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Books | Sports

February 1, 2009

The Burdens of a Gridiron Genius

Bill Walsh led the 49ers to greatness and beloved status in San Francisco, and revolutionized the NFL, while struggling to meet his own enormous expectations.

Mickey Lambert

Before Super Bowl XLIII, the NFL coaching merry-go-round was already in full swing. Teams are looking to turn the page, to find a leader who can inspire his players, outfox their opposition, and guide them to victory—preferably sooner rather than later.

The 49ers were in that position in 1979, when, reeling from the disastrous reign of former general manager Joe Thomas, greenhorn owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. hired Bill Walsh to serve as coach and general manager. In hiring Walsh into this two-pronged role, DeBartolo was looking for the kind of leader who could transform the team from top to bottom. What he got was a man who transformed the entire NFL, from the ways that offenses are run to the way that coaches coach. In making the decision to hire Walsh, DeBartolo had taken a giant step toward cementing the 49ers' future as the team of the '80s.

David Harris
"On the sidelines, Bill Walsh was just the epitome of cool, but inside, he was ferociously insecure, even at the zenith of his success."

David Harris

This power earned Walsh the adulatory title "The Genius," a moniker that would both delight and torment him over his years with the Niners. As his revolutionary practices ripped every page out of the coaching book, Walsh became, as many geniuses do, riddled with and crippled by self-doubt. It would eventually force him into retirement from NFL coaching just a decade after his initial hiring; he worked as an official for the 49ers and, later, Stanford, before his death in 2007. What he left the 49ers, the NFL, and the game of football was a legion of new understandings about how the game should be played, coached, and managed that would change the face of the NFL forever.

David Harris's book, The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty, captures not only the zeitgeist of a young team pulling itself out of the gutter and into the spotlight, but the parallel story of its coach doing the same. The Genius is the story of many geniuses, and of the power of transformative capacity tempered by the distance and internal tempest that power creates.

Harris, 62, has enjoyed a long and storied career as both a writer and social-justice organizer. While a student at Stanford in the mid-1960s, he gained national notoriety as an antiwar activist and draft dodger. For the latter distinction, he served time in a Texas prison. He would later write about this experience in I Shoulda Been Home Yesterday: Twenty Months in Prison Without Killing Anybody. He later went on to write several books about war and international conflict, capturing the stories that lay behind the news headlines. In the sports vein, he also wrote the 1986 book, The League, a look at the changing business practices of the NFL during the reign of former commissioner Pete Rozelle that have transformed it into the marketing powerhouse it is today. In this interview, which was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Harris talks about Walsh's rise to the status of NFL coaching legend, his advocacy for black coaches, and how a pro team can elevate its city.

You can hear Harris and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, February 5, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Your history as a writer and social figure is unusual in the world of sportswriting: Not many sportswriters can claim your past as a radically-minded antiwar activist, and I'm quite sure you're the only one who has ever been married to Joan Baez. Do you see connections between your sports books and your books about politics? How, if at all, do you see these worlds colliding?

David Harris: People assume that there is no connection between sports and politics, or that that connection is necessarily one grounded in conservatism. But everyone whom I was involved with in the movement in the '60s was an athlete—baseball, basketball, football, track, and so on—and I think that many activists and progressive people have carried that tradition forward. The right wing does not have exclusive ownership over sports, though there is definitely no shortage of people who wish that were the case. I will say I got jumped once by the Stanford football team when I was student-body president there—they didn't take too kindly to having, what, a hippie radical representing them.
While there are certainly some valid critiques to be leveled at the owners and operators of major-league sports franchises in terms of how they participate in institutionalized racism and the like, you couldn't even shop at the fucking grocery store if you were to boycott all the institutions that have been marred in some way. There are ways to acknowledge the ways in which institutions are marred without rejecting them out of hand. I'd like not to think that football equals Republican, or right-wing, or what have you, and one of the things I most appreciate about sports is that athletic talent is not, in and of itself, political.

Gelf Magazine: Bill Walsh was an assistant coach of that same Stanford football team that jumped you when you were student-body president there.

David Harris: Yeah, I almost played for him there when I was a freshman in 1963. At that time, freshmen weren't allowed to play on the varsity, so they had a bunch of freshman teams. I thought about walking on to play on one of those teams, which at that time was coached by Bill Walsh. At the time, I saw myself as either a center or a linebacker, but I walked into the locker room and even the quarterbacks were bigger than I was. The game was going through a radical change then—people were still tackling with the shoulders when I was playing. I fashioned myself as an EJ Holub-type, but by the time I walked on, the average center or linebacker was already much, much larger than that—now, they're even bigger, still. So, anyway, that was the end of my nascent football career, and I never got to play for Walsh. But I did follow him then and on to when he became the coach of the Niners, and made contact with him later on through some mutual friends.

Gelf Magazine: Given your connections to Walsh—first as a student and fan, then as a biographer—what was the most engaging aspect of Bill Walsh's story for you? Clearly, he had a huge impact on the game itself, but that's far from the singular or even the predominant focus of the book.

