Mid-January, 1992. Bill Walsh was driving down I-280 for a meeting with San Francisco 49er Coach George Seifert. The men were to discuss Walsh's anticipated return to the team as a special consultant.
And then. . . .
"It's just like a light came on," Walsh said.
Walsh couldn't get Stanford out of his mind. The school secretly had offered him its coaching position, but word was that Walsh was leaning toward the 49ers. And if that didn't happen, Walsh was expected to continue as an NBC color commentator.
But Walsh couldn't help himself. He started assembling a coaching staff in his mind, beginning with San Jose State Coach Terry Shea, the man Walsh had recommended for the Cardinal job.
"Now wait a minute," he mumbled to himself that day. "If he joined me and then if I could attract some of my former players, it could actually work."
Walsh met with Seifert, told him he was seriously considering the Stanford offer, drove home, made up his mind and, 24 hours later, told university officials of his decision.
He was coming back.
But to what?
Some genius, this Walsh.
His office on the second floor of Stanford's Athletic Department and Physical Education Building is only slightly larger than the private sauna, shower and bathroom at his former San Francisco 49er digs. There is no air-conditioning, only an occasional tepid wisp of summer wind that somehow squeezes its way through three small windows.
The furniture is his own. The desk was taken out of storage, refinished and plunked in the middle of the tiny room. There is a small bookcase, a modest work table that looks as if it was purchased at a garage sale and a couple of chairs that need Walsh's constant attention. Hear that pounding? That's Walsh smacking his palm against a wobbly armrest.
Fourteen years ago, when Walsh was hellbent on conquering the world, when Stanford was nothing more than a typewritten line on his growing resume, this was his office. It had a plaster ceiling back then and a single light bulb, but this was it. Same trees outside. Same dour look inside.
And yet, on Jan. 15, Walsh happily returned to the glorified broom closet after signing a five-year contract worth a reported $1.75 million. To which his former colleagues and players said, "He did what ?"
Walsh chucked his NBC job. Then he declined a lucrative offer from 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo to rejoin the franchise as a consultant. Then--and there are those who still can't believe it--he said yes to a stunned Ted Leland, Stanford's athletic director. Leland, who was an assistant coach on Walsh's 1978 Cardinal staff, could retire tomorrow and forever be known as the man who engineered the biggest Stanford recruiting coup since quarterback John Elway signed a letter of intent.
The next day, at the school's Burnham Pavilion, Walsh strode past the Stanford band, past an estimated 500 Cardinal alumni, fans and employees in attendance, past the assembled media horde and took his place on a hastily erected platform. Upon his introduction and after the subsequent standing ovations, Walsh spent the next 45 minutes explaining why a three-time Super Bowl winner who left the NFL in 1988 for the broadcast booth would want to return to college coaching.
"This is my bliss," he said.
He didn't stop there. In a well-intentioned tweak at a certain Pacific 10 rival, Walsh noted: "Being back at the college level does have redeeming value. Being a teacher, an educator, does have redeeming value--unless it's at USC."
And just to make sure everyone understood his coaching intentions, Walsh later added: "What this all means is that, hopefully, we're going to kick ass."
That was Thursday. On Friday he was in Bakersfield on his first recruiting trip since
1978. As he lay in bed staring at the ceiling of his motel room, a single thought crossed his mind:
"What have I done to myself?"
At his coronation-news conference, Walsh had jokingly suggested that he and his wife Geri might have had one bottle of Chardonnay too many the night they decided to accept the Cardinal offer. It was funny then. It wasn't so funny in Bakersfield.
Giddy with wine and drunk on nostalgia, Walsh had said yes. Yes to the school he adored. Yes to the area he loved. Yes to the profession in which he excelled. But by doing so, Walsh also became a recruiter, a baby-sitter and a target.
Since then, the anxiety attacks have subsided. Truth is, Walsh doesn't have time to second-guess himself. The season opener against Texas A&M; in the Pigskin Classic is less than two months away. There are personnel decisions to be made, a coaching staff to be trained and a team to be molded in the image of a man who isn't fond of--or accustomed to--losing.
"I did have some second thoughts, some post-decision trauma," he said earlier this week.
But not enough to change his mind or mood. A dinky office? So what? When the new and improved Walsh first saw his office back in January, he did so with former 49er and new Stanford assistant coach Keena Turner at his side. They looked at the empty room, looked at each other and then started laughing.
