12-11-03, 9:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It looks like Sunday is the last time Bill Walsh has anything to do with a Bengals-49ers game, and that ought to qualify it as a historical landmark.
Bengals-Niners in the '80s. Think of those.
Two Super Bowls, one decided in the final 34 seconds, the other in the fourth quarter. One regular-season game decided on the final play, the other by six points.
Now 72, Walsh's days as a 49er consultant are over next spring. But he makes one last trek with the team this weekend to Cincinnati, where he can see his pro coaching career coming around in what he calls, "a circle."
After all, the game is in the stadium named after Paul Brown, Walsh's mentor and biggest influence in his organizational skills. And the game is against a Bengals team coached by Marvin Lewis a man crediting Walsh with the same influence on him.
Full circle on a football field 100 yards long.
"I take great gratification in what Marvin is doing in Cincinnati," Walsh said from his 49ers' office this week. And Lewis said after Thursday's practice, "He should. He's a big reason I'm here."
Walsh began the league's minority internship program as head coach of the 49ers, and Lewis was one of the first students in the late 1980s during a three-week training camp as Walsh was ending his Hall-of-Fame run. As Bengals President Mike Brown closed in on his decision to tap Lewis this past January, Walsh called with a recommendation.
"The great thing about Bill Walsh is that once you were part of the 49er family, you were part of the 49er family," Lewis said. "As a young coach, it was great to be a part of that because he would do whatever it was to help me. He was always helpful. It just wasn't like, 'You were here for three weeks and that was it.'"
As every Cincy school kid from Warsaw Avenue to Ward's Corner knows, Walsh was head coach Paul Brown's bright, young offensive assistant coach in the early days of the Bengals. When Brown chose
Tiger Johnson to succeed him in 1976 instead, Walsh left hurt, but found his way to the Niners as the head man in 1979 and three years later beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. He won another one three years later and when he beat the Bengals again four years after that, he walked away and joined Paul Brown in the Hall of Fame.
One of the great what-if games in sports history has always been, "What if Paul Brown hired Bill Walsh?"
"I used to think about that quite a bit, but not for a long time anymore," Walsh said. "You have to move on. You can't live in the past. I've always had fond memories of the people there."
Others may have been telling Lewis not to touch the Bengals' job, that Cincinnati was a dead-end, that he should wait. But not Walsh. He thought it was a good match.
"Mike and Marvin are both very intelligent people," Walsh said. "I thought Cincinnati would be a good place. They've had a number of high draft picks and a lot of good players. All they needed was someone to lead them, to give them some direction and I knew Marvin could do that given his success as a defensive coordinator and what kind of leader he is."
Through Walsh, Lewis was exposed to Dennis Green and Brian Billick. Those were guys who learned their organizational skills from Walsh.
And, as the years go by, Walsh is always more and more gracious when it comes to Brown.
"Everything I learned in organization was from Paul Brown," Walsh said. "The teaching, the detail. The fact that you have a philosophy and you let everyone in the organization know what it is and how to accomplish it."
Lewis took a page from Billick's book in Baltimore during his first week on the job and introduced his coaching staff and goals to all of the Bengals' employees. Billick apparently took it from Walsh.
"That's something we did with the 49ers," Walsh said. Asked if Paul Brown did it, Walsh said, "Of course, but back then, there just weren't that many people."
Lewis took plenty of notes in that one training camp with Walsh, and they surface all throughout his program.
"His detail, his doing things professionally," Lewis said. "Speed, timing, keeping guys fresh. Doing things classy."
Which is funny, because Walsh saw that reinforced under Brown, and then he took it to the next level in the '80s. Brown had the infamously quick, 75-minute practices to preserve the legs, and he was a pioneer in putting his teams up in the best of hotels.
"When it came to players," Walsh said, "Paul Brown always went first class."
This final trip, this final game, means something to Walsh. His children spent much of their youth in Cincinnati, where he first tasted professional success with players such as Isaac Curtis, Greg Cook, and Bob Trumpy. He has plans to meet with those very guys again this weekend, as well as former coaching colleagues such as Chuck Studley and Jack Donaldson.
Maybe lunch. Maybe dinner. But some time this weekend in which it all comes full circle on a football field 100 yards long.
"A great town and great times," said Walsh of then and what is becoming now.
Thanks to a Brown-Walsh student named Lewis.