Offensive 'Genius' and innovator

Bill Walsh joyously celebrates Super Bowl XIX win over Dolphins in January 1985.

SAN FRANCISCO - Bill Walsh changed the look of the NFL with his offensive innovations and legion of coaching disciples, breaking new ground and winning three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in the process.

Nicknamed "The Genius" for his creative schemes that became known as the West Coast Offense, Walsh died at his Woodside home yesterday morning following a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.

"This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay area because of what he meant to the 49ers," said Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the player most closely linked to Walsh's tenure with the team. "For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him."

Walsh was hired as head coach of the 49ers in 1979. He spent just 10 seasons on the San Francisco sideline, but left an indelible mark on the sport.

The soft-spoken native Californian also produced a legion of coaching disciples. Many of his former assistants went on to lead their own teams.

"The essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary teacher," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "If you gave him a blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of wisdom. He taught all of us not only about football but also about life and how it takes teamwork for any of us to succeed as individuals."

Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles.

His cerebral nature and often-brilliant stratagems earned him his nickname well before his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

He visited with friends until the end. Tyrone Willingham, the former Stanford coach now at Washington, and Stanford donor and alumnus John Arrillaga went to see Walsh on Sunday, presenting him with the Stagg Award for his outstanding service to football.

Raiders owner Al Davis and Hall of Famer John Madden stopped by Saturday, and Montana on Friday. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was headed to see Walsh yesterday when he received the sad news instead.

"He knew me well before I knew myself and knew what I could accomplish well before I knew that I could accomplish it," Young said. "That's a coach."

Walsh twice served as the 49ers' general manager, and George Seifert led San Francisco to two more Super Bowl titles after Walsh left the sideline. Walsh also coached Stanford during two terms over five seasons.

Even a short list of Walsh's adherents is stunning. Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh's San Francisco staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. Most of his former assistants passed on Walsh's structures and strategies to a new generation of coaches, including Andy Reid, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher.

Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program in 1987, helping minority coaches advance into the NFL. Marvin Lewis and Willingham are among the coaches who went through the program, later adopted as a league-wide initiative.

"He was just a very socially conscious guy," said Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl. Dungy, who played 1 year for Walsh, was traded to the New York Giants for Rhodes, whom Walsh later added to his coaching staff and eventually became one of the NFL's first black coaches.

Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. He publicly disclosed his illness in November 2006.

Fellow Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who hired Walsh to his first college coaching job, last spoke to him about 6 weeks ago on the telephone.

"I asked him how he was doing, and he said he had come off a certain type of a treatment and he felt much more energy," Levy said. "But he told me then, he said, 'Marv, I don't have long.' He said it honestly. He was vibrant. Understood it. And yet, I was sad to hear it."

Born William Ernest Walsh on Nov. 30, 1931 in Los Angeles, he was a self-described "average" end and a sometime boxer at San Jose State in 1952-53.

He married his college sweetheart, Geri Nardini, in 1954 and started his coaching career at Washington High School in Fremont, leading the football and swim teams.

Walsh was coaching in Fremont when he interviewed for an assistant coaching position with Levy, who had just been hired as the head coach at California.

"I was very impressed, individually, by his knowledge, by his intelligence, by his personality and hired him," Levy said.

After Cal, he did a stint at Stanford before beginning his pro coaching career as an assistant with the American Football League's Oakland Raiders in 1966, forging a friendship with Al Davis that endured through decades of rivalry. Walsh joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 to work for legendary coach Paul Brown, who gradually gave him control of the Bengals' offense.

Though it originated in Cincinnati, it became known many years later as the West Coast Offense - a name Walsh never liked, but which eventually grew to encompass his offensive philosophy.

After a bitter falling-out with Brown in 1976, Walsh left for stints with the San Diego Chargers and Stanford before the 49ers chose him to rebuild their franchise.

Much of the NFL eventually ran a version of the West Coast in the 1990s, with its fundamental belief that the passing game can set up an effective running attack.

Walsh also is widely credited with inventing or popularizing many of the modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of plays held by coaches on almost every sideline, to the practice of scripting the first 15 offensive plays of a game.

He also showed considerable acumen in personnel, adding Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice to his rosters after he was named the 49ers' general manager in 1982 and then president in 1985.

"I came to San Francisco, and I found another father, Bill Walsh," Rice said. "He was always there for me.'' *