This has become the Walsh way. When in doubt, smile. In fact, he told his newly hired staff this very thing in one of their first meetings. Guy Benjamin, who played for Walsh at Stanford in 1977, played for him with the 49ers and now serves as a Cardinal graduate assistant, remembers the speech word for word:
"He said, 'Men, we're going to have fun. If we can't have fun, why are we doing this?' "
If it is possible to retire to coaching, Walsh has done so. At 60, he has turned back a personal clock that had quit ticking shortly after he was issued an NBC blazer, banished to the press box and told to be glib. Walsh was OK at glib, but he wasn't having much fun.
The money was good and the tutoring was excellent, what with famed Dick Enberg as his broadcast partner, but something was missing. In short, Walsh was bored with what he described as "sort of a hollow existence." He longed to pace a sideline again, although he couldn't quite bring himself to admit it.
"The role I was playing was different than the role I was accustomed to," Walsh said. "I felt that I had this football knowledge, this experience and wisdom, I guess, for teaching and organizing and managing. I think I was a little early in putting that behind me. Now that I reflect, I should have waited another seven or eight years (before retiring). It was a little too early for me to stop living that format."
On occasion, Walsh attended Stanford practices. He observed the workouts from a discreet distance, but everyone knew he was there. Walsh couldn't help himself. He needed the game and, in his mind at least, the game needed him back. It was an attraction Walsh couldn't deny or ignore.
More and more, Walsh found himself musing about the need to teach the game again, to leave a greater legacy. Benjamin noticed it. So did Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, whose team Walsh and Enberg covered weekly. "I wasn't surprised (by Walsh's return) because he's a football coach," Holtz said. "It's great for athletics, and it's great for college football. It ain't necessarily good for Stanford's opponents, though."
Holtz is fond of telling the story about the millionaire who invited some working-types to his sprawling estate. Once there, the millionaire informed his guests that the swimming pool had been stocked with live alligators and crocodiles.
Said the millionaire: "If any of you have the courage to swim the length of the pool, I'll grant one of three wishes: the deed to my ranch, the hand of my daughter in marriage or a million dollars in cash."
There was a loud splash and a frantic churning of water as some poor soul spent the next 22 minutes making his way from one end of the pool to the other, fighting off the toothy creatures every second of the way.
As the man emerged triumphant from the water, the millionaire rushed up and said: "That was an unbelievable display of courage. You can have the deed to my ranch, the hand of my daughter in marriage or a million dollars in cash. What's your wish?"
Answered the drenched man: "I just want to know who pushed me in the pool."
Which brings us to Walsh. Walsh didn't actually get pushed into the murky waters of major college football. Instead, he took a deep breath and dived in. But no matter the circumstances, it will be an interesting swim.
The game itself hasn't passed him by. If anything, Walsh, one of the great offensive innovators in the sport, has been waiting for everyone else to catch up.
Still, there are significant differences from pros to college, from 1978 to 1992.
"Just the routine of being a head coach in the college game, as opposed to the pros," said USC Coach Larry Smith. "In the pros it's a lot of work in the X's and O's, in personnel evaluation. In college, you have to be involved in the players' lives from top to bottom. Personal life, academic life, training. And these kids are not being paid."
Some other changes: Back in the late '70s there wasn't an NCAA-mandated 20-hour practice rule. Now there is. With the 49ers, Walsh might have spent double that time preparing his team for a game.
Nor was there an NCAA recruiting rule book as thick as the Old Testament. Now the NCAA requires all coaches to pass a 2 1/2-hour exam on the handbook, no easy task, considering the mind-boggling number of recruiting do's and don'ts. So serious was USC about the test that Smith and his staff attended tutoring sessions, took mock NCAA tests and studied for hours.
And, although the pressure to win might be greater in the NFL than the college game--a debatable point, depending on where the college is--Smith said Walsh can expect his share of heartbreak.
And told of Walsh's panic-stricken thoughts that night in Bakersfield, Smith said: "Welcome to college football."
Walsh isn't naive enough to think time stood still during his absence from Stanford. He knew the downside of his return. So he adapted.
Consider the philosophy. Walsh said he wants to win, expects to win, but that he isn't going to fling himself off the Golden Gate Bridge if the Cardinal doesn't advance to the Rose Bowl this season. He didn't return to Stanford to make a name for himself, as was once the case in 1978. He returned to teach, to pass on something.
"If I felt I would feel too much pressure, that it would consume me, then someone else would (take over) almost immediately," Walsh said. "At this point, it's not difficult to step off the trolley, so to speak."
He said he won't match, say, Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors' 40 annual recruiting trips, but he'll visit at least 15 homes and make the most of each session. Remember the trip to Bakersfield? Walsh got his man, high school All-American lineman Jeff Buckey. Used the same recruiting speech he perfected 14 years ago, too.
He said he has asked his players to call him by his first name, not "Coach." So far there have been few takers. In fact, it wasn't until the seventh or eighth practice of the spring session that the Stanford players wiped the awe-struck looks off their faces.
