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The incredible value of a great coach- NFL.com re: Bill Walsh


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The incredible value of a great coach

By Jeff Kemp

Special to NFL.com

Note: In his 11-year NFL career, Jeff Kemp spent only one season playing for Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers. But the experience made an indelible impact, as the author explains here.

(Aug. 9, 2007) -- This week I will attend memorial services for a Hall of Fame football coach who will be honored by the sports world for his astounding influence in professional football. But in the eyes of the many fortunate players, coaches and team personnel who came under his influence, a deeper, more personal legacy will be celebrated about the life lessons we drew from Coach Bill Walsh.

Bill's recent passing sparked some long-distance calls and grateful reflection on a unique man who changed our lives ... and taught so many players and coaches the highest level of teamwork and excellence.

I played only one season for Bill on the San Francisco 49ers. My fellow ex-NFL quarterback and close friend Steve Dils played only a couple years for him in college. "Before Bill arrived at Stanford, I was languishing down the depth chart with little hope that my career would amount to much," Steve recalled. "After two years under Bill's and his coaching staff's tutelage, the trajectory of my life changed. I led the nation in passing and ended up playing 10 years in the NFL. Being around Bill for two years left life imprints more lasting and valuable than the thrill of NFL experiences. I learned as much in two years with him as in 10 years in the pros, and I played for some great coaches. He impacted my life and my management in business today."

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, whose NFL career took off after Coach Walsh traded for him, so aptly noted that "Bill was blessed with one of the greatest gifts you can have ... to see the future potential in another human."

He did it for coaches. Look at the fearlessness and passion with which he sought, trained and launched the best of young coaches, who eventually would leave his teams and become great head coaches themselves.

He did it for players. He made us see higher visions of greatness in ourselves than we had ever seen before.

Bill Walsh's tutelage helped Jeff Kemp have a productive 1986 season with the 49ers.

On Saturday nights before 49ers games, he would show us a highlight film of our team at its best in a previous game, peppering it with soft, but golden, words of praise for beautiful execution. He was a master at raising our vision -- "the art of seeing what is invisible to others," as author Jonathan Swift once described it. His standards drew us higher and he did not allow us to accept anything less than perfection.

I recall Bill calling me into his office to view a spliced tape of my "good" plays and "bad" plays. He pointed out that the difference in some of these plays was based on minute details. A deviation of inches on my footwork determined whether or not a pass was completed. I have never accepted corrections so well as during that session in which he both praised and pruned me for growth.

As a leader, manager and especially as a dad, these principles and practices live on with me. Our children, the young people we coach and associates at work need the affirmation of what they can become, the praise of their best traits and the clear coaching to live up to high expectations.

Bill's people skills were exemplary. His humor was dry and his delivery like Johnny Carson. Bill's compliments would embolden players' latent greatness, but his sharp wit and hawkeye criticisms could instantly and adeptly deflate any ego ready to swallow too much praise or lessen one's hunger to improve.

Life is about interdependent relationships. There are few lessons greater than the commitment to teamwork. Bill Walsh was a consummate teacher and masterful coach of teamwork.

Bill brought me to the 49ers in a trade before the 1986 season, and found himself with only a short summer to tutor me, his new backup quarterback, into forced duty leading a world-class offensive system that he had woven so superbly around Joe Montana. Joe was hospitalized after our season opener to undergo back surgery. More than a few of the 49ers faithful were panicked at the team's prospects with someone other than Montana at quarterback.

But, soon, Bill had re-tuned his offense. He was a master at focusing on strengths, not weaknesses. A coach of coaches, he and quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren meticulously trained me to execute aspects of Bill's West Coast offense that fit my strengths.

Coach Walsh reveled in teaching each play to his whole offense, with intricate explanations of what specific and necessary role every position player executed to make for success as a team. I recall hearing Bill lay out a common vision for the whole team, that our goal was a Super Bowl, and that our path was competitive excellence based on constant improvement and execution of plays through meticulous practice.

Here's a taste of how Bill would design and install a football play of consummate teamwork. It is my favorite play, a play-action pass Jerry Rice frequently hauled in for long touchdowns during the most challenging and exhilarating six weeks of my career (until my hip was injured and Joe miraculously sped back from surgery to resume his brilliant role).

The play was "Brown Right, Fake 22, Z Post"

Unlike many teams, which separate players into separate rooms by position to install new plays in meetings, Bill united his offense and explained to all how every player was crucial.

The line was to dive left and cut block as they would on a running play. The halfback, Roger Craig, was to explode up and over the line, wrapping up an imaginary ball, as he, like the lineman, sacrificed himself to convince the defense of a run play. The wide receivers were to briefly feign run blocking until the flanker, Rice, would dash past his coverage cornerback and behind a run-suspecting, flat-footed free safety.

Bill would then paint the rest of the picture: the quarterback was to turn from the defense, deftly fake a handoff, and watch the running back like a matador following a bull. Then, swiftly set up to pass a long post route, which will be caught approaching the end zone, just after the quarterback is driven to the ground by the unblocked defensive end. "It's a price we pay for a big play," Bill confidently predicted.

His mastery of strategy, teaching and teamwork unlocked the formula for team excellence: common vision; trust based on understanding complementary roles; sacrifice based on trust; impeccable execution based on the sacrifices of meticulous coaching and conscientious, enthusiastic practice. Bill engendered these notions.

For a perfectionist, he was a master at attracting and bringing out the best in people, even when they stumbled. I recall his face as white as his hair as I came to the sideline in my first start in Los Angeles after two interceptions in successive possessions of the first quarter (some start). Yet Bill hung with me until we turned it around, eventually getting hot in the passing game. He instilled greater confidence in a quarterback than we had ever experienced because practice got us so prepared and the system gave us so many logical options to complete a pass. He had already taught and trained us meticulously, and given us plays designed to work in multiple ways.

Bill Walsh loved to turn athletes into professionals, jocks into intellectual competitors. His recruiting of black coaches helped break racial barriers. He orchestrated team play and he brought out the untapped best in all kinds of players. We grieve for his family, miss his friendship and are so grateful for his coaching and life lessons.

Bill Walsh coached people to be their best and called us to team excellence that honored each role in the symphony of teamwork -- essential in football, crucial in life. Thank you, Coach!

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