Pioneering Walsh recalled as colossal figure with 'common touch'

Updated: August 9, 2007, 8:26 PM ET
Associated Press

STANFORD, Calif. -- Bill Walsh planned his own memorial service in the months before his death with the same meticulous attention he paid to every aspect of the San Francisco 49ers.

Even when a lengthy battle with leukemia finally sapped his strength last month, Walsh made sure Thursday's quietly buoyant tribute would be a celebration of a Hall of Fame coach's life, as well as a chance for hundreds of old friends to reunite in praise and mourning.

"He said he wasn't scared,'' Mike White, a longtime friend and coaching colleague, said of his final conversation with Walsh. "He said he was at peace, and he said he was ready to go. It was the most impressive display of courage I've ever seen.''

Bill Walsh
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoStanford football players walk Thursday toward a memorial service for former Stanford and 49ers coach Bill Walsh in Stanford, Calif.
Walsh's family and a remarkable cross-section of the football fraternity gathered reverently at Stanford Memorial Church to praise the 49ers great as both an innovative leader and a loyal friend.

More than 1,000 mourners gathered at Stanford Memorial Church to honor Walsh, who died of leukemia on July 30 at 75.

They walked to the church through solemn rows of Stanford football players wearing their jerseys in honor of Walsh, who won three Super Bowls and revolutionized many aspects of the NFL during a decade on the San Francisco sideline.

"He was a man who stood astride the football culture in America like a colossus for 10 years,'' said Harry Edwards, a noted sports sociologist and longtime friend who delivered Walsh's eulogy. "He walked with generals, senators and secretaries of state, but never lost his common touch.''

Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young made poignant remarks in a ceremony livened by joyous music from San Francisco's famed Glide Ensemble choir -- just as Walsh envisioned when the consummate planner made arrangements for his own service in the months before his death.

"Bill died the way he lived: With sublime grace and with class,'' said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who hired Walsh. "Up until the very end, Bill led us by example. ... Nearing the end, he always said that we were in the fourth quarter. Bill managed that fourth quarter with flawless accuracy.''

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also spoke to the congregation, praising Walsh's forward thinking and vision.

Feinstein, the San Francisco mayor when Walsh took over the 49ers in 1979, praised the coach and his players for providing an immeasurable lift to their beleaguered city.

When Walsh arrived, San Francisco was reeling from a trio of devastating blows: the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk; the deaths of around 900 Californians in the Jonestown tragedy; and the public emergence of the AIDS virus in the city.

"Bill Walsh was a legend for us,'' Feinstein said. "What he gave to this city was putting together a team that would and could and did.''

Walsh, who didn't become an NFL head coach until he was 47, went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles. He was named the NFL's coach of the year in 1981 and 1984.

Walsh worked as an assistant coach at Stanford in the mid-1960s before beginning his pro coaching career as an assistant with the AFL's Oakland Raiders in 1966. He rejoined Stanford as head coach in the late 1970s and again in the early '90s.

Bill Walsh
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoHall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana (left) walks Thursday with former 49ers teammate Jesse Sapolu as they leave the memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.
Most of the prominent coaches who trace their success to a job under Walsh attended the service, including George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Pete Carroll, along with Walsh's former peers and friends, such as Don Shula, Dick Vermeil and John Madden. Current 49ers coach Mike Nolan read a passage of scripture.

Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott joined dozens of Walsh's former players with the 49ers and at Stanford, where he coached two terms over five seasons.

"I live my life partly because of the way he molded me,'' a teary-eyed Montana said. "He took a 189-pound, skinny-legged quarterback out of western Pennsylvania and gave me the opportunity to continue doing something that I loved.''

Young focused on Walsh's preternatural teaching abilities, but also provided a moment of levity when he recalled his first meeting with Walsh on a practice field in Provo, Utah, in 1987.

"He said, 'I thought you were 6-foot-2,' " recalled the 6-foot quarterback.

"Somehow he could take inventory of what you were today and see what you could become in the future,'' added Young, who was en route to visit Walsh last month when the coach died. "What more could anyone ask than to have a coach who could foretell how high you could fly, and then gave you the wings?''

Edwards listed Walsh's football innovations, from his ingenious pass-first schemes that later became known as the West Coast offense to his landmark achievements in practice and game preparation -- everything from the laminated play cards used by coaches to the practice of scripting the game's opening offensive plays.

"He was ahead of his time, and the game never did catch up to him,'' Young said.

Edwards then praised Walsh for his founding role in the minority internship program that developed several future head coaches, from Super Bowl champion Tony Dungy to Dennis Green and Marvin Lewis. Walsh also pioneered the idea of teaching post-football life skills to players before they left the league, Goodell said.

"Everywhere one turns in this league, one will find the input and influence of Bill Walsh,'' Edwards said. "Bill Walsh's life is a portrait of a life well-lived.''

Thousands of 49ers fans are expected at Candlestick Park on Friday for a public memorial service honoring Walsh.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press