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49ers coach was innovator

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.

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"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.

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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.

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"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.

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In 1955, he married wife Geri, and the next year got his first coaching break as a graduate assistant at San Jose State. His first big-time job was at California in the early 1960s. His first pro job was as offensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders in 1966.bill.ordine@baltsun.com

The Associated Press and sfgate.com contributed to this article.

THE GENIUS

Among Bill Walsh's coaching innovations:

WEST COAST OFFENSE A ball-control, usually short, passing attack that sets up running plays.

SCRIPTING PLAYS First 15 to 25 plays on offense are scripted late in the week before the game.

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MINORITY COACHING FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM Created in 1987, it allows minority coaches an opportunity to coach and learn.

Source: wire reports

The Walsh legacy

In the NFL coaching universe, Bill Walsh was not just a star, but a star of the first magnitude -- one whose impact will be felt, thanks to his galaxy of disciples, for generations to come. A quick look at his impact:

THE COACHING TREE

MIKE HOLMGREN: Perhaps Walsh's most successful pupil, Holmgren was hired in 1986 as the 49ers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He went on to become a head coach with the Green Bay Packers and now the Seattle Seahawks, and his tweaks to Walsh's "West Coast offense" were passed on to assistants who became head coaches as well: Mike Sherman, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg and Brad Childress.

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DENNIS GREEN: Walsh hired Green to coach wide receivers for the 49ers in 1986, and Green went on to a successful career as a head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and later an unsuccessful stint as Arizona Cardinals head coach. But Green had an unmistakable eye for coaching talent. With the Vikings, he hired Brian Billick, Mike Tice and Tony Dungy. In turn, Billick (who worked under Walsh for two seasons in the 49ers' public relations department) hired future Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio and coached with future Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. Tice hired future St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan, while Dungy hired future Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, future Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and future Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli.

GEORGE SEIFERT: Walsh's hand-picked successor with the 49ers after he retired, Seifert won two Super Bowls as San Francisco's head coach. Hired by Walsh in 1980 as a position coach and later defensive coordinator, Seifert helped start the coaching careers of future Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, and Shanahan passed some of that knowledge on to Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak.

SAM WYCHE: Hired by Walsh to coach quarterbacks in 1979, Wyche produced two head coaches, Bruce Coslet (New York Jets, Bengals) and Mike Mularkey (Buffalo Bills).

JIM FASSEL: Hired by Walsh at Stanford, Fassel helped tutor future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. Fassel also hired future Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox.

PAUL HACKETT: Hired by Walsh in 1983 as a quarterbacks and receivers coach, Hackett never became a head coach, but he discovered Packers coach Mike McCarthy and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden. Gruden's offensive line coach with the Raiders, Bill Callahan, became Oakland's head coach when Gruden left to coach at Tampa Bay.

HALL OF FAME PLAYERS HE COACHED

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Joe Montana (shown below with Walsh)

Ronnie Lott

Steve Young

John Elway (in college)

SOURCE: Web and wire reports



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