Bill Walsh’s Lessons for Runners

When Bill Walsh died on Monday, we athletes lost a role model. The legendary coach of three Super Bowl champions changed sports in ways that affect us all.

My then-wife turned me on to the 49ers in the late 1980s. I quickly grew addicted. On Sunday afternoons, we would don our 49er hats and munch popcorn while we watched Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor tear their rivals apart.

It was sports as I’d seldom seen it. Back in the early 1970s, writer Bil (not a typo; one “l”) Gilbert wrote a memorable piece for Sports Illustrated in which he defined three kinds of sports: Big Sport, True Sport, and Little Sport.

Big Sport is exploding scoreboards, sexy cheerleaders, and free agency. It’s about money and marketing and looking our for number one.

True Sport is sports practiced at the highest level, almost as an art form. It’s the Olympics at their best (surely, Frank Shorter’s 1972 marathon victory qualifies; it was a pure expression of excellence).

Little Sport is you and I.

Bill Walsh was great because he was able to bring the values of True Sport to Big Sports, with ultimate success.

It can’t have been easy.

If Walsh’s 49er teams were fun to watch (greatness always is), the reasons aren’t hard to find.

Walsh was an intensely focused individual — he committed full attention and energy to managing the details of building a great team. Walsh’s amazing concentration also allowed him to identify what really counted in football. Until Walsh came along, football practices tended to be like mini-games; instead of beating the crap out of an opponent, you practiced on your teammates. (I know — I recall the day, on a high school field, when a coach had my best friend and me do a head-on tackling drill that was less about tackling, than trying to destroy each other.)

Walsh recognized that brains can win football games, if it’s backed by adequate brawn. He realized that the most energy-efficient way to move a football down the field is with short passes. Walsh was like General Douglas MacArthur, whose campaigns in the Pacific during World War II conquered more territory, with less loss of life, than ever before in the history of war. Instead of wearing his players out by having them bulldoze their way through other teams, Walsh’s high-energy game took the football over them.

The 49er offense went against every image of old-time, smash-mouth football. And for years it was roundly mocked. The 49ers rarely practiced in full pads; they nearly always wore shorts and jerseys, as they ran their intricate pass patterns, over and over. Practices were as intelligent and efficient as a Joe Montana touchdown drive. The other teams laughed, until it became clear that the 49ers would continue to beat the pants off the traditional smash-mouth outfits. It wasn’t long until those organizations were vying to lure San Francisco’s coaches away. A tribute to Walsh on the Yahoo News web site described how the “West Coast offense” spread:

Even a short list of Walsh’s adherents is stunning. [George] Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh’s San Francisco staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. Most of his former assistants passed on Walsh’s structures and strategies to a new generation of coaches, including Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher.

Training with brains works best — running is no exception. In my own running, smash-mouth tactics have never brought success. I’ve failed when I’ve let myself be tempted into brutally hard runs, spontaneous speed-bursts, and runs driven by emotion and impatience. But I’ve consistently succeeded when I trained patiently, with discipline and understanding. From the Yahoo tribute:

“He was a perfectionist,” said Keena Turner, a linebacker with the Niners for 11 years before going on to coach. “When writing his script, he didn’t believe that running the football was the way to get there. It had to be prettier than that — beautiful in some way.”

It was beautiful. In TV interviews, even the 49er players with “smash-mouth” roles — fullback Tom Rathman, center and guard Randy Cross, safety Ronnie Lott, for example — were transparently upbeat when they talked about playing for Walsh and the Niners.

That’s what good training does — even if we’ve got the VO2Max of a tree sloth, it allows us to taste the joys of True Sport.

True Sport is about expansion — it’s our potential explored at its uttermost edges. In sports, books, music, art and movies, expansion is always inspiring. Bill Walsh was an expansive person, and that’s why I feel saddened that he’s no longer in the world with us.

When we train expansively — with intelligence and respect for our body’s needs — we become capable of holding expansive feelings. We become champions in our own, personal Super Bowl.

Walsh wasn’t one of those people who are intellectually brilliant but emotionally cold. He had learned to balance the mechanics of running a successful football team, with caring for his players as individuals. Throughout Walsh’s tenure, other players considered the 49ers to be the team that set the standard for class in the NFL.

He instituted and/or upgraded programs for players that went beyond playing.

[Harry] Edwards, for instance, was brought in to build finance, education and counseling programs for players, dealing with everything from paying taxes to getting family guidance.

“All of those to this day have been adopted by the league, and the teams follow them,” Edwards said. “What Bill believed is that if we can create a better man off the field in dealing with the pressures and circumstances of life, we will have a better player on the field.”….

“Bill Walsh personified what it meant to be a human being,” said Jim Harbaugh, Stanford’s new football coach who knew Walsh for 18 years and once received footwork tips from the coach while playing for the Bears. “Everything that came out of his mind, his heart, his mouth, I hung on every single word.”

There are principles that permeate all life. You can’t separate, say, running and football, and claim that they work only here, but not there. Expansive qualities like kindness, self-restraint, discipline, courage, respect. They aren’t for football only; they’re for us all.

Thank you, Bill Walsh, for reminding us.