Walsh on Football: The Corporate Game

AMERICAN businessmen and politicians look for leadership models in sports. Each season has its championship mode: In the winter and spring it is basketball. Over the long summer it is baseball and golf. Now in the fall and to the edge of winter, it is football. Basketball is a game of pattern and flow. Golf is Elysian, set in parkland, a private competition against oneself and the course. Baseball is a game for summer evenings, like watching TV. Football is a game of collision, evasion - and preparation.

Professional sports expanded with the American economy in the 1980s. An unprofitable franchise today is hard to find. Golf even has multiplied into three tours - a sort of junior pro tour, a professional tour, and seniors' competition. More Americans look to retire in communities centered on golf courses. Golf-course space may be America's chief competitive advantage over Japan.

But it is football that is the most corporate of sports. It is the most diagrammable, ``strategic.'' It has platoons and special teams: Imagine squad golf, one individual teeing off, another playing approach shots, and another putting the greens.

The most successful football franchise of the 1980s was the San Francisco 49ers, coached by Bill Walsh. Walsh tells how he did it in ``Building a Champion,'' just published by St. Martin's Press.

Walsh's secret was a systematic approach to the game that he developed over two decades. To minimize mistakes under the deafening pressure of game time, everything was scripted. The system worked back from the need to be prepared. Players were rehearsed in individual techniques: how many steps the quarterback takes, how he moves to the outside, when to look for the receiver. Plays were practiced until they became automatic. Squads rehearsed. And options for special situations - say, third down and four at the goal line - were set.

The quarterback has to run the system, not just the game. Quarterbacks have to be brought along. Quarterbacks at first can effectively play only one side of the field. They must learn to read defenses. The education of the quarterback is one of the coach's primary responsibilities. Great quarterbacks like the 49ers' Joe Montana are coachable enough to master the system, while retaining the spontaneity needed to adjust and to rally the team.

Not psychological manipulation but confidence in his system is the coach's key to motivation. Walsh counted out the days of the training camp and season. Four different practice formats were set: from a grueling two-and-a-half-hour practice to a light, thirty-minute practice the day before a game - never two hard sessions in a row. ``It's vitally important that players take the field to learn something each session rather than to have only their courage tested,'' Walsh says. In practice, every second had to count. The learning process was accelerated by a study session the night before. Physical workout came in the process of learning. All phases of the game were emphasized at once - even though players with special skills might not arrive until a subsequent season. And Walsh himself ``coached the coaches.''

In player attitude, Walsh stressed ``quickness.'' Beat the opponent to the punch. Don't rely on force alone.

Walsh was also a student of personalities. He could see when a player was too dominant and had to be traded. He could read the difficulties of his own mentors in turning over the reins to him. He understood how players can fail to anticipate the approaching end of their careers.

Walsh saw his own coaching end coming, and the need to shift careers to broadcasting. Despite three Super Bowl rings in the '80s, the pressures of coaching had brought him to the emotional plateau where ``a loss is a minus, and a win is a zero.''

When a win is a zero defines modern corporate stress.

As the 14-hour days lead through the season, fatigue surfaces on the coach's face. Emotions erupt in rage at officials. ``Yet throughout this,'' Walsh says, ``it is vital to overtly demonstrate complete composure and control to the squad.''

Walsh himself was a competitive, emotional man. His system of exacting preparation was designed to enable his teams to function with grace under pressure, and to win.

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