improved each of their first three seasons in the league.

  • They went from 3-11 in '68 to 4-9-1, then 8-6 and a playoff berth.
  • After dropping to 4-10 in'71, they rebounded to finish with a 8-6 mark in '72.
  • They made the playoffs again in 1973 after posting their best record yet, 10-4.
  • But their up-down pattern continued the next two years. They regressed in '74 to 7-7 before making the playoffs as a wild card for the third time in '75 with an 11-3 tally. But once again, they lost in the first round.

And that's when a monkey wrench was thrown into Bill Walsh's plans.

To be continued ...

Reference: The Genius, David Harris (2016)
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Bill Walsh - III

Greg Cook

Virgil Carter

Ken Anderson











Dan Fouts

As an assistant to Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, QB/Receivers Coach Bill Walsh started to develop what later became known as the "West Coast Offense."
  • It began as a matter of necessity to fit the talents of QB Virgil Carter, who pos­sessed great mobility and accuracy on short passes but lacked the strong arm needed for deep passes. Carter was forced into action during the 1970 season to replace strong-armed Greg Cook, whom the Bengals had drafted in 1969 to be their franchise QB just as Otto Graham had played that role for Brown in Cleve­land.
  • Cook earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for the '69 season. But that would be his only full season in the NFL. He was knocked out of action with a severe injury to his throwing shoulder in the third game of his rookie season. Medical sci­ence of the time failed to diagnose the injury as a torn rotator cuff. After missing several games, Cook returned and, playing in pain despite cortisone shots, fashioned a season good enough to earn him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for the season.
  • However, off-season surgery revealed that, in addition to the shoulder damage, Cook also had a partially detached biceps muscle. After three operations failed to correct the problem, Cook retired after playing just one more game in 1973.
    Even after coaching Joe Montana and Steve Young with the San Francisco 49ers, Walsh still rated Greg Cook as the most talented QB he had ever coach­ed. Cook had the vision of Montana with the athleticism of Young plus two inch­es of height on either and an arm that was much stronger than either of them.
  • Stuck with Carter, Walsh modified the vertical passing game he had learned with the Oakland Raiders to rely on quick, short throws to receivers spread almost from sideline to sideline. With an offense tailored to his strengths, Carter led the NFL in completion % in 1971.
  • Walsh also identified Ken Anderson of tiny Augustana College as an even better candidate to run the offense than Carter. Taken 67th in the 1971 NFL Draft, Ken took over at QB when Carter suffered an injury in the first game of the '72 cam­paign.
  • Walsh honed his ideas even more with Anderson at the helm, turning him into one of the most accurate short-range passers in the league.
    Anderson would fashion a 16-year NFL career highlighted by leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1981.
Walsh bided his time and let Brown receive credit for the Bengals' offensive success.
  • Bill had every reason to believe he would succeed the coaching legend when he retired from coaching and concentrated on being GM. Unfortunately, Walsh had read too much into Brown's intimations.
  • Walsh recalled: After four or five years with Paul Brown, I realized I was ready to be a head coach. I looked around me and felt because of the experience I'd had, I could organize and orchestrate and plan and prepare and do all the things a head coach does as well as anybody. Some of it was learning from Paul's example and some of it was from my own independent thinking, but I was sure I was ready. I didn't make any secret of my feelings and, looking back on it, I wouldn't be surprised if that was somehow threating to Paul. Paul was not someone who looked out for his assistants. He looked out for what he thought were his own and his club's in­terests and expected his assistants to adjust accordingly.
  • That attitude caused Brown to repeatedly deny other teams looking for a head coach permission to speak to Walsh. To make matters worse, Paul never told his assistant of the interest and even denied that there was any.

This was an arrangement that could not go on indefinitely.

