Bill Walsh and officiating

Here’s a link to my Thursday column. The full text runs below:

This is about officiating in the NFL. It’s not about what happened to the 49ers last Sunday and what subsequently happened to Pete Morelli’s officiating crew — reassigned, embarrassed — for the bad work it did with the 49ers and Cardinals. This is about Bill Walsh’s opinion of officiating.

I find what follows interesting and I hope you do, too. And, yes, I’m writing about Walsh again. No apologies for that. He was the dominant character in my years covering Bay Area sports. No one else was even close. And I wrote a book about him.

During the year I researched my book about his return to Stanford football — 1992 — Walsh would take me places or put me in situations he wanted me to see, understand and write about. Sometimes, he didn’t say what he was doing. He just presented me with life unfolding.

One time, he was explicit. This was not about officiating. I’ll get to that. It was just before Big Game at Memorial Stadium and he was disgusted with the facilities for the visiting team at the old stadium, now spiffed up. He took me by the arm, showed me the two toilet stalls for an entire football team, both stalls without doors, showed me toilet water flowing along the floor.

“This is an insulting locker room,” he said. “It’s a sophomoric trick to present a team with something like this. The Pac-10 should say you have two years to bring it up to standard. But they don’t care about the players. They wonder where they can hold their meetings next year.”

OK, so you have an idea about Walsh, how he showed me things. Cut to the Blockbuster Bowl against Penn State, Jan. 1, 1993, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Stanford won 24-3. Walsh and I were alone before the game in the coaches’ room, a sterile, small room with cubicles. The other coaches already were on the field, but Walsh lingered, sitting in a chair. I didn’t know why we weren’t outside with everyone else.

“I don’t get nervous for games anymore,” Walsh confessed, his voice dreamy. “That’s neither good nor bad. I just don’t get nervous.”

Pretty soon, the head official walked into the room. Oh, Walsh had been waiting for him. And I had been waiting for him without knowing it. Walsh did not stand up for the official. They did not shake hands as I recall. The official asked in an official voice if Walsh planned to run any special plays, gimmick plays, stuff like that. The official wanted to know what was coming so he and his crew wouldn’t assess a penalty because they saw something they didn’t understand, hadn’t been prepared for. Turns out this is standard procedure, but I didn’t know.

Walsh mentioned one play where the offensive tackles split off the line. “We like to play around with that,” Walsh said. “We don’t expect much from it.” Then he described a few play-action passes in an uninterested, pro forma way. The official made a mental note, turned around and walked out. When the official was gone, Walsh said to me, “That’s so the officials won’t screw it up.”

I had been with him for months and never remembered discussing officials. So, I asked about penalty calls. He stood up — wearily, I thought. “Penalties are like the weather,” he said. “If it’s going to rain, I don’t say, ‘It’s raining. It’s unfair.’

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“That’s how I feel about penalties.” Walsh dropped an imaginary flag on the dreary locker-room floor. “Oh, there’s a yellow flag.” Walsh dropped another imaginary flag. He was laughing now. Or was it smirking? “Oh, there’s another flag,” he said, like someone spotting a dollar bill on the street. He had contempt for officials — I could be wrong in this interpretation. Maybe it was mistrust or merely lack of interest.

He had complete detachment from penalty calls. Not because he believed officials always get things right or he thought he and his teams never got screwed by bad calls. Nothing like that. Calls were out of his control. He wouldn’t waste a particle of energy fighting an unwinnable fight. Just move onto the next thing. Deal with the available reality.

Walsh was not like this away from football — stoic and strong. He complained about other people and about himself. He was a receptacle of self-doubt. He second-guessed his life. Of course, he knew all this about himself and blamed himself for being that way, but he didn’t change. He rarely was joyful and I never understood why.

Once, he showed all the strength he showed in football, was detached from the matter at hand and faced it with courage. When he was dying, a process that lasted a long time, he never asked, “Why me?” Never whined or blamed.

He was the best Bill Walsh at the extreme moment. And he endured until the enduring ended.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn atcohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.




