CLR INTERVIEW: David Harris is the author of ten books and a former contributing editor at The New York Times Magazne and Rolling Stone. His latest book is The Genius, a biography of legendary football coach Bill Walsh. Below is David’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty
- Random House, 400 pp.
What did the Forty Niners of the 1980s mean to the city of San Francisco?
The Forty Niners in effect rescued the Bay Area with their miraculous run to the Super Bowl in the 1981 season. Reeling from the assassination of San Francisco’s mayor and one of its Supervisors, from the Jonestown suicides by the Peoples’ Temple congregation that had been a prominent San Francisco religious institution, and from the devastating emergence of the AIDS epidemic, the Bay Area’s sense of itself had collapsed. Walsh’s team then reformulated that identity, winning games with imagination, intelligence, and vision—just the way most residents liked to think of themselves. They were both different and enormously successful and generated a newfound confidence that eventually emerged as the ethos fueling the emerging Silicon Valley based intelligence industry and underwrote the rebirth of the region’s artistic legend. At his funeral, Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator and then San Francisco’s new mayor, credited Walsh with having “saved the city.” It is impossible to think of this area in that decade without the Forty Niners.
Bill Walsh always had this intellectual, aristocratic air about him, but as a youth, he was kind of a “tough guy” wasn’t he?
Very much so. This was a working class kid who spent many weekends with his father refinishing cars in the family garage, starting when he was 10 years old. He learned to box in high school, won the intramural heavyweight championship at San Jose State as an undergraduate, and for a while supported his family by fighting boxing exhibitions—fifteen dollars for a win, ten dollars for a loss. Once, as an assistant coach at Cal, he knocked a guy out who flipped him the bird when out driving with his family. Bill got in his last known public fist fight at the age of 65. “Genius” or not, he was not someone to be trifled with.
What was the “west coast offense” and how radical a departure was it?
The offense Bill developed to full form at the Niners sought to utilize the forward pass as a means of ball control, a prospect heretofore considered an oxymoron. Using a variety of formations, precisely timed and run pass patterns, and a prescribed sequence of options for the quarterback to work through, the Niners used short passes and runs after the catch to pick apart defenses, finding the open spaces in the defense and throwing the ball into them.
Before Walsh, teams stereotypically ran on first down, ran on second down, and then, if the remaining distance to a first down was greater than three or four yards, resorted to the pass. Most pass patterns were vertical, working up the field, and often no more precise than “get open and we’ll throw you the ball.” A quarterback was considered successful if he completed 50% of his passes. Walsh changed all that. When he was done, a successful quarterback had at least a 60% completion rate. He passed on any down and forced defenses to cover not just the length of the field but its width as well. His teams marched by gaining 3 yards here, 6 yards there. The approach was derided as “dink and dunk”, but when first introduced, it was virtually indefensible. With it, he transformed football’s paradigm from blunt force, smash mouth trauma to one of strategy, deception, speed, and maneuver. Walsh made what had been a back yard rumble into a thinking man’s game that required intellectual sophistication as well as force.
How did practice under Bill Walsh differ from other NFL teams?
He insisted on shorter practices, but with each second of the practice programmed to get maximum productivity. He began every session with a detailed script that allocated time to the necessary activities. Where other teams stood around a lot with little discernable purpose when they practiced, all his practices and drills were run at game speed, with players sprinting between assignments, each one having a reason in the larger picture, and he emphasized repetition and precision.
His staff broke assignments down into necessary skill sets then drilled those skills over and over. His team scrimmaged far less than any other because Bill preferred drills that improved performance over needlessly beating each other up on the practice field. He also monitored his squad’s exertions, intent of making sure that the practice routine did not sap their energy and his teams became legendary for being still fresh down the stretch in the season.
Most notably, he abandoned the Marine Corps drill instructor approach to coaching and instead emphasized positive reinforcement. He thought his job was to teach his players to be better and thought the intimidation commonly practiced by coaches was counterproductive.
How did Bill Walsh approach the draft?
With perhaps the best eye for talent in the history of the NFL. Over ten years, he constructed three different teams, each constructed around the core of the previous team and each eventually winners of a Super Bowl. He also drafted three men—Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice—who were eventually recognized as the best to ever play their respective positions, a record unmatched by anyone before or since.
He felt that championships, however, were won by the bottom half of the roster, not the top. He instructed his scouts not to tell him what a prospect couldn’t do but instead what he could do. What was the skill they possessed that could be useful? He then took those skills and found a way to use them. Each year’s strategy on draft day was different, dictated by the team’s circumstances and by the talent pool. In 1985, he traded picks to move up in the draft order to get Jerry Rice. The following year, he traded down and down—not actually making a pick until the draft was more than four hours old—and then selected eight men in the later rounds who would become starters, five of them eventually Pro Bowl designees.
The legendary Paul Brown of Ohio football fame comes across in your book as less than honorable. Would you talk a little about that and his relationship to Bill Walsh?
Ironically, Brown began by rescuing Bill’s career. Frustrated after a one year stint with the Oakland Raiders as a running backs coach, he had decided to get out of coaching and had applied to business school. Then Brown offered him a job with the expansion Cincinnati Bengals—where Brown was now the owner, General Manager, and Head Coach. Walsh stayed eight years with the Bengals, quickly became the team’s offensive coordinator, and started making a reputation as an offensive mastermind.
Brown was approaching retirement from the sidelines and promised Bill on several occasions that Bill would be the team’s head coach when he left to concentrate on running the franchise. Instead, however, he picked someone else for the head coaching spot and Walsh was devastated. Walsh immediately told Brown that he was leaving, infuriating his mentor with his refusal to stay on as offensive coordinator. Paul Brown considered that a betrayal and took it personally. His last words with Walsh were a promise to make sure his former protégée would never become an NFL head coach. Brown then blackballed Walsh with several franchises who were interested in hiring him, telling one he was “too soft”, telling another not to touch him with a ten foot pole. Brown succeeded in impeding Walsh’s advancement for several years and when Bill did rise to the Niners’ head man, he was in part fueled by a need to prove that the legendary Paul Brown had been dead wrong about him.
How would you characterize Bill Walsh’s relationship to his players and also his family?
For most of his time as a head coach, Walsh’s relationship with his players was defined by his need to motivate them and cut them loose when they no longer fit his plans. That left him unable to express and cultivate the feelings he had for them. In the last years of his life, he tried to make up for that by healing rifts and cultivating a new closeness. While coaching, however, he kept them at a distance, inspiring both fear and affection, often in the same moment. That led to relationships that were close and uneasy and defined by their roles on the football field.
Coaching is a 24/7 activity and Bill’s family paid the price for that obsession. Both his sons described him as like “not having a father”. He never attended their Little League games or even their football games. When he came home from work, he was in no mood to throw the ball around and didn’t. The stresses of his job also took its toll on his marriage, leading to a couple of one-year separations. He always honored family as a virtue but often sacrificed it when push came to shove.
As the NFL players became increasingly African-American, Bill Walsh saw a responsibility there, didn’t he?
Walsh’s Niners were the first to design programs to help integrate the locker room and identify players’ personal and social needs and train them for their new roles off the field. He even hired a staff member whose responsibility was to circulate in the locker room and counsel and assist those in need of it. He also did more for the cause of black head coaches than perhaps anyone in NFL history. Ignoring the league’s inertia on the subject, he started an internship program for prospective black NFL head coaches at a time when there were no black head coaches in professional football.
What was the cause of his death?
Bill Walsh died from leukemia at age 75. When asked to identify the source of the illness, his doctors pointed at those days as a youngster breathing unfiltered paint fumes working with his father painting cars in the family garage.