“We will never forget our coach who took the 49ers to the highest pinnacle of achievement three times in the 1980s, earning the franchise and its talented coach the recognition they deserved.” — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom
Steve Young and Jerry Rice entered the Stanford University auditorium quietly Monday afternoon, both men appearing to brace themselves with arms held tightly across their chests, waiting for the news conference announcing the death of Bill Walsh to begin.
But both men began to relax as they shared memories of the Hall of Fame coach.
Bill Walsh deserves to be mentioned in the same category at the other great innovators and leaders that have clustered in the South Bay over the past three decades, Young said.
“When you mention Steve Jobs or Andy Grove you have to mention Bill Walsh,” Young said.
“He was doing the same things only in a different venue.”
Walsh died at home in Woodside Monday morning and was receiving visitors as recently as Sunday when former Stanford football coach Tyrone Willingham and Stanford donor John Arrillaga saw him.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and former Raiders coach and current NFL broadcaster John Madden saw him on Saturday. Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott saw Walsh on Wednesday and Montana saw Walsh again on Friday, according to Walsh family spokesman Kirk Reynolds.
Rice said he was always grateful for Walsh taking a big chance by drafting him out of a small, historically black college in Mississippi.
“I came to San Francisco and I found another father: Bill Walsh,” Rice said.
Young, Rice, former 49er Keena Turner, former 49ers assistant coach Bill McPherson, Stanford University Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby and Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh all agreed that Walsh should be remembered as a teacher as much as a coach.
“At his core, Bill was a teacher,” Turner said.
“He loved to be… able to see the future of a person,” Young said.
“He knew me well before I knew myself.”
Walsh talked about wanting to stay in the Bay Area and coach at his first meeting with then 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo before DeBartolo hired him in 1979.
“The most important thing that was in his mind was his love for the Bay Area, his home,” DeBartolo said in a conference call.
Stanford has already begun a Bill Walsh Leadership Program for student athletes and coaches to honor Walsh. There will likely be an additional honor for Walsh on the campus, according to Bowlsby.
“I also expect there’s going to be some sort of physical memory, likely around the football field,” Bowlsby said.
On behalf of San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom described Walsh as one of the greatest coaches in history and pledged the City would never forget Coach Walsh.
“It is with great sorrow that we mark the passing of one of the greatest football coaches in the history of the sport and one of San Francisco’s true legends,” Newsom stated.
“Bill Walsh will forever be remembered as the father of the West Coast offense, the architect of one of the winningest football franchises in NFL history, and a master motivator who took the raw components of talent and fashioned them into success through organization, vision, and will.
“We will never forget our coach who took the 49ers to the highest pinnacle of achievement three times in the 1980s, earning the franchise and its talented coach the recognition they deserved.
“His legacy will live on through the hundreds of NFL players and coaches he inspired, as well as millions of fans of the game. Although I am saddened by his passing, I would like to mark this day by remembering and honoring his great accomplishments and contributions to the sport of professional football and our city.
“Tomorrow I will issue a proclamation declaring July 31, 2007 Bill Walsh Day in San Francisco. Our flag at City Hall will be flown at half-mast in his honor.”
Walsh did not become an NFL head coach until he was 47, but turned the 49ers into a 1980s success story and left an indelible mark on American football.
His teams won the Super Bowl in 1982, 1985 and 1989, and he was named NFL coach of the year in 1981 and 1984.
Many of his former assistants went on to lead their own teams, handing down his methods and schemes to dozens more coaches.
Under Walsh, the 49ers drafted quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice and safety Ronnie Lott – all among the greatest players ever to play at their respective positions.
“For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him,” Montana said in a statement.
Walsh went 102-63 with one tie with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 post-season games along with six division titles.
He also helped to establish the World League of American Football – what was NFL Europe – in 1994.
Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and underwent months of treatment and blood transfusions.
He publicly disclosed his illness in November 2006, but appeared at a tribute for retired receiver Jerry Rice two weeks later.
Bay City News and Pat Murphy contributed to this report