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Bill Walsh passes away at age 75

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Bill Walsh

(07-30) 12:33 PDT -- Bill Walsh, the imaginative and charismatic coach who took over a downtrodden 49ers team and built one of the greatest franchises in NFL history, died Monday morning at his home in Woodside at the age of 75, after a long struggle with leukemia.

A master of using short, precisely timed passes to control the ball in what became known as the West Coast offense, he guided the team to three Super Bowl championships and six NFC West division titles in his 10 years as head coach.

The 49ers had been wrecked by mismanagement and unwise personnel decisions under former general manager Joe Thomas when owner Ed DeBartolo Jr. cleaned house in 1979. Walsh, who had led Stanford to two bowl victories in two seasons as head coach, took a 49ers team that had finished 2-14 in 1978 and built a Super Bowl champion in just three years. It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in professional sports history.

His teams would win two more Super Bowls (following the 1984 and 1988 seasons) before he turned the team over to George Seifert, who directed the 49ers to two more championships ('89 and '94). Walsh set the foundation for an unprecedented streak in the NFL of 16 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.

He had a knack for spotting talent and then developing that talent to its fullest. His touch was particularly deft when it came to quarterbacks. He drafted Joe Montana in the third round in 1979 and acquired Steve Young, then a backup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in 1987 for second- and fourth-round draft choices. Both were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

At his own Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, in 1993, Walsh revealed he nearly didn't make it to the end of his second season in San Francisco.

"In those first three years, we were trying to find the right formula," he said. "We went 2-14 that first year (1979). The next year we won three and then lost eight in row. I looked out of the window for five hours on the plane ride home from Miami after the eighth straight loss, and I had concluded I wasn't going to make it. I was going to move into management."

He changed his mind and finished the season, a 6-10 year. The 49ers gave notice of things to come in a late-season game against the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park. Trailing 35-7 at halftime, they thundered back to win 38-35 in overtime. At the time, it was the biggest comeback in NFL history.

But the real magic was yet to come. After losing two of their first three games in 1981, the 49ers would win 15 of their next 16 games in a methodical yet astonishing march. Behind Montana and wide receivers Dwight Clark and Freddy Solomon and a defense led by linebacker Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds, pass rushing whiz Fred Dean and a secondary that started three rookies -- Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson -- they became the first NFL team in 34 years to go from the worst record to the best in just three seasons.

To do it, they had to shock the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the NFC Championship Game. They won it on Montana's scrambling 6-yard pass to a leaping Clark with 51 seconds left. The play, dubbed "The Catch," is the most celebrated moment in Bay Area sports history.

"That was a practiced play," Walsh said. "Now, we didn't expect three guys right down his throat. That was Joe who got the pass off in that situation, putting it where only Clark could come up with it."

Walsh showed his zany side two weeks later in Pontiac, Mich. Arriving before the team, he borrowed a bellman's uniform at the hotel and collected the players' bags at the curb, even holding out his hand for tips. His players didn't immediately recognize him, including Montana, who got into a brief tug-of-war with him when Walsh tried to grab his briefcase.

In Super Bowl XVI, the 49ers built a 20-0 lead but needed a memorable goal-line stand in the fourth quarter to hold off the Cincinnati Bengals and win 26-21.

Pro football in San Francisco would never be the same.

Walsh and his players were stunned by the reception they received when they returned to San Francisco. "There was a suggestion of a parade for us," Walsh said years later, "and I remember thinking that with the general fatigue I was reluctant to put the players through something that might be just a few people waving handkerchiefs on the street corner."

Instead, the city had basically been shut down for a celebration by more than half a million people, cheering San Francisco's first NFL champions as they were driven down Market Street.

"It was just an overwhelming experience, the realization that millions and millions of people had been following us," Walsh said. "That's when I realized what an accomplishment, what an historic moment for the city, it was to win a professional championship."

The 1984 team was probably Walsh's finest, an 18-1 powerhouse with a record-setting offense and the league's stingiest defense. It pounded Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium. That spring (1985), Walsh drafted a receiver from Mississippi Valley State named Jerry Rice, and the offense would get even better.

A last-ditch catch by Rice on a pass from Montana stole a victory over the Bengals in 1987. The play was memorable not only because it won the game but because it prompted a bizarre reaction by the head coach: Walsh joyfully skipped off the field.

One of the most thrilling Super Bowls (XXIII) followed the 1988 season. Rice was voted the game's Most Valuable Player after making 11 catches for a Super Bowl-record 215 yards. But the 49ers needed a 92-yard drive engineered by Montana in the final minutes and a last-minute, 10-yard TD pass from Montana to John Taylor to beat Cincinnati 20-16.

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An innovator and a great coach. I'm a Jets fan through and through, but I loved watching his teams play. Doesn't get as much credit as he should for the success of those 49er teams of the 1980s. RIP.

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Very sad news. Bill Walsh revolutionized offensive football- one of the greatest minds the game has ever known. RIP Coach. :(

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RIP Bill Thanks for the memories and all you did you the 9ers.

You will be missed. :evilcry:

After losing two of their first three games in 1981, the 49ers would win 15 of their next 16 games in a methodical yet astonishing march.

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