David Harris: Yeah, you know, as a lifelong 49ers fan, of course I knew about Bill Walsh as an in-game coach, all he did to turn the team around, and the three Super Bowl victories. But all of that is really a backdrop to the story of his struggles to become the greatest coach the NFL had ever seen. What I found most compelling was his own story—his upbringing, his early experiences as a new coach, and how driven he was to always succeed. He struggled against himself as much as anyone else. What I tried to capture in the book were some of the more universal storytelling elements: answering the criticisms of his detractors, fighting against all the people who told him no, the myriad contrasting facets of his personality. While I love writing about sports, it's the storytelling that has always been so compelling to me, regardless of the subject.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think is most important or enduring about Walsh's legacy as a coach?

David Harris: Well, his genius as a sideline coach, running a team—he made such huge changes to the way the game was conceived and played. He brought the forward pass back into offensive game strategy, and used the width of the field in the passing game as well as the length. Other than that, his ability to judge talent was unsurpassed—I mean, he drafted three guys—Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice—who were considered some of the best in history at their positions. Plus there was the 1986 draft, where he didn't even make his first pick until five hours in, and still had eight guys become starters and five make the Pro Bowl.
His eye for talent was superior—he rebuilt the Niners with legendary drafts, despite the difficulty that exists for most teams in accurately projecting NFL player potential from the college ranks. As Seth Wickersham, a past Varsity Letters guest, wrote in a recent ESPN article, that goes double for quarterbacksRyan Leaf, Tim Couch, and you can add Alex Smith to that list, as well.

Gelf Magazine: Absolutely. So given the challenge in identifying quarterback talent that still exists today, how was Walsh so good at spotting and developing premier quarterbacks?

David Harris: Walsh had a deeper knowledge of the raw skills that a good quarterback required—accuracy, ability to read progressions, and, most of all, good footwork. Walsh always claimed that he could figure out what had happened during a play just by watching a quarterback from the waist down. Most quarterback scouting, especially at the time that he was coaching, was centered around body type—you had to look like a Jim Plunkett or a Dan Pastorini, a tall guy with a cannon for an arm. When Walsh drafted Montana in 1979, Montana was too short, and he didn't have a huge arm. But he had the raw skills that Walsh valued in his own system. I think it came from Walsh's own frustrations as a failed quarterback, and the extreme value he placed on the quarterback position in the offensive strategies he designed.

Gelf Magazine: Which of Walsh's three Super Bowl victories best exemplified his legacy as a coach?

David Harris: In 1985 it really all came together. You can talk about 1990 as his crowning achievement, in terms of leaving the game on top, and 1982 established him as a coaching force—but 1985 really represented his apex as a coach. It's one of the top two or three Super Bowl victories of all time. Everything just clicked that year.

An interview with Bill Walsh

Gelf Magazine: Walsh is best known for creating the West Coast offense—though that name is more accurately applied to the vertical pass-oriented attack devised originally by Sid Gillman, and Walsh would have greatly preferred for his particular version to be eponymous. By any name, though, its advent was a watershed in the evolution of the game. Do you see the potential in the immediate future for a comparable transformation in how the game is played?

David Harris: You know, I don't see the kind of revolutionary change that Walsh's offense ushered in happening again anytime soon. There will always be new developments and innovations—that's part of the beauty of the game, in watching the ways that it slowly progresses through layers of small changes and refinements and growths at all levels of game play. But Walsh created something huge—he transformed fully half of the game with the approach that the West Coast offense symbolized. The game had to respond to what he brought.

Gelf Magazine: That kind of revolutionary approach to the game was what earned him the moniker "The Genius"—which seemed to be both a blessing and a curse, in terms of the enormous pressure put on him to continue his early success. That external pressure, though, seemed to pale in comparison to the obsessive internal criticism to which he constantly subjected himself. How do you think his relentless inner critic contributed to his successes and failures as a coach?

David Harris: Well, it was both the engine for all his successes and also what completely destroyed him. It made him relentless. You're looking at a guy with something to prove—to his detractors, for sure, but mostly to himself. The kind of pressure he put on himself gave him enormous creative energy, but also ultimately burned him out completely. He was always so full of contradictions—on the sidelines, he was just the epitome of cool, but inside, he was ferociously insecure, even at the zenith of his success.

Gelf Magazine: Genius is the kind of laudatory term that really separates someone from their peers—and in this case, seemed to cut against Bill's early desire to relate to his players. How do you think he navigated that balance between closeness to his players and the kind of distance required to truly lead the team?

David Harris: He really was a study in contrasts, especially when it came to relating to other people. Here you have this guy who came off like a college professor, but the guy had his last public fistfight at 65, and never really hesitated to come to blows when he got provoked enough. I think he learned early that he didn't want to be a players' coach, but he didn't want to be a drill instructor, either. He truly did love and respect all the guys who played for him, but he could be totally ruthless. He'd cut a guy at the drop of a hat, right on the practice field. It wasn't until after he retired that he really could express the deeper feelings he had for his players and the people he coached with.

Gelf Magazine: Certainly, Walsh was commonly understood to be an intellectual guy—he changed the game, in your words, from a "smash-mouth, trauma-filled" endeavor to a game of ever-increasing complexity. Yet most people don't really think of football as a thinking man's game. Why do you think the game is thought of as violence first, brains second?