  • By 1975, the press had figured out who the real genius behind the Cincinnati offense was and began praising Walsh instead of Brown.
  • Bill began noticing a subtle difference in the way Paul treated me. As the media began speculating about when Brown would leave the sidelines, Paul became "mysterious" about his plans for a successor.
  • The Bengals won their division that year but lost in the playoffs to the Raiders.
  • Two days later, a Cincinnati sportswriter called Walsh at home to tell him the team was announcing the next day that Paul was resigning as head coach and that offensive line coach Bill Johnson would succeed him. Asked by the reporter for a response, Walsh was too stunned to say anything.
    Walsh was unaware that Brown had also given signals to Johnson that he might be his successor. Paul decided that Walsh was too "emotionally volatile" to be the head coach. So Brown went with the less brilliant but steadier line coach.
  • Years later, Bill explained what happened this way: When push came to shove, Paul just couldn't bring himself to turn it over to me. There was something like jealousy involved, mixed with a kind of resentment. I had my own ideas and thoughts about everything, including personnel and the rest. He just couldn't figure out how he was going to handle me if I became head coach. He must have been struggling emotionally to come to terms with his own retirement and the thought of losing control to me was just too much for him.
  • When he got over his initial shock, Bill played the good soldier and told interviewers that Johnson was a good coach and good friend and that it was a good move for the organization. All the while, though, he was dying inside. Sometimes I didn't think I could live through it. At that moment, I was truly broken. It was crushing. I was very, very lost. His closest friends found him devastated and inconsolable. He even considered getting out of football altogether.
  • Brown had conveniently gone out of town before the announcement was made. When he returned, Bill had his first face-to-face meeting with his mentor. Fighting back tears, Walsh found Paul as cold as he had ever seen him. Brown gave no explanation as to why he didn't live up to his promise of naming Bill his successor but made it clear that he expected him to be loyal to the club, offering a raise and promotion to "offensive coordinator" as incentives for him to stay.
  • But Walsh's contract expired in another week. So Bill told his GM he was leaving and there was nothing Brown could do to stop him. I couldn't possibly have stayed. To have done so would have been tantamount to giving up my career. I would have been relegated to just being some journeyman offensive technician and nothing more for the rest of my professional life.
  • Bill had actually worked out a deal with the San Diego Chargers. So he was operating from a position of strength.
  • Brown did not react well. Enraged, he took Bill's decision as a personal betrayal and vowed that he would make sure Walsh never became a head coach in the NFL.
  • His vindictiveness was really something, recalled Bill. He set about trying to destroy my career and discredit me in any way he could. Within months, two NFL teams interested in interviewing Bill backed off when Brown told them his former assis­tant was "too soft" and "unfit" to lead an NFL team. He went so far as to say that they "shouldn't touch Walsh with a ten-foot pole."

So Walsh moved to San Diego determined to prove Paul Brown wrong.

  • Bill served as Offensive Coordinator under Tommy Prothro.
  • The Chargers improved from 2-12 in '75 to 6-8.
  • They improved their passing yardage from 1998 in '75 to 2416 and their total offense from 3411 to 4456, a whopping 30.6% increase.
  • Under Walsh's tutelage, Dan Fouts improved his QB Rating from 59.3 to 75.4.
    Fouts later said: Bill Walsh really got me into the position to be an effective QB. That set the stage for Don Coryell to replace Bill the next year and continue Dan's development into a Hall of Famer.

After the '76 season, Bill got his chance to be a head coach but it wasn't in the NFL.

  • He was hired by Stanford, where he had been DB coach 1963-65.
  • The Cardinals improved from 6-5 in '76 to 9-3 in '77.
  • Stanford capped Walsh's first season with a 24-14 victory over LSU in the Sun Bowl.
Continued below ...
Reference: Paul Brown: The Man Who Invented Modern Football, George Cantor (2008)
Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach, Andrew O'Toole (2008)
The Genius, David Harris (2016)
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Bill Walsh - IV
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."
Continued below ...

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

The Genius, David Harris (2016)
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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)
Top of Page
Bill Walsh - VI
Later in his life, Bill Walsh called the 1981 season "the most satisfying" of his career.
  • He had improved the 49ers from 2-14 his first year as head coach in '79 to 6-10 in 1980. So '81 was a do-or-die year for him: attain a winning record or, in all probability, hit the road.
  • With the offense in good shape, he used the 1981 draft to shore up his defense, which allowed the second most yards in the league in '80 (after the Saints).
The Niners started slowly, 2-2 after four games. Then they caught fire and won eleven of their next twelve.
  • It started with a road win at Washington. According to Walsh, it was the first game that showed what kind of team we could be. After driving right down the field with the opening kickoff to lead 7-0, the 49ers got another TD from their defense when rookie S Ronnie Lott caused a fumble that popped into the hands of Dwight Hicks, who ran 80y to paydirt. The margin eventually reached 30-3 before the Redskins scored two late TDs.
  • Before the big game the following week against Dallas, Walsh added a final piece to his defensive puzzle. Two-time All-Pro DE Fred Dean was holding out on the San Diego Chargers because they refused to renegotiate his rookie contract. So the Chargers agreed to a trade in which they received the 49ers' second-round pick in '82 and the right to switch places in the first round if the SF picked ahead of San Diego. With his salary tripled, a happy Dean took the field against the Cowboys.
  • The Niners jumped on Dallas the way they did the Redskins. SF led 24-0 before the Cowboys even gained a first down. Final score: 45-14. The San Francisco Chronicle called the game the most important win since Bill Walsh took over as coach and general manager.
  • Playing with supreme confidence, the 49ers won at Green Bay 13-3 and edged the Los Angeles Rams at home 20-17.

