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San Francisco 49ers honor late coach Walsh with field name change

SAN FRANCISCO -- The names on the Bay Area's sports arenas sometimes change faster than the names on the back of players' jerseys.

The area's five major-league venues have had a total of 17 official names since 1995, with at least three appellations for every building. When Northern California's thriving high-tech economy gets together with money-hungry landlords, they create monikers ranging from the euphonic (Pacific Bell Park, Oracle Arena) to the grating (NetworkAssociates Coliseum) to the hopelessly obtuse (Compaq Center at San Jose, anyone?).

The most beloved and historic venue is aging Candlestick Park, which will spend one more official year as Monster Park -- even though the San Francisco 49ers and their contractually obligated broadcasters are the only people who don't still call it by its birth name.

But leave it to Bill Walsh to be the source of the first new name that Bay Area sports fans can really support -- even if it's only the name of the grass inside the Monster.

Though the swirling wind is still an unpredictable menace and the turf always seems to be erratically slick, Bill Walsh Field is the San Francisco 49ers' new home inside the venerable stadium with the temporary name, starting with Monday night's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

"We've just tried to recognize and memorialize what Bill has done," 49ers owner John York said of the club's weeks of memorials to its former coach and general manager. "I think this is very appropriate for Bill, and I'm glad we were able to do it."

The 49ers made extensive preparations in recent weeks for their regular-season tribute to Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach and the architect of the 49ers' Super Bowl dynasty. Walsh died of leukemia on July 30, and the city of San Francisco announced its plan to change the name of the field during a memorial service at Candlestick several days later.

The club printed up commemorative programs and posters for the regular-season debut of the newly named field, and they put together a video tribute. Thanks to a whole lot of behind-the-scenes jockeying by York, the NFL also allowed the 49ers to wear their cherry-red throwback jerseys -- the same colors worn by the club that Walsh led to three titles in just 10 seasons.

The 49ers also will wear black "BW" patches on the back of their helmets throughout the season. Walsh was selected last week as an honorary team captain against the Cardinals, to be represented by former team executive John McVay.

"I'm glad the NFL got behind us and let us wear the uniforms as a tribute," quarterback Alex Smith said. "I think it's a good idea to remember what he meant to this league and this franchise."

The most personal tribute to Walsh will be seen only by the players as they leave the locker room: A new plaque reminds them every Sunday that the field is part of Walsh's legacy.

The tributes should strengthen the ties between the 49ers and Walsh, who left his last everyday job with the club as their stopgap general manager in 2001.

He gradually moved away from the franchise afterward. Though he technically remained on staff as an adviser, players no longer spotted him walking through the hallways of the club's training complex in Santa Clara, and he rarely attended games.

Under new owner York and GM Terry Donahue, the 49ers descended to depths they hadn't reached since the year Walsh joined the club and eventually led it to the first three of its five Super Bowl titles.

Some thought Walsh was embarrassed he had hand-picked the struggling Donahue to be his successor as the 49ers' GM. Others believe he never clicked with York, the brother-in-law of Walsh's longtime employer, deposed 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo.

Walsh never publicly aired any problems with the club. In fact, he often supported the 49ers publicly during their decade of descent -- and his health problems over his final three years consumed his time.

"Even though we knew what was going on, we were all caught off guard," York said. "He exemplified class, and we hope to honor him by striving to perpetuate his standard of excellence."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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