By Bob Glauber
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Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells dominated what may go down as the greatest decade in pro football history, leading their teams to a combined eight championships and developing some of the most gifted players of all time in the process. Walsh, Gibbs and Parcells developed such NFL stars as Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice, Art Monk and Darrell Green. They resurrected the careers of players like John Riggins, Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Everson Walls and Hacksaw Reynolds. They did so with a combination of guts and genius, built championship teams in their own likeness, and revolutionized pro football like few others. Their influence is still evident in today’s game, with coaches who either worked directly for them or are part of their coaching trees now winning Super Bowls and using strategy the three men devised and perfected. In interviews with more than 150 players, coaches, family members and friends, GUTS AND GENIUS digs into the careers of three men who overcame their own insecurities and doubts to build Hall of Fame legacies that transformed their generation and continue to impact today’s NFL.
“Bill Walsh was the biggest, purest reason for my success. The thing that made us successful was that I understood what his offense was about, and I didn’t feel like I had to throw a touchdown all the time.”
“From a human being standpoint, nobody can deal with people better than Joe Gibbs. He knew every player on his team, what they were capable of athletically and what their mind-set was. He knew the buttons to push on every player.”
“Bill Parcells is the best thing that ever happened in my life. Bill made us who we were. If it wasn’t for Bill, I’d have been leading a different life.”
Bill Walsh walked up to the front door of the greenish-gray split-level home on Silverwood Drive and fell into the arms of his best friend.
Mike White could see the anguish in Walsh’s face. Had expected it, actually. As he held Walsh, he knew how utterly defeated his friend had felt after suffering such a crushing blow to his career. A blow Walsh was convinced had meant the end of his decades-long dream of becoming an NFL head coach.
In January 1976, Walsh had thought he’d get the chance after Paul Brown had announced his retirement from coaching. But when Brown turned not to Walsh, but to Bill “Tiger” Johnson, there was anguish. There was anger. There was doubt.
By the time he’d made his way to White’s home in Lafayette, California, Walsh was devastated. He needed an escape, a place to gather himself and figure out what he’d do next.
White—Walsh’s longtime confidant with whom he could share his innermost thoughts and fears—took in his friend.
No questions asked.
“He was just this beat-up person when he showed up,” Mike White remembers of the lowest moment of Walsh’s career. “He just had to find solace somewhere so he could get his thinking together and react to what had just happened.”
Despite Brown having placed his complete faith in Walsh to run what would eventually come to be known as the renowned West Coast offense, the seventy-one-year-old head coach and Cincinnati Bengals owner passed over his forty-four-year-old assistant and instead selected Johnson, his offensive line coach, who offered a more traditional approach to coaching. History would ultimately bear out how utterly misguided that decision was, but at the time Brown was convinced Johnson would be the better leader and that Walsh’s expertise in running the offense would give the Bengals a more reliable staff.
Walsh was inconsolable.
“Paul Brown once told me the reason he didn’t make Bill the head coach was because he felt Bill was too high and too low, that he couldn’t handle the lows of coaching to create enough consistent highs, that a loss would just wipe him out emotionally and he wouldn’t be able to function the next week,” said former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil, another of Walsh’s closest friends.
And there was some truth to that.
“Bill would go through tremendous mood swings, and the mood swings are a sign of insecurity,” Vermeil said. “I had it myself. Bill was always insecure. He had to prove to himself that he was as good as he thought he was.”
Walsh’s mood as he walked into White’s home was as disconsolate as his friend had ever seen. Walsh had flown to California alone, leaving behind his wife, Geri—who was pregnant with the couple’s third child, Elizabeth—and sons Steve and Craig. He needed a safe space, and he turned to his longtime friend White, whom he had first met in 1960 when the two were assistant coaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I remember getting this phone call from Bill, and it was like someone had just died,” Marilyn White said. “He said, ‘Marilyn, it feels like you’re the only ones I can call.’ It was sad, because Bill was very happy in Cincinnati. They had roots there, and they planned on being there for a long time.”
