'Genius' Walsh Reshaped How NFL Played Ball Three Super Bowl victories marked Bill Walsh as an exceptional coach. But his impact on football at all levels will continue long after his death Monday at 75.
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'Genius' Walsh Reshaped How NFL Played Ball

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'Genius' Walsh Reshaped How NFL Played Ball

'Genius' Walsh Reshaped How NFL Played Ball

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During his time as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls. He also created an offense that has been copied throughout football at all levels. Walsh died yesterday of leukemia at the age of 75.

And we're going to remember him this morning with the help of our commentator John Feinstein. John, good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where would you rank Walsh among football coaches?

FEINSTEIN: He's certainly in the first paragraph. He's right up. Only Chuck Noll won more Super Bowls than he did. Walsh won three. Noll won four. And Walsh and Joe Gibson, Bill Belichick are the only ones with three.

As you said, he created an offense that not only made the 49ers into a dynasty - they continued to win running that offense; they won two more Super Bowls after he retired - but it is an offense that is used, now, all around the country by NFL teams, by college teams, even by high school teams because it was so creative and different. It allowed you to throw the football instead of running the football but get it to receivers almost all the time. The completion percentage was in the 60 to 70 percent range.

INSKEEP: Could anybody have won with the kind of talent that he had?

FEINSTEIN: I don't know that anybody could have won with the kind of talent that he had, because players who played under him also said that he was a great motivator, that he wasn't a fire and brimstone guy. He was a very educated, smart guy, but he had a great sense of humor.

The first time the 49ers went to a Super Bowl, he greeted the team at the hotel dressed as a bellhop to alleviate the pressure. He was always coming up with different ways to make the players want to play for him. And that's why he was such a consistent winner.

INSKEEP: Although you raise an interesting point there. He did have this image in the 1980s as an intellectual. He looked like a very dignified guy there on the sideline.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. That's why he had the nickname, the Genius, and that's why people thought of him more as an educator, even though he was coaching at the highest level of professional football, than the way they think of people like Vince Lombardi and Don Shula: great coaches who were known for peeling locker room walls off - peeling the paint off of locker room walls. That was never Walsh's way.

INSKEEP: What can you learn about Bill Walsh from the later careers of people who served as his assistants?

FEINSTEIN: Again, that gets back to the teaching and the fact that he was not such a control freak the way most coaches are. The guys who became successful who worked for him - Mike Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl; George Seifert, who won two Super Bowls with the 49ers after him; Sam Wyche, who coached in the Super Bowl; and Dennis Green and Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl - will all say that he let you coach. He let you - he taught you the game and then he let you teach the game. And that's why so many of them became important coaches.

The other thing he did that is overlooked, I think, by a lot of people, Steve, during the 1980s, when there were no African-American head coaches in the NFL, he started something called the Black Coaches Summer Program, in which he invited African-American coaches to come and work with the 49ners. And among others, Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Marvin Lewis - now NFL coaches - came out of that program.

INSKEEP: All that success at the pro level kind of overshadows the fact that he also had a successful college career.

FEINSTEIN: Well, that's where he was discovered by Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., the owner of the 49ers, when he was the head coach at Stanford, running this crazy offense that nobody had ever seen. And after he got through coaching the 49ers - like most coaches, he was only 57 when he was burned out and left the 49ers - he went back and coached at Stanford again. That was a true love of his, and he had great success at Stanford when he went back there in the 1990s.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Comments from John Feinstein. His new book is called "Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl," comes out next month. He's talking about the late Bill Walsh, the man who in his final game as NFL coach won his third Super Bowl in 1989.

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