clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Remembering the Genius Part I: An Interview About Bill Walsh

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Recently, I was contacted by Arne Christensen about an idea for a series of front page posts on NinersNation. You might know Arne as the NinersNation member arnec, who posted the FanPost last week about the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. After seeing what he had in mind, Fooch and I were more than happy to work with Arne on these posts.

By way of introduction:

Arne Christensen is the author of several e-books describing the Bill Walsh 49er teams, from 1979 through 1988, with a focus on the three Super Bowl winners. These e-books are available for purchase online. Arne also runs a blog about the 49ers' history, which can be viewed here. A few months ago he spoke with David Harris, author of The Genius (also available on Amazon), a biography of Walsh focused on his 10 years coaching the 49ers. Their discussion was concerned primarily with elements of Walsh's personality and his coaching strategy with the 49ers. The resulting exchange provides a sense of Walsh's character and the way it shaped both his 49er teams and, by extension, the NFL games you see today. For the next few weeks, I'll be posting a new section of the interview as a main page story on Wednesdays on Arne's behalf. We all hope that you enjoy it.

You can read part one of the interview after the jump. This first installment is relatively short. Let us know how you like it and we'll try to plan the other installments accordingly.

Arne: What was the dynamic between Eddie DeBartolo and Walsh? It seems they were very different personalities.

David: It was a mixed bag: there was a kind of bond [around wanting to win], but also large difficulties. DeBartolo went into rages at Walsh after bad losses; Policy saved him after the Vikings game in 1987. Eddie wanted to fire him, but just took away the president's title. Walsh also felt Eddie was a great owner who gave his teams what they needed, and he was grateful for the opportunity Eddie gave him.

Arne: I've heard talk about Walsh regretting not staying on, feeling that he missed one or two Super Bowl wins by resigning too early.

David: Walsh said various versions of that. Who knows if he wanted to come back? He was seriously burned out after '88, and I doubt a year off would have changed that. He did come back after two years to Stanford, and he didn't have the edge anymore, the fire, the obsessions about the game. It wasn't the same as his time there in the late '70s. 10 years of responsibility and pressure had taken a lot out of him, the pool had been drained. At Stanford, he took guys he was comfortable with, who he'd worked with before, and it didn't turn out that well. He didn't have the critical intelligence, the assistant coaches.

Stanford had a fine football tradition, and there was plenty of top-flight talent that would have been happy to coach for him, to have the chance to learn under Walsh. But it was his old buddies, an oldies but goodies tour. Not as demanding on Walsh. He didn't have the goods anymore. He was in his early 60s, he didn't have the energy. Coaching, it's a younger man's job. The recruiting visits weren't really his bag at that point. College offered a shorter season: going to Stanford was an in-between commitment.

Arne: Walsh wasn't really the macho coach, the guy like Ditka who had that physical presence and intimidation, but he still maintained control over his team.

David: He was certainly controlling, an enormous stickler for detail. Everything had to be done the way he wanted it done, and he had the jobs to make sure it was that way. The players complained about his manipulation, said he was always trying to maneuver them.

He'd done everything for the 49ers: he had four jobs-coach, president, GM, offensive coordinator-until the last three games of the '88 season. Those three playoff games-that was when Holmgren became the coordinator. He was responsible for the janitors, drafting players, training camp, everything.

Stay tuned next week to read part two.