“He just needed to take a deep breath,” Mike White said.
So they converted an all-purpose room in the basement to create a makeshift bedroom for Walsh, and they spent the next few days together, trying to process what had just happened and figure out where Walsh could go from there.
Walsh didn’t know where he would turn next. The one thing he did know was that he could never go back to Cincinnati.
Dave Butz came off the practice field and was headed toward the Washington Redskins locker room when Joe Gibbs walked over to him for a private chat.
This was early in the 1981 season, when Gibbs was a rookie NFL head coach still in search of his first win and Butz, a thirty-one-year-old veteran defensive tackle and a holdover from former coach George Allen’s “Over-the-Hill Gang,” was uncertain about the direction of the team. The losing streak would eventually grow to five straight games to start the year, and Gibbs was tormented over his team’s slow start.
Gibbs was concerned that team owner Jack Kent Cooke, a notoriously demanding personality, was growing impatient to the point of making a change. Cooke had taken a chance on Gibbs, formerly an obscure forty-year-old offensive coordinator from the San Diego Chargers who’d run Don Coryell’s wide-open passing offense, known as “Air Coryell.”
Yes, Gibbs feared he’d become the first coach in NFL history to be fired without ever winning a game.
Gibbs had installed Coryell’s offense when he got to the Redskins, figuring he could out-scheme his rivals in the NFC East, a division known for its reliance on the running game as the central focus on offense, and imposing size and power on defense. The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles were the class of the division at the time, with Tom Landry in his late prime as the Cowboys’ coach and Dick Vermeil coming off the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance the previous January. The New York Giants were beginning to emerge from the worst period in franchise history under disciplinarian coach Ray Perkins. And the St. Louis Cardinals had a dynamic young running back named Ottis Anderson.
Gibbs’s first four games were against divisional opponents, and he lost every single one of them: 26–10 to the Cowboys, 17–7 to the Giants, 40–30 to the Cardinals, and 36–13 to the Eagles. It was no better in his fifth game, as Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers, in the early stages of their first Super Bowl championship run, beat the Redskins, 30–17, at RFK Stadium.
Concerned that some of his most important veteran players like Butz might check out and lose faith in the first-year coach, Gibbs offered words of reassurance.
“We had lost a whole bunch of games, and Gibbs came out to me and said, ‘Dave, we are so close. I don’t want you to give up and get demoralized. We are so close to doing great things. I want you to keep trying. We are on the edge of doing great things.’”
Butz nodded and thanked Gibbs for the encouragement, unsure whether Gibbs truly knew what he was talking about, or whether the losing would continue and Gibbs’s time in Washington would indeed be short-lived.
Butz didn’t know it at the time, nor did any of Gibbs’s other players, but the coach was about to go against every conviction and every principle he’d ever learned—not knowing if it would work, but convinced he had no other alternative.
The consensus was unanimous: Bill Parcells had to go.
The Giants were staggering to a 3-12-1 finish in Parcells’s first year as the Giants’ head coach, and memories of the darkest years of the franchise were haunting the Mara family. Team president Wellington Mara had presided over the lost years of 1964–1978, when the Giants had gone from a consistent championship-contending team to a franchise besmirched by failure. Rock bottom had come on November 19, 1978, when the Giants were seemingly headed toward victory over the Eagles at Giants Stadium and simply had to run out the clock in the final seconds against an Eagles team with no time-outs remaining.
But rather than having quarterback Joe Pisarcik do the sensible thing and take a knee, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson inexplicably called for a handoff to Larry Csonka. The ball caromed off Csonka’s right hip and was scooped up by Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards, who returned it for a 26-yard touchdown to give Philadelphia a 19–17 win. Gibson was fired the next day, and during the Giants’ next home game, a small plane flew over the Meadowlands carrying a banner: 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL—WE’VE HAD ENOUGH.
