So much of what you or your school's resident quarterback guru knows about offensive football was sprung from the creative or editorial machinations of Bill Walsh's brain, it's become impossible to distinguish the deep roots behind the myth of modern football's defining generic, the "West Coast," and the real contributions of the most influential minds of the past three decades. Walsh himself payed homage to the elements his 49er juggernaut honed from Sid Gilman and Paul Brown (the innovator of the "pocket" surrounding a quarterback), but the NFL today is Walsh's league in a way it's never been for any other coaching pater familias. His glorified tree has dominated the league's upper echelon for more than a decade - the last eleven Super Bowls have each featured at least one of his direct or second-generation progeny, demonstrating the breadth of his influence as much as its success - and the rest have long fallen into cycles of stale imitation. Pro football today (and college, at the highest levels) is unavoidably a thinking man's game, one that can still be lost by a failure of physicality but never won by brute force alone, a game of study, film sessions and encyclopedic playbooks, of preparation and chess-like attack, assessment and improvisation that traces these compulsions directly to Walsh. By no means did he introduce the mind to the thuggish mire of the trenches, but he refined it, raised the stakes, made the brainy arms race as essential a fight as the never-ending scramble for size and speed. Pundits occasionally question whether Bill Walsh made Joe Montana, but few ever wonder whether Montana might have made Bill Walsh. The hand of design was too obvious for that question to make sense. And it's Walsh's mind, through its influence, that's yet to cease making winners.
That much is well-documented, and eloquently chronicled by many on the day of Walsh's death, at age 75, from a lengthy struggle with leukemia. Very few of the accolades pay more than a cursory nod to his efforts as head coach at Stanford after retirement from the NFL, one of the subjects of the 1993 book Building a Champion, from which I draw my most vivid picture of Walsh as a visionary in the truest sense of the word: he literally saw players moving in front of him, spaces and angles revealing themselves, and eventually it was a true obsession. It's one thing to appreciate the game aesthetically, describe Joe Namath's dropback from center as "sensual," etc., and quite another to find yourself, in lieu of a napkin, unable to resist tapping out a play on your wife's back during an embrace at a restaurant. To which she then asks, in the knowing way only a very patient wife could, "Did it work?"
That story might be apocryphal, and Walsh's last coaching job may have ended less than brilliantly (with consecutive losing seasons, in fact) in Palo Alto. His singular influence might be overstated in the end (Marty Morninwheg and Bruce Coslet feature prominently on the tree), and from a college perspective, is almost non-existent save the trickle-down from the pros (hello, Bill Callahan). In the most direct sense, though, yeah, that play probably worked.