Calmly standing on the sideline exuding a seemingly unshakable confidence, silver-haired San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh - who died yesterday of leukemia at the age of 75 - became as much a superstar as any of the glittering names who played for him on three Super Bowl championship teams.
Mention of the 49ers dynasty, with rosters that included Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Dwight Clark, is likely to come around to a discussion of Walsh as a football genius.
"He was the first one to be called that, a genius," said Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who worked with Walsh when the coach was a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant. "And the ones who poked fun at that for a time were the idiots."
Walsh's strategic contribution to the game is well-known. He is considered the father of the horizontal passing attack, with the misnomer of the "West Coast offense." The offensive approach was actually honed in Cincinnati and, like many inventions, was born out of necessity when the Bengals lost star quarterback Greg Cook to a career-ending shoulder injury.
In response, Walsh, an assistant to Paul Brown, had to revamp the offense for the more agile but not nearly so strong-armed Virgil Carter.
It was an approach that stretched the field from sideline to sideline, would come to use all offensive skill players as receivers, including tight ends and fullbacks, and turned on its head the conventional NFL wisdom that a team had to establish its running game to create passing opportunities. In Walsh's world, a quick, precision passing game - often a proxy for a running attack - opened the field for ball carriers and could effectively control the clock.
And so was created the offense that carried the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles under Walsh (and two more under his successor, George Seifert), becoming the envy of the league and perhaps its most copied bit of strategy.
But to the public, Walsh transcended X's and O's. His coaching success in San Francisco beginning in the early 1980s coincided with the NFL's replacing baseball as the pre-eminent sport in America, and he was an engaging, articulate figure who embodied the concept of success with style. Unlike the NFL's coaching patron saint until then, Vince Lombardi, whose persona was discipline and toughness, Walsh was seen as cerebral and glamorous. And his teams were a reflection of that.
As much an executive as he was a coach to the outside world, Walsh projected an image that resonated with corporate America. And 10 years ago, Walsh wrote a book with Ravens coach Brian Billick that discussed, in part, every aspect of building a franchise.
"In the recent or modern history of the NFL, no coach has been more influential and innovative than Bill Walsh," Billick said yesterday. "That includes his coaching on the field and his thoughts and action on how franchises can work together to win championships."
To the players who worked with him, Walsh was primarily a teacher. His master's degree was in education.
Fouts said Walsh, who arrived in San Diego before Don Coryell and the advent of the Air Coryell offense, salvaged his career.
"Bill helped me so much with the fundamentals of the game, the drops, the fakes, the reads," said Fouts, who wound up being in the same Hall of Fame class with Walsh in 1993. "He came in and calmed me down and got me to thinking about what was really important about the game."
By all rights, Cincinnati should have been the beneficiary of Walsh's offensive imagination. He expected to be named the Bengals head coach after Brown's retirement, but instead Brown chose offensive line coach Bill Johnson. It was a slight that cut Walsh deeply and had him questioning whether he would ever make it as an NFL head coach.
His chance came in 1979, when the youthful owner of the 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., turned over the disappointing franchise to Walsh, then 47. His first year, San Francisco limped in at 2-14. Two years later, the 49ers were Super Bowl champions. Over 16 seasons beginning in 1983, the team never won fewer than 10 games.
Along the way, Walsh popularized such sideline concepts as scripting the first two dozen or so plays for the offense. Off the field, he introduced a minority coaching fellowship that helped cultivate the careers of men such as current Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and University of Washington coach Tyrone Willingham.
In his 10 seasons as an NFL head coach from 1979 through 1988, Walsh was 102-63-1, with six divisional titles to go along with those three Super Bowl championships. He served in various capacities in the 49ers front office several times and was the head coach at Stanford on two occasions for a total of five seasons.
A native Californian, Walsh was born Nov. 30, 1931. He father was a day laborer. He attended Hayward High School, San Mateo Junior College and San Jose State.