What It Takes to Win at Football

On the eve of the Giants-49ers game, ex-49ers coach Bill Walsh reflects on building a team

BY building the San Francisco 49ers from a ragtag National Football League franchise with a dismal record into three-time Super Bowl champions, Bill Walsh became one of the most respected coaches in the world. Observers credit the legacy of his systematic approach to football - highly rehearsed precision execution, ``scripting'' up to 25 plays before a game, and the quick pass - with the continued success the team has enjoyed since his retirement in 1988. While Walsh became football analyst for NBC, the team won a fourth Super Bowl last year, and is one of the NFL's top two teams (10-1 record) this season. On the eve of tonight's clash with the other top team, the New York Giants (also 10-1), Walsh spoke with the Monitor about the mental factors surrounding ``the big game,'' such intangibles as emotion, humor, and pregame hype, as well as leadership, motivation, and teamwork.

Tonight, what can we look for from the Giants and 49ers?

The Giants have a wonderful defense that is strong at every position, has excellent balance, and makes very little error. [Carl] Banks and [Lawrence] Taylor as the outside linebackers are dominating.

Offensively, they rely very heavily on their running game, and select their passes very carefully. But Phil Simms must be considered one of the very best quarterbacks in the game today.

The 49er passing game will be by far the most powerful and vital instrument in this game. It could very well be the best in the history of football. They have two of the greatest receivers that the game has seen in Jerry Rice and John Taylor....

The 49ers are playing good defense but not as good as a year ago or statistically as in previous years. Nor is their running game as good.

Is there anything different about a Monday night game that leads to upsets or makes one team better able to focus than another?

Monday night really livens the competition because it is the only game of the day and thus has a far larger audience. On the other hand, the teams must wait all day, and it really does test their nerves ... [and breaks] their particular weekly schedule, so that - in itself - can unnerve a team on occasion.

[Under] the dark sky and lights, players seem to stand out more and appear to be running faster, so it looks like a faster, harder-hitting game.

What will the coaches do or say differently to prepare their teams for such an important game?

Both teams are so accustomed to games of this magnitude [that] you really don't have to say very much to the team. If you are going to motivate a football team, it's often those games that you assume you will win, or expect to win easily.

What about the mental factors that cause upsets?

This is where the veteran players are so important in not getting distracted by emotion and hype - realizing that too much can be made of it. They know the game is no more important than playing the weakest opponent on the schedule - as far as league standings, and potential Super Bowl bids. The critical factor is not expecting to play better than your weekly standard, but to be that much more alert as to how good the competition is.

Assuming the overall skill level of the teams is about the same, what are the differences in coaching that separate the superior team from the ho-hum team?

The tactics and decisions made during the game itself - both play-calling and the calling of the specific defenses at just the right time - are absolutely critical. Especially when teams are evenly matched, then those calls that are made by the coaches primarily will be the differences in the ball game. It's so different from basketball or baseball where it is so much more of a player's game....

Leadership is simply being able to deal with stress and pressure and know what you're doing. If he's handling the game well, making the right decisions, the coach will be followed by his players because they know he will come up with the decisions when it counts. It's not motivational speeches, it's not being in the locker room psyching people up with ``c'mon, guys'' stuff. You can't depend on emotion for very much, you really can't.

[Former Green Bay Packers' Coach] Vince Lombardi's strength was that he was an absolute taskmaster, tactician, and teacher. He was inspiring because he was such an outstanding practitioner and mechanic of the game. But they played better football because of the kind of drilling that he insisted upon for weeks and months, year after year.

You said once of a third-down situation in a crucial game that you couldn't think of the play because it was too noisy. Does the intensity of big games increase the possibility for error?

Absolutely. In every game in which I've been involved, I have reflected and noted afterward to myself where I made my mistakes. Sometimes, even when we won by a big score, I would conclude that had I really seen the evidence before me and been able to reflect on it, I could've made better decisions....

If football is a game of controlled violence, are the best players the ones who have a highly disciplined sense of violence?

You can run amok and futilely try to be physical or brutal and that kind of viciousness might get some attention from the media. But it is precision movement that is key. It's how quickly you move and beat the opposition to the punch more than it is to maul somebody. So the precision team and the sharper, hard-hitting team is the team that will have the best record. That's why the 49ers have dominated pro football for so many years.

You once dressed like a bellhop and took the suitcases of arriving players. Is humor an important element in keeping a team loose?

If you can find something in common for the diverse cross-section of people you have on a football team, then you've made your first step and of course humor will do that.

[Humor] was almost a starting point for me with the 49ers because we were a very forlorn and helpless football team, and the humor began to bond us. Over time, humor has been a major factor in all the teams I've worked with.

As coach and now as broadcaster, what have you learned about combining the worlds of being scripted with being spontaneous?

The better prepared you are, the more spontaneous you can be. That's where many people are wrong in the notion they can wing it or go by the seat of their pants. Those who are best prepared can take the latitude to ad lib only because they are on a real, solid foundation.

After all is said and done, what is the rock-bottom element that makes a winner?

Players demanding of each other to compete and to give everything they have. It's the mutual expectation of your teammates....

Talent and teamwork are of equal priority, but you just can't compete today without top talent. By degree, you can have lesser talent and have a better team because of teamwork and execution. But if both teams are equally coached and organized, then the talented team will win.

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