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Walsh broke the mold for coaching

You could judge this book by its cover. You could trust that what you saw was what you would get.

The silver head of hair, which was rarely out of place. The immaculate cardigan sweaters. The folded arms, with the right hand tucked under the left elbow and left index finger resting against the left cheek.
Even before Bill Walsh uttered a single word, you knew something intelligent would flow from his mouth.

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And flow is the appropriate verb. Walsh didn't bark. He didn't bellow. He didn't do a lot of the things one commonly expects from someone who makes his living in the hard-bitten world of football coaching, yet he had uncommon results. Walsh's San Francisco 49ers became an NFL dynasty in 1980s, setting a championship standard that most other teams could only dream of achieving. The Steelers may have won four Super Bowls in six years, but Walsh built a winning legacy that lasted well past his departure following a victory in Super Bowl XXIII.

Through it all, he handled himself with the utmost grace, class and dignity. There was something regal about the way he moved and the way he spoke -- especially when the subject was football.

Walsh had a way of making the game sound like an art form, if not the curriculum from an advanced science course.

"I always said that he was an artist and all the rest of us were blacksmiths pounding the anvil while he was painting the picture," said Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who was Walsh's offensive coordinator with the 49ers. "There is always more than one way to win games but that was how he chose to do it."

Whatever you thought you knew about football quickly vanished once Professor Walsh began his lecture. His unique perspective and vision reshaped and redefined the game.

We thought coaches had to be barrel-chested and craggy faced, loud and intimidating. Then we met Walsh, who got his point across with every bit as much authority but with a whole lot less bluster than so many of his predecessors and contemporaries.

We thought passes had to be thrown to wide receivers on long-developing deep routes. Then we met Walsh and his version of the "West Coast Offense," which emphasized horizontal passing and plenty of short throws to the running backs.

We thought practice had to be relentless and filled with punishing hits, a constant test of survival so that players would be well prepared to handle the violence on game day. Then we met Walsh, who kept players out of pads for long stretches of training camp and between games in order to enhance their ability to stay fresh and healthy through the latter stages of the season -- and into the postseason.

Those principles could be found in numerous Walsh coaching tree -- Holmgren, Sam Wyche, Jon Gruden, and Andy Reid, just to name a few.

My most lasting image of Walsh comes from a story that former NFL quarterback Phil Simms shared with me from one of Simms' pre-draft workouts at Morehead State before the 1979 draft. Walsh, beginning his first year as the 49ers' coach, was in search of a quarterback that he hoped would lead the franchise from the mire of a 2-14 finish in 1978. He thought Simms would be a good prospect.

Before Walsh's visit to Morehead, Simms had auditioned for about nine teams. Simms' forte was an exceptionally powerful arm, and each of the nine previous NFL visitors wanted to see how hard he could throw.

Not Walsh.

"I started working out, throwing hard as usual, and Bill said, 'Oh, that's way too hard. Throw a little softer. Throw with a little more rhythm,'" Simms recalled. "So I took a little off of my passes, but Bill again said, 'Oh, it's way too hard. Softer.' Now I was thinking, 'Okay.'"

Walsh instructed Simms to "drop back really gracefully, to be "really light" on his feet, to make his passes "really pretty," to deliver "nice spirals," to throw with "beautiful rhythm." Simms had never received such coaching. He didn't even knew such a passing style existed.

After about 10 minutes I finally got it. I finally got to a speed that he liked. For the next 30 minutes I threw just the way he wanted me to. My passes were at a nice pace, the perfect pace. They were easy for the receivers to catch. They were on time. I was throwing nothing but perfect spirals. As I was getting into it I was thinking, 'Hey, this is really cool. Man, this is great. This guy has been here fifteen minutes and I am like a machine.'

"I had always been taught to throw it hard; just drop back and rip it. But when you throw the ball hard it gets away from you every now and then or at times the receivers drop the ball. In about 15 minutes to a half-hour, I learned about the rhythm of throwing and being a little better technically. The results were awesome. That was one of the more enjoyable days I've ever had in my life."

During a second visit to Morehead, Walsh promised Simms that if the 49ers drafted him, he would lead the NFL in passing every year. When Simms responded with an incredulous look, Walsh proceeded to mention the names of quarterbacks he had helped win passing titles -- Greg Cook and Ken Anderson while Walsh was an assistant in Cincinnati (where he also helped Virgil Carter lead the NFL in completion percentage); Guy Benjamin and Steve Dills at Stanford, before they went onto NFL careers as well.

"We're not taking about history's greatest throwers," Simms said. "But nothing was getting in the way of his quarterback having success."

The Niners didn't have a first-round pick in '79. The New York Giants did, and used it on Simms. The 49ers used a third-round choice on a quarterback named Joe Montana.

Simms had an impressive career with the Giants. Montana, whose lack of arm strength was viewed as a handicap, established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

He had Walsh to thank.

So do many other quarterbacks and coaches. Walsh made a lot of people in and around football better and smarter.

His legacy ranks among the greatest in the history of the game.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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