clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Remembering the Genius Part 3: An Interview About Bill Walsh

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

By now you probably recognize this segment, but in case you don't: 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.

Again, because it's important to me that you have this information and these links available weekly:

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 3, after the jump.

Arne: The '81 team, what was its larger significance?

David: [Mayor Dianne] Feinstein said that team saved the city. There was so much of a malaise at that time, the whole area questioned itself. There'd been the shooting [of George Moscone and Harvey Milk], the Jim Jones massacre; it was a bad time.

Arne: I think the 49ers had lost 18 games in a row on the road coming into the 1980 season, but at the end of the decade they were a dominant road team. It sounds like Walsh repeatedly used military analogies to help his team on the road. Did that work?

David: The military-wars-it was a reference point for Walsh. He could pull situations from there and use them as lessons. After all, football does have similarities to war. The whole us against them idea, that was arguably the core to his road success. It was a certain asset to them.

Arne: Looking through the games in 1981, you see that time after time the defense would have 5, 6 turnovers. I don't think it gets mentioned very often.

David: Yes, the defense was critical. In '81 the defense carried them through several of their big games, the Steelers, and the Cowboys.  Sure, Dwight's catch was the winning moment, but the defense kept them in the game. The offense had 6 turnovers, so the defense had a lot of work keeping the Cowboys from scoring.

Arne: Walsh's approach to the 1982 strike-what did it change for the rest of his career?

David: '82 was the dividing line for his approach to coaching, the end of him being a players' coach. He felt betrayed by the players, felt they hadn't committed to the game the way he had. He took it very personally. It was part of the reason he kept his distance from them in following years. He felt the players had stepped outside the bounds of appropriate behavior. Cocaine ravaged that team. He took steps after the season to get the party animals out onto the waiver line. He was convinced they were not as concerned about winning as he was.

There was also his position as the GM, president; he was assessing players, figuring out how much to pay them. Keeping that distance was also a motivating tool: he didn't want the players to be comfortable. He presented different sides to a lot of his players.  They'd never quite know what he was doing. He felt that was important for them to be able to function.

Arne: Leaving the team after the 1982 season ended-was there ever a sign that he thought he should have apologized for doing that?

David: He had tried to overcome those feelings of being abandoned by the players. He felt he was justified in leaving the team, that it had failed him. He felt he would have said something he regretted if he'd spoken to them. He was overwrought, shaky; he was plunged into his depression.

Arne: There are a few examples of the 49ers picking up people like Clark, Hicks, who were ignored by the rest of the league. Was that a case of Walsh just having an eye for talent?

David: There was that, yes, but also, it was a case of picking players to play certain roles he had in mind for them. He wanted to find out what skills people had, the things they did well. Then he'd develop plays to use the player for that feature, to use his talent.