On November 30, 1931, legendary football coach Bill Walsh is born in Los Angeles, California. Though the young Walsh played on the Hayward High School football team, he was not a particularly gifted athlete; nor, for that matter, was he an especially good student. As a result, though he wanted to go to Cal or Stanford to play football, neither school would take him. He ended up playing quarterback for two years at a junior college in San Mateo, then playing receiver at San Jose State. He came back to San Jose for his masters’ degree and worked as the graduate assistant football coach–and there, for the first time, he began to shine. In Walsh’s personnel file, head coach Bob Bronzan wrote: “I predict Bill Walsh will become the outstanding football coach in the United States.”
For a short time after he left San Jose State, Walsh was a coach at Washington Union High School in Fremont, California. The team was at the end of a 27-game losing streak when he arrived; by the next season, they were conference champions. Walsh worked at Cal and Stanford, and then was a backfield coach for the NFL’s Raiders. He became the offensive coordinator for the brand-new Cincinnati Bengals in 1968. Nine years later, he got the head-coaching job at Stanford, leading the Cardinals to two bowl victories in two seasons.
In 1979, Walsh landed the job that made him famous–head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were a pretty sorry team–they’d gone 2-14 in 1978–and their turnaround was slow. In fact, he told reporters years later, Walsh almost left San Francisco during his second season because he feared he’d gotten in over his head. But then, in a late-season game against the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers came back from a halftime score of 35-7 to win 38-35, then the biggest comeback in NFL history. In the 1981 season, the 49ers lost their first three games but then won 15 out of the next 16. Their record, the worst in football when Walsh began, was soon the best. They won the Super Bowl in 1981, 1984 and 1988 and won six division championships along the way.
“If Walsh was a general,” ESPN analyst Beano Cook said, “he would be able to overrun Europe with an army from Sweden.” He was so successful because he invented an entirely new kind of offense. Instead of running the ball at all costs, as other teams did, Walsh’s teams were passing teams. The quarterback threw quick, short, precise passes on any down. This offensive style, known as the “West Coast Offense,” used the resourcefulness and creativity of quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Steve Young and could make up for a weak rushing game. “The old-line NFL people called it a nickel-and-dime offense,” Walsh wrote in his memoir. “They…had disregard and contempt for it, but whenever they played us, they had to deal with it.” Today, NFL and college coaches use Walsh’s offensive strategies all the time. They’ve also adopted some of this other practices, like scripting as many as 25 of the game’s early plays and distributing laminated play-sheets on the sidelines.
After Walsh retired from the 49ers in 1988, he returned to Stanford, where he worked off and on (with a stint in the 49ers’ front office) until his death in July 2007. “The essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary teacher,” his colleagues at the NFL said when he died. “If you gave him a blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of wisdom.”