Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh's Other Legacy

San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, hoisted on the shoulders of his team after beating the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX in 1985.
Bill Walsh's legacy, as documented in the sports news outlets yesterday and today in the aftermath of his death from leukemia at age 75, includes the tremendous influence of his innovative style on the way the game is played today, and the incredible "coaching tree" of coaches who worked for Walsh and went on to influence other coaches.

But there's another important part of his legacy.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, named for the first black coach in NFL history, is dedicated to the advancement of minority hiring in the NFL. Only one white man has received its most prestigious award: Bill Walsh. (source: Contra Costa Times)

Consider these three quotes from current African-American NFL and Division I college head coaches:
"I played for him for one year, and I learned a lot. But more important was that he was so supportive of me and my career and African-American coaches. It's one of those things that really touches you." -- Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy.

"He had great vision on what the league was going to become and how to forge opportunities for players. What he did for that organization, the Super Bowls he won, is a testament to what kind of coach he was. But he was also a good man who gave guys an opportunity." -- Kansas City Chief coach Herm Edwards.

"The world lost a great man in Bill Walsh. He had a tremendous impact on me, both personally and professionally. ... Bill's development of the minority coaching program at the collegiate and professional levels literally changed the face of football. His sphere of influence was significantly greater than any coach of his time. He will truly be missed." -- [University of] Washington coach Tyrone Willingham. (Associated Press via Sporting News)

Lovie Smith and Marvin Lewis
From the Chron:
Another contribution was the Minority Coaching Fellowship, a program he created in 1987 [when there were no black head coaches in the NFL] to help African American coaches improve their job prospects in the NFL and Division I colleges by inviting them to an up-close look at the 49ers' training camps. Among those who took advantage of the program were Tyrone Willingham, former Stanford head coach and current head coach at the University of Washington; Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and several NFL assistants. The NFL later turned the fellowship into a league-wide program.
Bill Walsh's vision of the future of football included diversity in the coaching ranks, and, unwilling to sit back and wait for it, he saw an opportunity to take -- yes, affirmative action -- to help it along.

Tony Dungy
More from Tony Dungy:
Dungy played for Walsh in 1979, coming to the 49ers in a trade that sent Ray Rhodes to Pittsburgh.

“It was really tough for me,” Dungy said. “I played for him for one year and then certainly learned a lot. But even more than that, he was so supportive all throughout my career. He did a lot for African-American coaches, I think coaches in general. Bill was very innovative and very much a winner and somebody I learned a lot from and a very good friend." [...]

In an ironic twist of fate, it was Walsh’s hiring of Dennis Green as an assistant that helped Dungy during his own rise in the profession.

Dennis Green
“At a time when most teams didn’t have any black coaches, that’s where I met Denny Green,” Dungy said. “He’d hired Denny and Billy Matthews. Billy started the minority internship program. [Walsh] hired Ray Rhodes [as an assistant]. Shortly after that, [Rhodes] got his [coaching] career going. And so he was very socially conscious. He wanted football to be good and he wanted the game to be good on the field. But he thought about things off the field as well. That‘s what was special about him.”
(Terre Haute Tribune Star)

Martin McNeal, Sacramento Bee:
What always will remain fresh in my mind was Walsh's understanding of the impact of retired Cal professor and African American leader Harry Edwards on his staff [Edwards has been associated with the 49ers for over twenty years]. Many white reporters thought Edwards was more bluster than substance. However, anyone who had been with track athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith, like Edwards and the late Sam Skinner, during the controversial 1968 Mexico City Olympics garnered much respect.

Walsh understood that and recognized that learning as much about the African American athlete as he could would make him a better coach and person.