Next came a measuring stick game at Pittsburgh, home of the four-time Super Bowl champions.

  • Chuck Noll's Steelers were the epitome of a "physical" team while the 49ers were trying to shed their reputation as a "finesse" team. All season, the Niners stared at a locker room sign that declared, WE WILL NOT BE OUTHIT. Walsh had each player sign it.
  • The game was particularly big for QB Joe Montana, who had grown up in the Pittsburgh area. To say I was in awe of the Pittsburgh Steelers was ... an understatement, he recalled. They still had a lot of players from their (last) Super Bowl team (two years earlier). As far as I was concerned, if we could go into Pittsburgh and beat them, we were good enough to win it all. They were our litmus test. Unfortunately, Joe had badly bruised ribs that would hamper his performance.
  • With both sides determined to impose their will on the other, fights broke out early and often. Two plays in a row, rookie S Carlton Williamson knocked receivers out of the game who came across the middle. Both offenses stalled before the 49er defense set up the first two scores. First, an INT by Eric Wright started a 46y drive that ended with Montana hitting Charle Young. Then Williamson recovered a fumble that led to a 10-0 halftime lead.
  • But the Steel Curtain defense burned the Niners for two Q3 TDs. First, CB Mel Blount ran back an INT 50y to paydirt. Soon afterward, Joe threw another one into enemy hands that was returned 31y to set up a one-play scoring drive and a 14-10 lead for the home team. Same old 49ers. Keep the pressure on them, and they'll fold.
  • Walsh's gang mounted a 68y drive that ended with a blocked FG attempt. But two more turnovers by the refitted defense finally paid off in a 43y drive that produced a go-ahead TD with 5 1/2 minutes left.
  • Could the Niners hold the 17-14 lead? The answer was yes When the Steelers faced 4th-and-3, the Niners line sacked Terry Bradshaw, who afterward praised the 49er secondary, dubbed "Dwight Hicks and His Hot Licks," as the best he'd seen all year.
  • Walsh joined in the jubilation in the Niners locker room. So did owner Eddie DeBartolo, who told the press, I don't want to get too excited. It's going to take another draft, another year to have a real contending club, but these kids we have are amazing. Eddie underestimated his team with that prediction.
  • Several thousand fans met the 49ers' charter flight at SF International late that night.

The Niners had a letdown the next week against Atlanta but still managed a 17-14 victory.

  • Their seven-game winning streak ended at home when the 4-6 Browns pulled a 15-12 upset.
  • But SF started another streak the next week in a 33-31 squeaker at Los Angeles.
  • The Giants fell on their home turf 17-10.

That cleared the decks for a game Walsh had pointed toward since the 1981 schedule was published.

  • Bill would be making his first trip back to Cincinnati since he resigned as assistant coach when Paul Brown reneged on his promise to make Walsh his successor.
  • Walsh called the 10-3 Bengals "the best team in the league by light years." With a playoff spot already clinched, Bill indicated he might rest his starters since his chance of beating Cincy was slim.
  • But his team knew this was all hype for the press. Montana: The players knew that he wanted this game bad. I don't think it needed to be said.
  • The Niners forced six turnovers - four by the young secondary - to dominate 21-3. Walsh's backups played as he promised but at the end of the game, not the beginning.
  • In the owner's box, GM Paul Brown watched with discomfort. Walsh never talked to his old boss, but his wife Geri did. The old man seemed ill at ease.

The 49ers won two more to finish the regular season.

  • A packed house at Candlestick Park saw their heroes romp over the Houston Oilers 28-6.
  • The 4-11 Saints played the Niners tough in the Superdome before falling 21-17.

So San Francisco entered the playoffs for the first time since 1972.

To be continued ...

Ronnie Lott

Dwight Hicks

Fred Dean

Joe Montana

49ers-Falcons action

"Hacksaw" Reynolds tackles Oilers RB Earl Campbell

Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers, Bill Walsh with Glenn Dickey (1990)
The Genius
, David Harris (2016)
Top of Page




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