By | December 3rd, 2015|23 Comments
  • Streetglide

    Terrific column. This is what separates you from the other guys — when you want to do it… ;- )

    • CohnZohn

      Streetglide, I always want to do it. Wanting is different from doing. I’m just a guy, as you know. Hope all is well.

  • mendozaline

    Remember when the 49ers lost the NFC championship game to Washington on January 8, 1984. Washington was up 21-0 at the start of the 4th quarter. Montana led the 49ers to 3 touchdowns to tie the game. Washington kicked the winning field goal with 40 seconds left after a 6+ minute drive aided by phantom penalty calls against Wright and Lott. I remember Walsh was bitter about the officiating, but said that the only defense against poor calls was to be way ahead.

  • htwaits

    Thanks Lowell.

  • Alex


  • Dennis

    I enjoyed that.

  • Mark M

    I always enjoy your memories of Walsh. He sounds particularly joyless here which is sad. But his legacy has cast a long shadow in this area so always appropriate timing to bring him up.

    • CohnZohn

      Mark M, Bill loved to laugh and had a wonderful sense of humor. Ironic and wicked in a good way. But he was tormented in some ways I don’t understand.

  • Frank in Minnesota

    Great writing…I love it when you write like this…it’s special for everyone…..thanks!

  • mike

    You have a phenomenal talent, Lowell, and that gift again is present is this column.

    • CohnZohn

      Thanks, Mike. You’re the best

  • Frank in Minnesota

    Lowell, I am wondering…did Paul Brown ever apologize to Bill Walsh for circumventing his career? Paul Brown seemed to have had a professional jealousy about Bill Walsh….

    • CohnZohn

      Frank, their relationship was very complicated. Paul Brown screwed up not making Bill head coach. Some of it was jealousy, but some of it was lack of certainty about Bill. As far as I know Paul never apologized and Bill was hurt/angry to the end of his days.

  • K. Goldberg

    Lowell, didn’t Bill Walsh have a relationship at one time with Al Davis?

    • CohnZohn

      Kenny, They were close friends going back a long way and until Bill’s death. Their relationship was also complicated. Very competitive. Bill was in awe of Al’s toughness.

  • Albert Park

    Another one of your best, Lowell. Thanks.

  • Mitch

    Thank you, Lowell.

    Maybe it’s that time of year. Holidays, football playoffs coming. A Bill Walsh story like this brings him back, vividly, for a few moments.

    Man, I miss that guy.

  • Rob

    Paul Brown got his comeuppance. Under Walsh the 49ers beat the Bengals twice in the Super Bowl. Gosh, but when you think of the 49ers under Walsh and today’s 49ers under Jim “Who Needs A Spittoon” Tomsula. I don’t think Walsh would even have had Tomsula as defensive line coach!

  • DanL

    Thanks, Lowell. I agree with Mitch: I miss Bill Walsh.

  • Mark M

    Thanks Lowell. Such an innovative mind, glad to know he knew how to have his fun.

  • Derek

    Lowell, please someday re-tell the story from ‘Rough Magic’ of how Paul Brown tried to destroy Walsh’s career when he left the Browns for the Chargers (“The worst mistake you could ever make is to hire Bill Walsh”!) and how Gene Klein reacted when he met Walsh at the airport. I almost teared-up when I read it in the book. Thanks.

  • Neal

    That was Vintage Lowell. I was disappointed it ended too soon, wanted to last longer. I thought for sure you were going to mention Harbaugh, as you know you like to compare and Harbaugh a spoil child on the sideline, when he disagrees with a official.

  • Randy

    Lowell, you have to laugh to yourself when you see someone like Tomsula on the sidelines for the 49ers. Walsh was all about attention to detail, demanding excellence from his coaches, teaching football like it was a physics class, knowing the psychology of people — always ten steps ahead of every aspect of the game. How to practice, travel to the games, in game strategy, race relations, media relations, an historical perspective while being a master innovator. Tomsula doesn’t embody any of those traits. What a letdown for us longtime fans.