clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Remembering the Genius Part 4: An Interview About Bill Walsh

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

Today we unveil the penultimate piece of the Remembering the Genius series on NinersNation. If you're just finding out about this segment now, Remembering the Genius is a temporary segment that we're running on Wednesdays. Arne Christensen, who posts here as arnec, interviewed David Harris about Bill Walsh, and we're running the interview here, while it lasts. You can read the earlier parts here.

And as before, I think it's important that you have this information and these links available every week:

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.

Please enjoy Part 4, after the jump.

Arne: In the time you talked with Walsh, did he reminisce, was he nostalgic about his coaching days, or was he really just analytical?

David: He looked at those years with a cold eye, he wasn't fooling himself.

Arne: It sounds like winning the Super Bowl in 1988 was a surprise for him, different from '81, but both were surprises.

David: In '88 he was convinced they weren't going to win. He thought they were a year away from peaking. In '81 they simply caught lightning in a bottle. The season's a dynamic process, hard to anticipate, and certainly Walsh had no idea they were going to win.

Arne: People tend to focus more on the Bears and the Giants, Ditka and Parcells, as the 49ers' rivals in the ‘80s, but I get the sense that Walsh thought Joe Gibbs was his real counterpart.

David: Sure. He had contempt for Ditka and Parcells, he didn't think they were capable of matching him. He saw Gibbs as his chief rival. Gibbs was coaching on a whole other level than Ditka and Parcells.

Arne: There's a lot of emphasis on the replaceable parts system Walsh had, and how well it worked, but there must have been some cost to it as well.

David: He had more emotional attachment to the players than he let on, far more than he was prepared to reveal. That was the function of a role he played with them: he had to manage the players and not get too attached to them. He felt his only justification for moving players was the team, and whether a move hurt or helped its performance. Everything else was secondary.

There was no basis to keeping that role in later years, so he could express the emotions he'd kept secret before. And the edges to the relationships had worn off: he and the players weren't banging heads any more. There was a reconciliation with many players.

Arne: Your book has the "Genius" title, and I suppose Walsh was aware of that. Did he talk about his response to having that label put on him?

David: He didn't acknowledge that he was proud of it, he didn't go around beating his own chest over that label. He wouldn't say anything like that in public. But my goodness, who wouldn't want to be called a genius? He liked it, but it was too presumptuous to say he was smarter than everyone else.

Arne: The old GM, Joe Thomas-everything I've heard indicates that he tore apart the team.

David: Walsh had to rebuild the team entirely. Thomas had cut the franchise's ties to the community, to alumni. He walked all over the team, he decimated the team. It was a major effort Walsh was undertaking when he started his job.

Arne: I was just looking at a list of what the '81 49ers went on to do, and it looked like half or more of the players went into business careers. Was he proud of that?

David: I suspect so. He didn't make a big point out of it. He did help his players make the transition to a post-football career. I know he was very proud of the minority coaching program the 49ers had. He deserves enormous credit for what it accomplished. Denny Green, Ray Rhodes, they both came out of that program. Also the people who emerged from internships in the program to become coaches, Tyrone Willingham for one.