Saturday, September 14, 2013


A handful of professional sports franchises serve as models for the business world to follow. Teams like the Cowboys of the “America’s  Team” era, were cited as organizations to emulate. The Cowboys were the first NFL team to standardize scouting, the first to use computers to evaluate scouting results for the draft.    With the supportive Clint Murchison as owner, The team of Tex Schramm, Tom Landry, and Gil Brandt  won with a strong system that worked because the team was built around hiring for the skill sets needed. They became the model of efficiency for nearly 20 years. Their business model succeeded  because their technocratic competence in everything they do, and a palpable lack of drama that brings on generational patterns of mediocrity for others.  We constantly see these examples in the hospitality industry, of excellence and continued failure.

Compare the Cowboys of Landry and Schramm to the team under Jerry Jones and the Raiders under the fading Al Davis.  The primary issue with owning your own franchise and micromanaging the same, is the inability to accept past mistakes and equal inability to avoid their re-execution.  They spend freely on a JaMarcus Russell, hire a long line of different yes people with inferior skill sets, have multiple people assigned to the same tasks,  They often confuse the failure to discuss problems as “loyalty”, and oftentimes have a difficult go of getting their organizations to embrace more than mediocrity.

Insanity often wins while these teams continually find new ways to lose and torture their devoted fans, business partners, and lose great team members. You may ask about the Yankees under “the Boss” George Steinbrenner and the great teams of the late 1990’s. Most define that turnaround as beginning with the two year suspension he served , and the ability of Brian Cashman and Joe Torre to avoid the same disasters that previously occurred under George.

The list of failures takes longer to recite in a post than the successes. These situations are the same in any other business, certainly in hotel management, and there is great commonality in  both the cardinal sins leading to failure and implementing certain key practices to win. I prefer to focus on winners. For that I have a great teacher.


"If Bill Walsh was a general, he would be able to overrun Europe with the army from Sweden."  - ESPN analyst Beano Cook

Like many of us, Bill Walsh had a difficult boss. Paul Brown was the tree from where so many coaching branches started. More than any other figure Brown had pioneered the pro football we know today. He invented the facemask, and made millions from the patent. He invented most of the coaching systems and the passing schemes used in the NFL today.  But he was a complicated man, and an increasingly arrogant figure, and hell on his key assistants when they sought to leave to become head coaches. The last of that line was Bill Walsh.  

Bill  Walsh the developed the "West Coast Offense" out of desperation. Having lost the potentially great Greg Cook to injury, the Cinncinati Bengals were left with the mobile, but less physically gifted , Virgil Carter. Unable to use a passing offense called the vertical game, The West Coast offense was a masterpiece of adaption.  Walsh modified the long passing scheme into a horizontal passing offense  defined by  quick, short throws, and designing plays that leveraged  the entire width of the field. With the infant West Coast philosophy, the new offense was much better suited to Carter's physical abilities. After the arrival of the best quarterback yet to miss the Hall of Fame (Ken Anderson) and the great Isaac Curtis, the Bengals were defined by a consistently good, high percentage, offensive scheme.   

When Brown retired as head coach following the 1975 season, he chose to embrace nepotism and appointed a functionary as his successor, and repeated the same mistake by appointing the unfortunate Mike Brown to ensure generational succession.  Walsh resigned and served as an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers in 1976. In interviews just before his passing , Walsh noted that during his time with the Browns,  Paul  "worked against my candidacy" to be a head coach in the NFL.  "All the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them……And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL."   His experience resonates with anybody, who has contended with backdoor references by people angered that a team member wishes to advance, rather than enable nepotism and other destructive behaviors.  It was an experience shared by other very successful coaches under Brown, including the legendary Weeb Ewbank who coached the chronically lamentable New York Jets to a legendary upset in Super Bowl III.


Bill Walsh was 47 in 1979 when the San Francisco 49ers named him head coach and general manager. The 49ers had been putrid, had won just 31 of their last 86 games, had mortgaged their immediate future for a washed up OJ Simpson and went 2-14 in 1978. Within three years the 49ers won their first NFL  championship, happily with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. It was the first of a great string of successes for Walsh, who also defeated the same Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.  He is the reason see the names of Joe Montana and Steve Young in the Hall of Fame.

Bill Walsh had an amazing ten year run,  going 102-63-1 that included a 10-4 record in the playoffs. From 1981 – 1988 , the 49ers won six NFC Western Division championships and the NFC title in 1981, 1984, and 1988.  In that period, with the exception of the 1982 strike year, the 49ers won 10 or more games and appeared in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers advanced to the NFC title game in 1983 . His victories in Super Bowls XVI, XIX, and XXIII made the 49ers, by every measurement, the NFL team of the 1980s. Using the foundation of the Walsh Years, the 49ers won two other championships in Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX.


Bill Walsh never forgot his years in the wilderness. He ended the inhumane coaching practices many of us grew up with, epitomized by the open humiliation of players in front of others.  His influence in how the game is coached is seen by the assistant coaches who went on to head coaching jobs, including his successor George Seifert,  Mike Holmgren,  Ray Rhodes,  Sam Wyche,  and Paul Hackett. Those coaches in turn spawned a host of other coaches, all imbued with Walsh's distinctive offensive schemes.  Practices under Walsh were not the head breaking sessions that existed under other coaches. Practices were for preparing for every variable they may face in a game.

He started the scripting a game's first 25 plays, a habit started with the Bengals. At first it was the first two series.  For the Chargers, it was 15, then 25. It was a defining practice with the 49ers. The script was never frozen in ice, he deviated from the list when events dictated, with the option of resuming as conditions changed.  His philosophy of contingency planning was driven by how stress and emotion can make it extremely difficult to think clearly, writing  "The whole thought behind 'scripting' was that we could make our decisions much more thoroughly and with more definition on Thursday or Friday than during a game.”  He felt that the format of practice and contingency planning , are the biggest contributions that I've made to the game," he said.

Others would argue it was the West Coast offense that was his signature.  Precise timing  from multiple formations, provided myriad possibilities, amplified by extensive use of moving players around before the snap.

Many would disagree in view of the years since his death. Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship in 1987 to help African American coaches improve their job prospects in the NFL and Division I colleges by inviting them to an up-close look at the 49ers' operation. Among those who took advantage of the program were Tyrone Willingham, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and countless NFL assistants. The NFL later turned the fellowship into a league-wide program . Bill Walsh is also largely credited for the Rooney Rule, which assures minority coaches are strongly considered for head coaching jobs. 

Bill Walsh may have branded himself as a sage white-haired professor,  who spent his spare time engaged in academia due to his two stints coaching Stanford football. In reality, his created persona hid both a creative and sensitive man.  

"Bill pushed us all to be perfect,  That's all he could handle as a coach, and he taught all of us to be the same way." – Joe Montana

"He was the most important person in football over the last 25 years, and I don't think there's any debate about that. He brought into Silicon Valley, about the time Silicon Valley was being born, the same kind of innovation. When you mention Steve Jobs or Andy Grove, you just say Bill Walsh. He was doing the same thing, just in a different venue - football. I've always said Bill would have been a great CEO of anything. Luckily for us, it was the 49ers." –  Steve Young


  • Bill Walsh and Glenn Dickey, Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers. St Martin's Press, 1990.  

  • Bill Walsh, Brian Billick and James A. Peterson, Finding the Winning Edge. Sports Publishing, 1998.  

  • Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership. Penguin Group Publishing 2009

ONLINE  Ten Leadership Lessons from Bill Walsh