His winning percentage, .760, is best in NFL history and eight more victories will make him the San Francisco 49ers’ winningest coach, but George Seifert remains most insecure.
It’s that consultant.
“Insultant?” said Seifert, and he should know, after working for Bill Walsh as an assistant for 11 years.
Official happy-talk pronouncements aside, Bill Walsh, the 64-year-old “Genius,” the arrogant brains behind the West Coast offense and egotistical winner of three Super Bowls, has returned to the 49ers to make George Seifert squirm.
“I think this year will probably be like ’94, another live-or-die season,” Seifert told Sports Illustrated earlier this summer. In 1994 Seifert went to work each day believing he would be fired if unsuccessful in putting the Lombardi Trophy in owner Edward DeBartolo’s hands.
San Francisco won XXIX, but failed to repeat last season, a high-treason offense for the folks who set 49er policy. Previously criticized for overreacting to such disappointment, the brass confirmed its hyperactive reputation this off-season by inviting Walsh to meddle in Seifert’s business.
“I think it’s a good thing, as long as we continue to communicate,” said Seifert, who blocked Walsh’s hiring as general manager in 1991. “But we understand the pitfalls. Probably, if there are problems, there will be a vote on who should be head coach and all that kind of stuff.”
When the 49ers’ offense went into the dumper in 1994, losing to Philadelphia, 40-8, the team’s flag-ship radio station conducted a poll: “Should Seifert be replaced by Jimmy Johnson?”
Eighty-five percent responded favorably to Johnson, and insecurity had become Seifert’s constant companion.
Two years later, Seifert is still smarting. Asked last week about the long-term signing of wide receiver Jerry Rice, Seifert replied, “He’s going to have more longevity than I do.” Then, for added emphasis, he told the reporter to put that in the story.
Over yonder stands Walsh, the man who picked the land, helped arrange the deal and then plotted the plans for this very practice facility. No, the great one never really went away.
“Every now and then we’re going to bang our head into the wall because it’s not like this has been done before,” Seifert said. “There’s no book on how to do this, but the main thing is everybody is willing to work together.”
There have already been problems. The 49ers brought in Walsh to fine-tune an offense that scored the most points in the league last season, while placing second in yardage only to Detroit. And that was with injured quarterback Steve Young sitting out five games.
Understandably perplexed by Walsh’s addition, offensive coordinator Marc Trestman offered his resignation. Although reassured by management that all was well, there were questions being raised quietly about Trestman’s game-day management in the coaches’ booth.
“It’s not an easy situation for any of us, because the dynamic is much different than anywhere else,” Trestman has told reporters. “This has never happened. You can’t draw parallels in any sports situation like this.
“You could put a Sid Gillman or anybody like that [in a consulting role], but nobody has ever had this position with the legacy of a Bill Walsh, in my opinion, and his relationship with the administration, the organization, management, George, me. It’s never happened. So you’ve got to have some people that are very sensitive for it to be able to work out, and I think we have those people.”
Pressure, however, is mounting. Trestman and Seifert are being asked to explain the team’s wretched offensive performance in the exhibition season. Not since 1979 have the 49ers scored fewer points. In the team’s last 23 offensive series, it produced one field goal. The first offensive unit posted three touchdowns in 15 series, but poor offensive line play allowed Young to get sacked seven times.
None of this has much to do with Walsh, who has his own inner conflicts to quell. His three-year repeat stint as Stanford’s coach ended in uninspiring fashion and a try at broadcasting resulted, mercifully, in his microphone being turned off. There were other jobs, too, such as work for the NFL in shaping its World League rules for scoring, column-writing for Forbes magazine, motivational speaking engagements and tutoring for college seniors preparing for the NFL draft.
But nothing could match the adrenaline-pumping thrill of outfoxing Don Shula or crafting a crossing pattern to free Jerry Rice. There are plenty of golf courses to be played, but as Walsh said, “This is what I do. It’s what I know, and this is my team--in a general sense.”
By George, that’s what Seifert’s been trying to live down the last seven seasons.
“It’s very unusual to have a consultant, who is an ex-significant operating officer in the company,” said Jim Collins, co-author of the book, “Built to Last: The Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.”
“I’ve kind of made a study of the post-Walsh legacy and contrasting it to somebody like Vince Lombardi, there are real differences. How many championships have the Packers won since Lombardi left? How many have the 49ers won since Walsh left?
“This is a real illustration of the ‘clock builder’ versus the ‘time teller.’ As long as the time teller is there, you have your great leader and your team does well. If the time teller disappears, there is no ticking clock left behind and the team falls apart. In Bill Walsh you have the great clock builder. His genius is not on the field or his motivating abilities, but his ability to build an organization that is no longer dependent on just one person.”
The Packers haven’t been to a Super Bowl since Lombardi’s departure, but the 49ers have won two Super Bowls since Walsh’s retirement.
“I know people are concerned about his return, but I think far too much is made of the Walsh aura,” Collins said. “If everything was so dependent on him, why did the 49ers do so good after he left? If Lombardi came back, it would be a different phenomenon, but given Walsh’s history and orientation for building systems, I anticipate much less havoc than others might.”
Collins said he was not surprised by Walsh’s return because, “sports is a peak experience, which may have no equal on this planet. How can anything compare with coaching the winning team in the Super Bowl?
“My suspicion is that Walsh had his peak experience long before his capabilities had expired. I’m sure he was hoping for that magical spark when he got in TV or was giving his speeches, but he’s doomed to life with no parallel experience. This is only a continuation of trying to get back to that experience.”
As a consultant, Collins said, Walsh will never enjoy the satisfaction he gained from being the team’s coach. In fact, he said, he will feel like an outsider.
It is now part of his job to step aside, Walsh said. People are waiting for him to upstage Trestman or Seifert, but he said he will leave them disappointed. On the field, he takes notes on index cards, and rather than addressing specific players, tells assistant coaches to relay the information.
At a recent exhibition game he sat behind Trestman in the coaches’ box and looked up at a TV monitor to see John Madden circling his head.
“That was the end of that,” Walsh said. “I can’t be in the press box because people will draw the wrong conclusions. Marc needs his autonomy to do his job, so I’ll be in the next box over.
“Hey, I’m not going to be the person inspiring the team or motivating the team or calling the plays. It’s not as though, ‘Walsh is here, now we’re inspired.’ Before the game, I won’t even be in the locker room when George is talking to the team. At halftime, Marc will be giving them the adjustments. I won’t be there.”
But how would a young Coach Walsh handle a similar situation?
“Probably not good if that person didn’t have the kind of expertise I have,” Walsh said.
Walsh, who is writing a book on coaching and managing a professional team, said this will be only a one-year project with the 49ers.
“It’s very strange, what’s happening here,” Collins said, “But I would be very reticent to predict disaster of any kind. I mean, I would think it would be really hard to screw up Young and Rice.”
Young and Rice will do just fine, but what about the head coach who has always felt challenged by the reputation of the man he replaced?
“We just have to do what we think is going to help us,” Seifert said, while also defending Trestman.
“I mean, there’s fingers pointed at me too. That’s just part of the deal. That’s just part of the business. And it can be a motivating thing. It’s not all that bad. Sometimes you don’t like it, but it gets your attention, I guarantee it.”