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Bill Walsh, at 75; 49ers coach won three Super Bowls, transformed football

San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was hoisted on the shoulders of his team after they defeated the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX. San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was hoisted on the shoulders of his team after they defeated the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX. (1985 file/ap)

WASHINGTON -- Bill Walsh, the professorial coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and redesigned how football is played, died yesterday at his Bay Area home after a three-year battle with leukemia.

Coach Walsh, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was 75.

"In the recent or modern history of the NFL," said Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick, "no coach has been more influential and innovative than Bill Walsh."

"This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers," said Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the player most closely linked to Coach Walsh's tenure with the 49ers. "For me personally, outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life."

Coach Walsh coached the 49ers for only 10 seasons but that was enough for him to become known as "The Genius" for his offensive wizardry. Football as it was played by his 49ers was more poetry than brute force. His skillfully choreographed system of short, quick-hitting passes became known as the West Coast offense and was widely copied by other NFL and college coaches in the decades that followed.

"The offensive philosophy that he installed in those great 49er teams more than 25 years ago will remain his legacy," said another Hall of Fame coach, Don Shula.

After graduating from San Jose State and a stint in the Army, Coach Walsh began his career as a high school football and swimming coach in Fremont, Calif., and reached the pro ranks working for Al Davis with the American Football League's Oakland Raiders in 1966.

Coach Walsh joined the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 to work for legendary coach Paul Brown, who gradually gave control of the Bengals' offense to his assistant.

Coach Walsh built a scheme based on the teachings of Davis, Brown, and Sid Gillman -- and Coach Walsh's own innovations, which included everything from short dropbacks and novel receiving routes to constant repetition of every play in practice.

Though originating in Cincinnati, it became known many years later as the West Coast offense, a name that Coach Walsh never liked but that eventually encompassed his offensive philosophy.

"We should call what many teams currently run exactly what it is -- the Walshian offense," said Billick, who was with the 49ers organization in the 1980s.

Coach Walsh took his first head coaching job at Stanford in 1977, winning two bowl games, before going to the 49ers in 1979. He inherited a team that had won only two games the previous year, but he installed Joe Montana as the starting quarterback and won the Super Bowl after the 1981 season, Coach Walsh's third with the team.

The 49ers also won Super Bowls after the 1984 and '88 seasons. Coach Walsh also showed considerable talent in evaluating personnel as the 49ers general manager then, adding Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Roger Craig, and Jerry Rice.

Such players led the club to two more titles under his successor, George Seifert.

After the 1988 season, Coach Walsh left the 49ers' sideline but returned to the front office after a stint as a broadcaster and as a coach at Stanford a second time for three seasons. He also taught graduate business classes at Stanford, where he served as interim athletic director last year.

By then, his legacy had long been established. In the past decade, most NFL teams have run a version of the West Coast, with its fundamental belief that the passing game can set up an effective running attack, reversing the conventional wisdom.

Even a short list of his adherents is stunning. Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Coach Walsh's San Francisco staffs. Tony Dungy, head coach of the champion Indianapolis Colts, played for him.

Coach Walsh also is widely credited with inventing or popularizing many of the modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of plays held by coaches on almost every sideline, to the practice of scripting the first 15 offensive plays of a game

His influence also included a commitment to promoting the careers of minority coaches. He created a fellowship program for minority coaches in the late '80s, years before the NFL pushed for more diverse hiring practices. He helped to establish the NFL's now-abandoned overseas league that was designed to develop players and spread the sport's appeal.

"People use the word genius and we usually scoff at that," John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach with the Oakland Raiders and longtime NFL broadcaster and analyst, said yesterday. "In his case, I don't think you can scoff at it."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.