The book of coach
Seth Wickersham [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
January 28, 2013
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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 4 Perfect Issue. Subscribe today!

THE MOST INFLUENTIAL football coach of the past 30 years hated his legacy. He hated it from the moment he retired at age 57, in January 1989, days after winning his third Super Bowl as head coach of the 49ers. Bill Walsh had felt fried for years, and during that last season he was in "a claustrophobic panic," as a friend later described it. Or "just eking by," as his son Craig recalls. That 1988 season had been the most wrenching of his career, because the 49ers were not a great team. They were a 10-6 team that happened to win it all, and the grind swallowed Walsh to the point that he was, as his son says, "like a zombie." So he secretly decided to retire during the season, and in the whooping and wet locker room after the Super Bowl, Walsh wept alone, head in his hands. He wasn't happy. He was relieved. It was over.

That image, of course, doesn't square with the Walsh in old footage: elegant and confident, handsome and professorial, walking a damp Candlestick Park sideline in a sweater and khakis, fog-white hair neatly combed, holding a pencil to his lips as he plotted his next move, which always seemed to be two ahead of his opponent. But that's how he was. He always coached through existential torture, with alternating bouts of believing that he was brilliant and that he was incapable of fulfilling his own idea of greatness.

So it was no surprise that Walsh instantly regretted retiring. Believing that he left at least one Super Bowl on the table, Walsh was "melancholy and terrible," according to Craig. That the 1989 49ers were more dominant in the playoffs under new coach George Seifert than they ever were under Walsh made it worse. Walsh hated that Seifert won a championship that year with his team, his West Coast offense, his philosophy; he so hated the ring that the team awarded him that he gave it away. "He didn't want them to win," Craig says. "He couldn't hand over the team he had created to someone else, because he wasn't capable of it."

He tried broadcasting but quit in 1991. "I'm not going to sit for three hours and let some 27-year-old f-- in my ear tell me about the game," he told Brian Billick, former Ravens coach and one of his many protégés. In 1992 Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had coached in the '70s, but left after two losing seasons in three years, his magic gone. "He needed to be Bill Walsh," Billick says. "He needed to be a genius."

So he decided to write a book.

Pat McDermott has a dream: He wants to coach in the NFL. He is 26 years old, with bulky shoulders, a round face and an eagerness in his blue eyes that shines in the ravenously ambitious. He is in his first job, coaching running backs at the Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa. Like all coaches, he is drawn to football's impossible challenge, to somehow perfect a series of collisions on each snap into something as coordinated as a symphony. He was drawn to that challenge as a running back, first as a Pennsylvania prep standout and later at West Chester University. After graduating in 2009 with a business degree, he decided to make football his career.

In 2010 McDermott called Andy Reid, the then-Eagles coach now with the Chiefs whose sons he had played high school ball with, and Reid gave him an internship during the following summer's training camp. His tasks were menial -- organizing the coaches' dorm rooms and driving staffers around -- but offensive line coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg recognized a precociousness in him that once lived in themselves. They invited McDermott to join their early-morning and late-night film sessions. McDermott watched them obsess over the game's never-ending details -- a quarterback's footwork, a guard's hand placement -- and realized that if he wanted to be an elite coach, he needed to learn to think like one.

Last spring he heard about a book written by Bill Walsh that supposedly had a cultlike following among coaches. McDermott searched online and found two books authored by Walsh. One, called The Score Takes Care of Itself, was $13. The other, Finding the Winning Edge, cost a minimum of $100, with special leather-bound, signed editions fetching $1,000. It had been published in 1997 and was no longer in print.

McDermott, earning $2,000 a year at Episcopal Academy and working part time as a personal trainer, bought the cheap one. It was a breezy leadership read, not a hard-core football tome. A few weeks later, McDermott pulled up Finding the Winning Edge and skimmed the reader reviews. "Walsh goes through football from A to Z. Everything, and I mean everything that you would ever want to know about football ... Walsh fleshes out ALL of the details of all of his philosophies on how to run a football organization from management to players ... This book is a NFL Head Coach's blueprint, bible and handbook ..." McDermott purchased it, joining Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer and hundreds more coaches who have it on their shelves. As Billick says, "I don't sit in an office at an NFL facility where I don't see a copy." Last August, interning for the Eagles again, McDermott dived into it, unaware that he had bought a manual for ruining his life.

WALSH BEGAN WRITING alone at his beach house in Monterey, Calif., always at 8 a.m., on yellow legal pads, in pencil, in all caps, his penmanship so clean that it could be its own font. He would tear off sheets and stack them neatly in piles on the floor. This was in 1995, and Walsh didn't know what kind of book he wanted. A leadership guide? A playbook? A coaching manual? A blueprint for front offices? Walsh told Craig he wanted it to be a "real football book," not some light autobiography, waxing poetic about Super Bowls and Montana-to-Rice touchdown passes. He wanted his first book to motivate coaches, not delight fans. The truth was that a career that began in 1956 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, San Jose State, almost ended many times. He was fired as Cal's offensive coordinator in 1963 because the team didn't win. He resigned as the Raiders' running backs coach in 1966 after one season because the grind overwhelmed him. Owner Al Davis expected coaches to work until he called to allow them to go home for the day. After a few too many nights of Davis not calling, Walsh quit and applied to Stanford business school, ready to leave coaching forever.

What haunted Walsh went deeper than pink slips and long nights. It was his drive to be great at something he couldn't control. His colleagues recall him as the most intelligent coach they'd ever seen, which Walsh not so discreetly agreed with. But he could be sensitive to the point of devastation, crushed by failures large and small. It began in high school, when his coach moved him from quarterback to running back. It continued when he wrote his...
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