William Ernest “Bill” Walsh (November 30, 1931 – July 30, 2007) was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and the Stanford Cardinal football team, during which time he popularized the West Coast offense. After retiring from the 49ers, Walsh worked as a sports broadcaster for several years and then returned as head coach at Stanford for three seasons.
Walsh went 102–63–1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles, three NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowls. He was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984. In 1993, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Born in Los Angeles, Walsh played running back in the San Francisco Bay Area for Hayward High School in Hayward.
Walsh played quarterback at the College of San Mateo for two seasons. Both John Madden and Walsh played and coached at the College of San Mateo early in their careers. After playing at the College of San Mateo, Walsh transferred to San Jose State University, where he played tight end and defensive end. He also participated in intercollegiate boxing.
Walsh graduated from San Jose State with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1955. He served under Bob Bronzan as a graduate assistant coach on the Spartans football coaching staff and graduated with a master’s degree in physical education from San Jose State in 1959. His master’s thesis was entitled Flank Formation Football — Stress:: Defense. Thesis 796.W228f
Following graduation, Walsh coached the football and swim teams at Washington High School in Fremont, California.
Walsh was coaching in Fremont when he interviewed for an assistant coaching position with Marv Levy, who had just been hired as the head coach at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I was very impressed, individually, by his knowledge, by his intelligence, by his personality, and hired him,” Levy said. Levy and Walsh, two future NFL Hall of Famers, would never produce a winning season at Cal.
After Cal, Walsh did a stint at Stanford as an assistant coach, before beginning his pro coaching career.
Walsh began his pro coaching career in 1966 as an assistant with the AFL’s Oakland Raiders. As a Raider assistant, Walsh was trained in the vertical passing offense favored by Al Davis, putting Walsh in Davis’s mentor Sid Gillman’s coaching tree.
In 1968, Walsh moved to the AFL expansion Cincinnati Bengals, joining the staff of legendary coach Paul Brown. It was there that Walsh developed the philosophy now known as the “West Coast Offense”, as a matter of necessity. Cincinnati’s new quarterback, Virgil Carter, was known for his great mobility and accuracy but lacked a strong arm necessary to throw deep passes.
Thus, Walsh modified the vertical passing scheme he had learned during his time with the Raiders, designing a horizontal passing system that relied on quick, short throws – often spreading the ball across the entire width of the field. The new offense was much better suited to Carter’s physical abilities; he led the league in pass completion percentage in 1971.
Walsh spent eight seasons as an assistant with the Bengals. Ken Anderson eventually replaced Carter as starting quarterback, and together with star wide receiver Isaac Curtis, produced a consistent, effective offensive attack.
Initially, Walsh started out as the wide receivers coach from 1968 to 1970 before also coaching the quarterbacks from 1971 to 1975.
When Brown retired as head coach following the 1975 season and appointed Bill “Tiger” Johnson as his successor, Walsh resigned and served as an assistant coach for Tommy Prothro with the San Diego Chargers in 1976.
In a 2006 interview, Walsh claimed that during his tenure with the Bengals, Brown “worked against my candidacy” to be a head coach anywhere in the league. “All the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them,” Walsh said. “And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL.”
In 1977, Walsh was hired as the head coach at Stanford where he stayed for two seasons. His two Stanford teams were successful, posting a 9–3 record in 1977 with a win in the Sun Bowl, and 8–4 in 1978 with a win in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
His notable players at Stanford included quarterbacks Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils, wide receivers James Lofton and Ken Margerum, linebacker Gordy Ceresino, in addition to running back Darrin Nelson. Walsh was the Pac-8 Conference Coach of the Year in 1977.
In 1979, Walsh was hired as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The long-suffering 49ers went 2–14 in 1978, the season before Walsh’s arrival and repeated the same dismal record in his first season. Walsh got the entire organization to buy into his philosophy and vowed to turn around a miserable situation. Despite their second consecutive 2-14 record, the 49ers were playing more competitive football.
In 1979, Walsh drafted quarterback Joe Montana from Notre Dame in the third round. After a 59-14 blowout loss to Dallas in week 6 of the 1980 season, Walsh promoted Montana to starting QB. In a Sunday game, December 7, 1980, vs. the New Orleans Saints, Montana brought the 49ers back from a 35-7 halftime deficit to win 38-35 in overtime.
The 49ers improved in 1980 to 6–10, but more importantly, Walsh had the 49ers making great strides and they were getting better every week. San Francisco won its first championship in Super Bowl XVI vs the Cincinnati Bengals 1981, just two years after winning two games.
Under Walsh the 49ers won Super Bowl championships in 1981, 1984 and 1988. Walsh served as 49ers head coach for ten years, and during his tenure he and his coaching staff perfected the style of play known popularly as the West Coast offense. Walsh was nicknamed “The Genius” for both his innovative play calling and design. Walsh would regularly script the first 10-15 offensive plays before the start of each game.
In the ten years during which Walsh was the 49ers’ head coach, San Francisco scored 3,714 points (24.4 per game), the most of any team in the league during that span.
In addition to drafting Joe Montana, Walsh drafted Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, and Jerry Rice. He also traded a 2nd and 4th round pick in the 1987 draft for Steve Young. His success with the 49ers was rewarded with his election to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Bill Walsh died of leukemia at 10:45 am on July 30, 2007, at his home in Woodside, California. Following Walsh’s death, the playing field at (the now-defunct) Candlestick Park was renamed “Bill Walsh Field”. Additionally, the regular San Jose State versus Stanford football game was renamed the “Bill Walsh Legacy Game”.
Walsh is survived by his wife Geri, his son Craig and his daughter Elizabeth. Walsh also lost a son, Steve, in 2002. Craig Walsh flipped the coin at Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona, accompanied by his sister, their mother and several ex-49ers.