David Harris: Well, obviously, football is still a brutal enterprise, despite its increasing intellect. But it's also the most strategically complex game being played professionally today. Baseball doesn't really come close, and basketball, in a strategic sense, is kindergarten to football's doctorate. And while many casual fans do not grasp the intellectual underpinnings of the game, in general, the level of expertise amongst the fan base is unprecedented in this day and age. The combination of the physicality of the game and how cerebral it is has always been its greatest attraction for me.

"Football is still a brutal enterprise, despite its increasing intellect. But it's also the most strategically complex game being played professionally today."
Gelf Magazine: How did Walsh influence the development of so many coaches? Do you see common threads among them?

David Harris: The Bill Walsh coaching tree has sprouted branches in a number of different directions. I don't see a ton of commonality in terms of his direct disciples, save some of the game fundamentals. They've all put their own stamps on the coaching profession. There is also the more thoughtful, cerebral approach to the game that many of them share. There aren't really any headbanger, Vince Lombardi-types among the ranks.

Gelf Magazine: Mike Shanahan, one of the more well-known branches on the Bill Walsh coaching tree, was recently stripped of his coaching and general-managing duties by the Broncos in a shocking move. Is this the official end of the coach/GM dual role initially popularized by Walsh?

David Harris: Well, it's a role that requires a great deal of skill. If a guy has those skills, then sure, it works. But some of the great coaches couldn't pull it off. Bill Parcells couldn't, certainly. Bill Belichick is, I think, the closest to being able to execute the dual role these days, in terms of the combination of in-game coaching and talent-evaluation skill. As the game becomes more specialized, the kind of multifaceted approach to team development becomes much rarer, and harder to achieve.
Walsh also had a lot to say about the development of coaches of color in the league, creating and implementing a comprehensive internship program for young, promising coaching talent.
The program that Bill developed was based on what he really believed in—that in order for coaches to succeed, they needed real, substantive development. The program for coaching development the NFL had in place at the time was basically a tokenizing junket that gave black coaches no real roadmap toward attaining coaching positions in the NFL. Bill treated black coaches like coaches, and focused on unlocking their real potential. No one had a bigger impact in terms of stature in the league in righting the injustices around who was getting promoted into head-coaching positions, and I don't think he gets the credit he deserves in this arena. His seriousness of purpose and his active role in mentoring coaches really set him apart—it was totally different in terms of his emphasis on developing the talent of coaches of color, but also in terms of how open he was in sharing his thoughts about the game. He was an open book with all the guys he mentored, which I think is why so many of them went on to become successful coaches.
Now, it seems like the only real channel by which to increase the representation of coaches of color in the game is through the Rooney Rule. I certainly approve of the Rooney Rule, and think it's necessary, but it does nothing to address the need for targeted development of coaching talent. It forces a mostly white NFL ownership base to actually talk to people of color about coaching positions, which is good, but without development of talent that addresses the systematic disadvantages that coaches of color trying to make it in the NFL already face, you're basically in the same position of tokenization. Talent needs to be nurtured and given the opportunity to flourish.

Gelf Magazine: I was struck by the passage where you talk about what kind of effect the 49ers' first Super Bowl win had on the city of San Francisco, which was then reeling from the Jonestown massacre, the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and the newly burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Do you still see this kind of connection between city and team as possible? What kind of relationship do you think exists now between professional sports teams and the cities in which they are based?

David Harris: I think the kind of identification that San Francisco had with the 49ers at that time was born of a particular set of circumstances that just don't happen every day. I don't know that you'll see that happen in the same way again, but the potential is there—it does depend on exigency to some extent, and the ability of a city to collectively identify with a team that is, generally, newly successful.

Gelf Magazine: It's especially interesting to think about, now that the Niners are in the midst of a possible move to Santa Clara, joining the ranks of teams that don't even play their home games in the cities for which they're named.

David Harris: Well, when I talk about the kind of relationship the 49ers had to San Francisco, I really mean their relationship to the nine counties of the Bay Area. But yeah, I think that in terms of the relationship of team and city, it's changing somewhat, and is very much subject to the particular context of the time and place. You're not going to see the kind of psychological turmoil that San Francisco was dealing with at the first Super Bowl victory that can really be healed by the victory of a football team. It was more the circumstance of the right team, right place, right time.
Walsh had such a strong identification with the area, and was very much close to what was really happening in the city at the time of the first Super Bowl victory. I think people in the Bay Area really identified with him, and he with them. I think that was a big part of how strongly the city adopted the team—their coach reflected some of the aspects of the city, in terms of its intellectual nature. He knew about things other than football, and he was keenly aware of what was happening to the city at the time, because he was really part of it.

Gelf Magazine: It makes you wish that the Lions were able to give some hope to Detroit.

David Harris: Yeah, absolutely. That is something great about sports—the extent to which teams can give some hope or inspiration when things otherwise seem pretty hopeless.

David Harris at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 1 of 3)

David Harris at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 2 of 3)

David Harris at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 3 of 3)

Front-page image courtesy Kevin Severud's Flickr.

Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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Article by Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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