49ers' coach gains altitude with 'Big Sky'

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Those aware of his Midas touch with young quarterbacks were eager to see what Bill Walsh could do in San Francisco. They didn't have to wait long, because three years after hanging out his coaching shingle here, Walsh has come up with a Super Bowl quarterback in Joe Montana.

The curls creeping out from under Montana's helmet may remind millions who watch Sunday's championship game of another shaggy Super Bowl quarterback -- the Jets' Joe Namath. The similarity, however, largely ends there. Montana is mobile on the field, but would sooner stay home when not playing. And unlike Broadway Joe, he entered the league quietly, unobtrustively.

Not until quarterbacks Phil Simms, Jack Thompson, and Steve Fuller had been taken in the 1979 player draft did the 49ers get around to making the Notre Dame All-America a third-round choice.

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What apparently made other teams hesitant to select Montana was his inconsistency. He could be like a baseball pitcher with a control problem.

But what spelled ''caution'' to some was only a green light for Walsh, who knows how to mold quarterbacks better than anyone else in the business. He's made a career of it. Rather ironically, his reputation in this regard blossomed as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco's Super Bowl opponent.

Cincinnati hired him in the late 1960s. Before long the young expansion team was purring along with Greg Cook, a Walsh protege, at quarterback. Though only a rookie, Cook was the American Football League's top passer in 1969, an honor the current starter, Ken Anderson, earned in the NFL in 1974 and '75, also with Walsh's schooling.

All this appeared to make Walsh a prime candidate to fill Cincinnati's head coaching vacancy in 1975. Instead the job was given to Bill (Tiger) Johnson, who was fired two years later. Walsh, meanwhile, moved on to San Diego, where, as an assistant, he played a major role in quarterback Dan Fouts's development. From there, he became head coach at Stanford in 1977, and once again cultivated some outstanding quarterbacks. Two of them, Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils, led the nation in passing. A third, Turk Schonert, replaced Anderson in the Bengal lineup briefly this season.

Walsh has totally revamped what was the NFL's worst passing attack when he took over in 1979. He's made use of the short pass as a ball-control device. This small-bite approach largely explains why Montana has been able to complete a league-leading 64.5 and 63.7 percent of his passes the last two years.

''There's no special secret to what I have learned or what I know about the passing game,'' Walsh says. ''I simply have spent a lot of time and put in a lot of hard work mastering techniques of the passing game, techniques that I believe in. As an assistant coach, I decided that the way to succeed was to become expert in one area, and I did that with the pass offense.

''If I have any talent, it's in the artistic end of football. The variation of movement of 11 players and the orchestration of that facet of football is beautiful to me.''

Despite his offensive leanings, Walsh knows the importance of defense. With a weak one, the 49ers were 6-10 in the 1980 season. To patch this unit, he moved boldly, drafting three rookie defensive backs (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson), signing free-agent linebacker Jack Reynolds, and trading for lineman Fred Dean. These acquisitions turned the 49ers into a good defensive team overnight and proved Walsh's astuteness in another area -- player evaluation.

San Francisco owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. gave Walsh free rein in this area when he named Bill both coach and general manager. His arrival has stabilized the entire franchise, ending an era of confusion marked by four head coaches in three years and constant roster changes.

Impressed by what Walsh has done (taking the 49ers from a 2-14 record to 13-3 in just three seasons), his fellow coaches overwhelmingly voted him this season's Coach of the Year.

''He is more of a perfectionist than any other coach I have had,'' Montana says of Walsh. ''Everything has to be just right, from the ball's arc to mental readiness.''

Because Walsh is a stickler on fundamentals, Montana has worked on basic skills until they've become second nature. These good habits provide the French polish to an already talented, resourceful athlete.

Joe has engineered enough comebacks in his career to prove they're no fluke. In the Cotton Bowl his junior year, Notre Dame overcame a 34-12 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Houston 35-34 and win the national championship. Two weeks ago, in the last minutes of the National Conference championship clash, he guided the 49ers on a long, game-winning touchdown drive against Dallas.

The performance that actually sold Walsh on Montana came last season in New Orleans. Down 35-7 at the half, the 49ers rallied behind the young quarterback to win 38-35 in overtime. At that point, Walsh was convinced that Montana, and not Steve DeBerg, was the man for the job. DeBerg was eventually traded to Denver.

Bay Area fans have taken to the pretzel-eating native of Monongahela, Pa., in a big way. When a local writer instigated a contest to give Montana a nickname earlier this season, thousands wrote back, suggesting everything from ''Beaut'' to ''the Frisco Kid.'' Joe ultimately picked ''Big Sky,'' yet as one reader remarked, ''If you were going to write the world's first great novel about an NFL quarterback, you could hardly improve upon Joe Montana as the name for the main character. He needs a nickname like the White House needs to be painted a different color.''

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