"They were all afraid to smile," Walsh said. "They were thinking, 'God, he might be serious.' "
Walsh also took a different approach when hiring his assistants. He selected a head coach, Shea, as his offensive coordinator. He retained Scott Schuhmann and Dave Tipton from predecessor Dennis Green's staff. He added five former 49ers to the mix--Benjamin, Turner, Mike Wilson, Bill Ring and Tom Holmoe. The only one with previous coaching experience is Holmoe, who spent last season at Brigham Young.
He convinced Fred vonAppen to join him, as well as Al Matthews. VonAppen was a 49er assistant under Walsh and also coached three times at Stanford. In his final move, Walsh brought Bill Singler, a former Cardinal wide receiver and former head coach at Pacific, back to Stanford.
"Look at my position," said Benjamin, 37, whose responsibilities include recruiting, coaching, academic counseling and faculty involvement. "He didn't say, 'We need a graduate assistant--who can we find who's 22 years old and can go get us coffee?' "
During spring practice, Walsh drew his own plays on the blackboard and made it a point to provide lots of hands-on coaching. He asked 49er quarterback Joe Montana to come to Stanford and record a videotape on the proper footwork and throwing technique. Montana cheerfully agreed, and the video has become a Cardinal classic among the Stanford quarterbacks.
Walsh also revived a rule he had with the 49ers: If a player stops by the office for an unscheduled visit, Walsh will drop everything.
As hoped by Stanford athletic department officials, Walsh's return has sparked increased interest in Cardinal football. ABC, which has a contract with the Pac-10, has said the Walsh factor could weigh in its scheduling decisions. ESPN and Prime Ticket, which also feature Pac-10 games, are looking hard at possible Stanford appearances.
The trickle-down effect doesn't stop there. Stanford signed a new radio deal that pays the school significantly more than the reported $190,000 it earned in 1991. There are also predictions that a national Cardinal radio network could attract more than 100 stations.
Ticket sales have exceeded expectations. Konn Rauschenbach, the school's director of ticket operations, said a preseason sales goal of 12,300 was set for Stanford Stadium's highest priced seats. So far, 14,636 of those tickets have been sold.
New season-tickets sales have climbed to 2,933 and student sales should reach the 4,000-5,000 mark. No wonder ticket officials have nicknamed the sales drive, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," in honor of Walsh and Leland. Ticket application forms feature a simple reminder: "He's back."
"It's not that I want to say we have a dog (home) schedule this year, but last year's was better," Rauschenbach said. "But now suddenly Bill Walsh comes in and nobody cares about the schedule."
They still care about winning. Walsh inherits a team that finished 8-4 last year and lost to Georgia Tech in the Aloha Bowl. It was only the third Stanford team since Walsh's departure to have a winning record.
The Cardinal will have Steve Stenstrom at quarterback, a physical offensive line, Glyn Milburn in the backfield and a solid defense. Their schedule includes powerful Texas A&M; at Anaheim, Notre Dame at South Bend, UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Washington at Seattle, USC at home and California at Berkeley.
Now then, which team will want to beat Walsh the most?
Holtz spent 90 minutes a week divulging state secrets to Enberg and Walsh last season. Cal always wants to humiliate Stanford. Washington's Don James and UCLA's Terry Donahue were a combined 3-1 against Walsh in the late '70s. USC beat Stanford twice during Walsh's previous tenure, but Smith, then at Tulane, saw his Green Wave go 0-2 against the Cardinal.
"So I owe him something," Smith said.
There is also this matter of Walsh's comments concerning redeeming values and USC. Shortly after the January news conference, Walsh called Smith's office. The message, left with Smith's secretary, read: "I would appreciate it if Larry would be a true professional and not remind his players of my remarks."
It was a joke, just like those made at the news conference.
"Of course," Walsh said, "they're probably already on a bulletin board."
Walsh, Smith and Donahue had dinner after last week's Pac-10 meetings. Smith said he could sense Walsh's joy, his anticipation for the season to begin.
"I think he's genuinely enthused, inspired," Smith said. "He's going to do a good job."
And this from Holtz: "Dennis Green did a great job. This guy will take them to greater heights."
Walsh knows all about heights. He provided Stanford with high-rise views back in 1977 and 1978. He helped elevate the 49ers from one of the worst teams in the NFL to a three-time Super Bowl champion.
Now he wants to know all about combining success with satisfaction. He has always loved coaching football. He just didn't know how much. Until now.
Sitting in the smallish office on the second floor, Walsh glances out his little windows. Such a look of contentment. After all, if this isn't heaven for Walsh, it's close.