In the first of a series of blog entries focused on California sports, its history, legacies, and finest hours, I open with an interesting gem of our history, which for the 49ers and their fans, is something not often thought of.
It is well-known that Bill Walsh, prior to coaching at Stanford and with the 49ers, worked for Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals. Something that often gets lost in the backdrop, though, is that he worked under Al Davis with the Oakland Raiders for a season. As hard as it is for modern day fans of the Niners to imagine him wearing silver and black, he did for one season, as a running backs coach.
Bill Walsh was not always the football genius that we all think of him as; like all coaches who become thought of that way, he had to work his way up, pay his dues (in Walsh’s case, you can argue he paid more than his fair share), and take his opportunities as they came, and for one year, that opportunity was in Oakland, where Bill Walsh, the original designer of the West Coast offense, was a running backs coach.
It is an amusing comparison, but Al Davis, when he was coaching, worked his coaches to the bone in a manner akin to Bill Belichick and Bill Parcels; Al Davis continued this philosophy under head coach John Rauch, Davis’s hand-picked successor. One reason why Walsh left Oakland was because other jobs had the opportunity for him to sleep every now and then. However, his time there left an indelible impression on him, as have the tutelage of Belichick and Parcels on their many coaching “descendants.”
Al Davis was a student and protege of Sid Gillman, the progenitor of the vertical offense. That system thrived in the AFL, which the Raiders were in at the time of Walsh’s tenure, which unlike the more conservative NFL, foresaw the big play, entertainment value of the game. Al Davis once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the old attitude was take what they give you; the Raiders took what they wanted. Other teams wanted first downs every play; the Raiders wanted touchdowns every play. Bill Walsh, coaching running backs, wearing the silver and black, absorbed much of it.
Walsh would later merge what he learned from Al Davis with the problem of having a quarterback with a weak arm. Virgil Carter was the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback at the time, and Walsh, who would coach wide receivers and later on quarterbacks as well for Paul Brown’s Bengals, and his system for Carter became known as the West Coast Offense; eventually put in the hands of Joe Montana with the 49ers, who could make the deep pass, and coupled with the magnificent receivers of the 49ers, eventually led by Jerry Rice, the system has blossomed and is now the dominant offense in the NFL.
Of course, Walsh did snags, and unlike many geniuses, most were not of his own making: Paul Brown allegedly kept Walsh from getting head coaching and coordinator interviews and tried to blackball him in the NFL, hence Walsh’s jump to Stanford; between the Bengals and Stanford, he served as offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. Then he went to Palo Alto and the rest is, as they say, is history.
Bill Walsh spent time learning under Al Davis and Paul Brown; Al Davis would find successful coaches to lead the Raiders, namely John Madden, Tom Flores, and Art Shell. Paul Brown’s Bengals have not been so lucky, and the passing over of Walsh is often cited as evidence of how snakebitten the Bengals are.
Walsh’s legacy is far bigger than one season, or even one team. His tenure at Stanford cannot be overstated, and his ability to rally the 49ers to become Super Bowl contenders, and champions, is all him; no one can teach you that. However, behind the legend is a story, and Bill Walsh’s story is far more epic than can be described in words.
So much so that over twenty-five years later, the 49ers hired another coach out of Stanford, who had once upon a time been a Raiders assistant: Jim Harbaugh (yeah, I know, I couldn’t believe it either).
Writer’s note: I tried to find a picture of Bill Walsh in Raiders gear for this entry, but was not able to; I do believe that Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., the long time 49ers owners, has acquired and destroyed all of them.