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'Finding The Winning Edge' - Bill Walsh And His Professional History

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49ers news is starting to pick up steam, but something interesting arose that I wanted to take advantage of over the next few weeks. After finishing up The Essential Smart Football, I found myself looking around for some other football books. More specifically, I was hoping to find books that would help me learn more about football strategy, Xs and Os, and even some football history. Naturally, one of the first suggestions was Bill Walsh's Finding The Winning Edge.

This tome is the essential Bill Walsh book. In this book, written with help from Brian Billick and James Peterson, Walsh breaks down his basic organizational coaching and system philosophies. He provides details on everything from his personal history leading up to his hiring by the 49ers to things as nuanced as a sample workout schedule for training camp practice. Although Walsh has several books to his credit, this one is as close to as a catch-all as you might get.

This book is a tough one to find, although there apparently are some stores to still selling it. I bought a used copy through Amazon and received it yesterday. I've started reading through it, and I thought it would be fun to break down some of the chapters over the coming weeks/months. Ideally I'll finish this before the season starts, but at 500+ pages and plenty of 49ers training camp to deal with in the coming weeks, this could drag into the regular season.

I won't be breaking down every single chapter, but I figure I'll take a look at interesting things I come across. You can buy the book if you choose, or we can just discuss it here on the site. If I write something about the book and you have a question, let me know in the comments and I'll clarify from the book. This is just as much for us to continue improving our historical knowledge.

Although the game has changed over the years, everything originated somewhere. In the case of Bill Walsh, he helped to develop and further the idea of the "West Coast Offense." Teams run different versions of the "West Coast Offense", but as Coach Walsh states in the book, "the 'West Coast Offense' still amounts to nothing more than a total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to provide an environment that allows people to perform at their maximum levels of self-actualization." So, uhhh, yea....

I'm taking this book one chapter at a time, and I was able to read through chapter one on my metro ride into work. Coach Walsh opened the book with a chapter titled, "Putting Things Into Historical Perspective." In the chapter he provided a rundown of the people who were key contributors to his own success.

Although Coach Walsh is widely known for his extensive coaching tree, he is but a part of a bigger coaching tree that originated with Sid Gilman. Gilman made his mark primarily with the Chargers, where he coached or worked with a variety of future greats. Among others, Gilman had a chance to work with Al Davis, Chuck Noll, Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil and George Allen.

This is particularly pertinent because Bill Walsh got his NFL break with the Oakland Raiders. Before going to the Raiders however, Coach Walsh was a head coach in high school and then worked as a defensive assistant for Cal and Stanford. In 1966, Al Davis hired Coach Walsh as an offensive assistant, where he first began to learn Sid Gillman's offense.

In 1968, Coach Walsh was hired as an assistant coach by the Cincinnati Bengals. It was in Cincinnati where Coach Walsh first developed his offensive philosophy. The Bengals were an expansion team with a short quarterback (Virgil Carter, who also lacked a big arm) and a questionable offensive line. According to Coach Walsh, the Bengals offensive staff decided "our best chance to win football games was to somehow control the ball. As a result, we devised a ball-control passing game in the hope that if we could make 25 first downs in a given game and if we also had good special teams plays, we would have a reasonable chance to stay competitive in the ball game."

Coach Walsh acknowledges in the book that rather than having an eye towards some glorious future, this was simply what the team did to remain competitive. Football has always been a game of adjustments, whether it be series to series or game to game. In the bigger picture, when things like the T-formation were first developed, defenses adjusted, and vice versa.

Coach Walsh was passed over by Paul Brown for the head coach position in Cincinnati, which eventually led to his departure to San Diego for a year as offensive coordinator. Following a season working with Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, Coach Walsh was hired as head coach at Stanford. Although college football is drastically different from the NFL in a variety of ways, the work at Stanford provided Coach Walsh with several tools that would prove essential when he eventually took over the 49ers.

As Stanford head coach, Bill Walsh had full control of the football operations. In the book, Coach Walsh wrote about how he was able to develop his offensive system at a new level, while also further learning the importance of attention to detail in developing an organization. Additionally, college football provided Coach Walsh with teaching opportunities you don't see at the NFL level. As he put it, "Teaching is more comprehensive in college because a dramatic range exists in the abilities of your players. Sometimes, you can depend on a player's inherent abilities. Other times, the coach's ability to teach and develop a player is more crucial."

We often hear about some kind of curse about college coaches moving up to the NFL (Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, Lou Holtz), but Coach Walsh is an example of how the transition can work. Of course, he had developed a strong baseline of NFL experience before going to college.

When we look at Jim Harbaugh, it is not the same breakdown of experience, but there are some similarities to consider. Harbaugh's most extensive NFL experience came from playing the quarterback position with the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. After that he spent two seasons as the Raiders quarterback coach before moving into the college rankings with the University of San Diego and Stanford. One difference is that Coach Harbaugh came from a coaching family. It would be interesting to look at the familial backgrounds of various coaches for comparisons and whether or not there are any common factors.

When Coach Walsh was eventually hired on as head coach of the 49ers, he took on the role of leading all football operations. As Coach Walsh pointed out, and plenty of older fans remember, the 49ers of the late '70s had been gutted by awful management decisions and "the organization had no single leadership and no meaningful direction." Coach Walsh took charge of the organization and looked for potential general managers.

Not surprisingly, people around the league did not want in on the toxic situation that was San Francisco. Eventually, Coach Walsh took on the general manager duties. He brought in John McVay to join his administrative staff, in a decision that would prove quite fortuitous for the coming dynasty days.

Coach Walsh's philosophy on subject expertise was fairly logical, but sometimes overlooked. "As a coach, the primary point to remember is that a knowledge or expertise of any subject must remain dynamic." He then quoted organization theorist Abraham Kaplan who discussed how when subject matter knowledge grows, the conception of the subject matter changes. Kaplan argued that "the better our concepts, the better the theory we can formulate with them, and in turn, the better the concepts for the next improved theory."

Coach Walsh took that quotation and then pointed to his work with the "West Coast Offense." He discussed how his exchanges with numerous coaches helped him become more knowledgable about football, continually expand his offensive concepts, and help to evolve the "West Coast Offense."

There are plenty more details in the book, but I think pulling out some of these basic concepts and ideas can help us get a better idea of what Coach Walsh was all about. And of course, Coach Harbaugh did get a limited amount of time to interact with Coach Walsh before he passed. That's not to say he learned everything there was to know from Coach Walsh, but Coach Harbaugh strikes me as a guy who understands how important it is to keep learning about the game of football. A perfect example of that was the fly sweep play he picked up from a high school coach.

There will never be another Bill Walsh, but many of the characteristics that made him "The Genius" are characteristics that can be emulated by others. Things like attention to detail, a strong work ethic, and a thirst for knowledge are not unique characteristics. Whether one is a football coach or really in any other job, these characteristics can be so key to improving one's position. While they do not guarantee success as an NFL head coach, or in any job, ignoring any of them is done so at one's peril.