Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers and Stanford head football coach. (Robert Durell / LAT/; Dec. 22, 2006.)
Bill Walsh, deceased yesterday after a long siege of leukemia, might seem an improbable figure for a leftist San Franciscan to admire. After all, like most white men in athletics, especially authority figures, we can probably assume that his political leanings were Republican. Nonetheless, Walsh, and the 49er teams he coached, were vital to many here in making the Reagan decade somewhat bearable. We might be losing out to empire, AIDS, and union busting, but our football heroes were kicking butt.
Some of the hallmarks of Walsh's teams are attributes that progressive activists could adopt to our benefit.
- Preparation: Walsh didn't beat his athletes to death in practice. Instead, he drilled them exhaustively on how to take advantage of all possible contingencies. All that study wasn't necessarily what some of those beefy guys thrived on, but to be 49ers, they had to apply themselves to it. How often have activists held a demonstration or even created a press event and not thought through, and practiced, all the possible ways to take advantage of it?
- Imagination: At the same time that Walsh teams were so thoroughly drilled, his schemes were inventive, not rule bound. He created opportunities for brilliant athletes to use their fullest capacities, once they mastered the game. Think Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, greatest of the greats. When progressives do plan fully and strategically, do we then unleash our creativity and talents in our actions? What enables us to find the right mix between preparation, planning and brilliant improvisation?
- Will to win: Walsh teams played to win. Sometimes that made him look like an ogre, especially when he let aging athletes go (even Montana) when they had only barely passed their peak. He chose greater loyalty to the team's potential victories than to individuals. Progressives can't be throwing away our more developed leaders. But our leaders need to cultivate a sense of responsibility to living communities and find paths on which to step aside before their individual needs become obstacles to the continued life of the group. Walsh did this, quitting after three Super Bowls, but leaving a legacy of talent that won two more.
"What really made Bill special is that he understood that the game was bigger than him. His genius was not centered around Xs and O's; it was centered around his ability to create a platform that made the game inclusive to others.