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Walsh's brilliance was noticed early

Bill Walsh's brilliance struck me for the first time during, of all things, a Sunday afternoon TV highlights show.

He had become the head coach of the Stanford Cardinal in the fall of 1977, but Walsh was polished as he voiced-over his thoughts of the previous day's game. He was 45, elderly for his first breakthrough job, yet something else was at work here.

Walsh talked a different game. His ideas were fresh, detailed and energizing, and his merging with Stanford was perfect. He critiqued everything, from his left tackle to the officials, with almost scary focus mixed in with a razor wit.

Those two seasons on the Farm ('77 and '78) enlightened a young scribe and uncovered a certified gem in Walsh. His Cardinal won two bowl games over physically superior opponents and, even during losses, one sensed Walsh thoroughly outcoached his foe. His teams were exciting, quick-striking and intuitive.

I remarked to friends that Walsh might be the man to save the San Francisco 49ers. He got the chance in 1979 and the rest belongs to the archives.

Walsh died Monday at age 75 but, really, his legacy will outlive all of us. Northern California fans will talk about Walsh with the same reverence that Wisconsin residents save for Vince Lombardi.

Is Walsh the best coach of all time? Put it this way: He's installed his name in the conversation. Others won more or coached longer, but no one brought more order and quality to the chaos of football like Walsh.

As we know, Walsh's 49ers didn't just win three Super Bowls and leave the template for two more under George Seifert. He reshaped the game with innovations like the first 20 scripted plays, the laminated game-plan sheets and, of course, the pass that sets up the run.

With that, can we finally set straight the record and rename the so-called "West Coast Offense?" To me, it's the "Bill Walsh Offense" to remember the man who refined the ideas of mentors Paul Brown, Al Davis and Sid Gillman and charted a course almost the entire NFL follows today.

I fondly recall my interaction with Walsh — an interview in a Fort Lauderdale hotel lobby the day before his Cardinal dismissed Penn State in the 1992 Blockbuster Bowl, an accidental meeting with him and wife Geri at Squaw Creek before a round of golf, a chat as we walked off the practice field at Stanford and all the routine sessions after Cardinal and 49er games. Walsh was complex, intimidating at times, but never dull, a fact for which I was always grateful.

"Rough Magic," Lowell Cohn's book about one season's journey with Walsh, revealed a man sometimes neurotic in his pursuit of victory. He often was arrogant in victory and painfully contrite in defeat. Looking back, the emotional toll often overwhelmed him as he drove himself and his players and staff.

Walsh's above-it-all presence — the white sweater, the hand to the chin as he pondered the next play — embedded the 49ers' stereotype as a finesse team. Never was an appearance more deceiving.

Walsh was an amateur fighter, and in many ways, he never left the ring. He instilled a heavyweight's ruthlessness in his teams to the point where he often shadowboxed before games to relieve the pressure. His mantra, "Beat your opponent to the punch," better described his 49ers than any wine-sipping metaphor.

Joe Montana, all cool and grace under the gun, was Walsh's ideal student, the best-ever union of coach and quarterback. But Ronnie Lott, the roving destroyer on defense, embodied the Walsh mentality hidden beneath all those fancy X's and O's.

Walsh could beat you with Joe Montana or Mike Moroski. He could beat you with Roger Craig or Bill Ring. He won with with one of the NFL's greatest teams ('84) and he also won with scabs ('87).

At times, Walsh didn't exactly shy away from his "Genius" nickname. Then again, he called the plays on two of the best drives in NFL history — "The Catch" by Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFL Championship Game and "The Drive" that led to John Taylor's touchdown catch to win Super Bowl XXIII. And after both moments as hysteria reigned around him, Walsh calmly removed his headset and turned away. Job done.

The man fused style and substance. I liked him because he wasn't afraid to fail and that he earned his exalted place step by lonely step. What more could he have done? He was a peerless identifier of talent who taught everyone how to wheel and deal on NFL Draft day. More important, the NFL adapted Walsh's programs to hire minority coaches.

My lasting memory of Walsh, however, involved losing. His first 49er teams won only eight games between 1979 and '80. His offense, however, already mesmerized the league as his receivers caught the ball almost alone in the middle of the field. Walsh already was a step ahead, and his team soon followed.

We had a 50-yard line seat to watch the formation of greatness, from Washington High in Fremont to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Any skeptic who questions the power of a football coach never met Bill Walsh.

Even in death, he's bigger than life.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.comor 578-2302.