The fallout from a play referred to by Giants fans simply as “The Fumble” eventually led to the hiring in 1979 of George Young as general manager, a compromise choice that was acceptable to Wellington and his nephew Tim. The two were not on speaking terms but had agreed to Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s recommendation of Young, then a personnel assistant with the Miami Dolphins. Ray Perkins was Young’s choice to become head coach in 1979, but when Perkins left in 1982 to coach at the University of Alabama, Young appointed Parcells, a promising defensive coordinator under Perkins.
But by December of Parcells’s first year on the job, it became clear to all three of the Giants’ decision makers that a change had to be made.
“Parcells gets hired in 1983, and really the only basis upon which he was hired was that he had some head coaching experience, which wasn’t a heck of a lot,” said John Mara, Wellington’s oldest son and now the team’s president and co-owner. “We come to the end of that season, and the jury is very much out on Bill at that point.”
It was an excruciating season in every possible way, and not simply because of the final record.
Parcells had misjudged his quarterback situation, anointing Scott Brunner over former first-round pick Phil Simms. More than two dozen players wound up on injured reserve. After getting off to a 2-2 start, the Giants lost ten of their next twelve games.
Parcells’s personal loss that season was incalculable. His mother, Ida, had died in December. His father, Charles, had died two months later. His running backs coach, Bob Ledbetter, suffered a stroke in late September and died less than three weeks later.
“Both my parents died. My backfield coach died. Hey, it was tough, but that’s still no excuse,” Parcells said, looking back on the most difficult year of his life. “Listen, they’d seen enough. Everyone was on board with it.”
The decision had been made: The Giants would look for a new coach.
Howard Schnellenberger was their man.
Parcells was as good as gone.
There could not have been a more unlikely set of circumstances binding together three coaches who would eventually grow to dominate the NFL, preside over what might have been the greatest era of football the league has ever seen, and transform their own legacies into Hall of Fame careers.
Walsh, Gibbs, and Parcells went about building championship teams in vastly different ways, some of it involving the sheer genius of play calling, and some of it brute strength and the kind of mental and physical perseverance required to reach the pinnacle of success in the toughest league in professional sports. And while they all overcame uncertain beginnings, they grew into masterful tacticians and universally respected leaders.
They came of age during a time in the NFL when their coaching profession was dominated by Hall of Famers Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and John Madden, a daunting list of coaching geniuses in their own right. But Walsh, Gibbs, and Parcells would eventually become the pillars for the next generation of coaching greats, and their influence over the league was unmistakable, as these three men built teams that dominated the era.
Walsh would go on to win three Super Bowl titles and leave behind a team that won another a year after he retired. Gibbs won three titles in a ten-year span, and Parcells won the Vince Lombardi Trophy twice. In the eleven Super Bowls from 1981 to 1991, teams built by Walsh, Gibbs, and Parcells played in ten of them and won nine championships.
Along the way, they coached many of the greatest teams and the greatest players in NFL history, and coached in many of the greatest games ever. They also had rivalries among themselves, with some surprising results. While Walsh and Gibbs were unquestioned offensive geniuses whose systems were at the heart of their greatness, it was Parcells who mostly got the better of his two rivals in big-game situations.
They drove their teams hard, and they drove themselves hard, eventually to the point where they all had to step away because the game had consumed them. Often motivated by fear and insecurity—two characteristics they all went to great lengths to hide—they brought out the best in themselves and in all the people whose lives they touched.
Beneath the fear and insecurity, a rare combination of guts and genius fueled their ascension and gave rise to what many consider the greatest era in the history of professional sports, the impact of which continues to resonate in today’s game. Consider this: Since 1981, a combined thirty Super Bowl championships have been won either by Walsh, Gibbs, Parcells, or coaches who either worked directly under them or were part of their coaching trees. That’s an astonishing thirty of the thirty-seven championships since Walsh won his first title.
This is the story of their lives and their careers, and the indelible imprints they left on America’s game.
ROCK BOTTOM AFTER BEING PASSED OVER
Considering he never thought this day would come, Walsh needed only a few minutes with Ed DeBartolo Jr. to convince the 49ers owner he was the right choice to help the team emerge from years of losing and dysfunction.
DeBartolo had chosen the iconic Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco as his meeting place, and he knew right away that Walsh—who only three years earlier had been devastated at being passed over by Brown and was convinced his chance to be an NFL head coach had come and gone—would be his guy.
“We met in just a regular bedroom, not a suite,” DeBartolo said. “I don’t think we were much longer than fifteen or twenty minutes when I knew I wanted to hire him.”
DeBartolo was just thirty-two years old at the time, and he had started running the 49ers two years earlier, after his father, a wealthy developer from Youngstown, Ohio, had purchased the team for $17 million. At the time of the purchase, the 49ers were considered one of the NFL’s weaker franchises, with the Oakland Raiders captivating the Bay Area market during the halcyon days of maverick owner Al Davis and future Hall of Fame coach John Madden.
DeBartolo was at a crucial time in his career as a young owner, having initially failed to put the 49ers on a winning trajectory. In 1976, the year before his family purchased the team, the 49ers were 8-6 under Monte Clark—a decent final record, yes, but one that came after a 6-1 start. The 49ers missed the playoffs, and Clark was fired by general manager Joe Thomas, whose later personnel moves would prove disastrous.
Before the 1977 season, Thomas hired Ken Meyer as his coach, but the 49ers promptly lost their first five games before finishing 5-9. Meyer was fired after just one season. Thomas replaced him with Pete McCulley, releasing quarterback Jim Plunkett—who became a backup and eventually a Super Bowl winner for the Raiders—and then pulled off a blockbuster trade. Thomas gave up five draft picks for Buffalo Bills running back O. J. Simpson, despite the fact that Simpson was thirty-one years old and was coming off one of his worst seasons, in which he didn’t score a touchdown and had suffered a knee injury.
Simpson was born and raised in San Francisco, and thrilled to be back home.
“Obviously, I’m ecstatic,” Simpson said at an introductory news conference. “I was a 49er fan when I was a kid and I’ve never stopped being a 49er fan. I had some good years in Buffalo, but hopefully I can get here what I couldn’t get there, and that is a championship.”
It turned out to be a cataclysmic failure, with Simpson gaining just 593 yards and scoring one touchdown, and the 49ers going 2-14, their worst finish in franchise history. McCulley was fired after going 1-8, and Fred O’Connor went 1-6 as his replacement. As if the woeful record wasn’t enough, the 49ers would be without a first-round pick—which turned out to be the first overall choice—in 1979 because Thomas had traded it to the Bills as part of the Simpson deal. Thomas had also traded away second-and third-round picks in 1978, and second-and fourth-round picks in 1980. All that for a player who gained just 1,053 yards and scored four touchdowns in his last two dismal years in the NFL.
In their meeting at the Fairmont, that spectacularly beautiful hotel at the top of Nob Hill with sweeping views of San Francisco, DeBartolo almost instantly had a gut feeling that Walsh would be the one to bring the franchise out of its darkest days. That feeling had actually begun to emerge when DeBartolo watched the Bluebonnet Bowl a few days earlier. Walsh was now the head coach at Stanford, where he had eventually landed after his difficult breakup with the Bengals, and he led the Cardinal to a stunning comeback win over Georgia.
“I remember being back in Youngstown on a cold New Year’s Eve watching Bill in the Bluebonnet Bowl,” DeBartolo recalled. “They were getting knocked around pretty good, but he ended up coming back and winning that game.
“That win was very impressive,” DeBartolo said of the comeback. “The way his team came back says a lot. This man just struck me as someone who was different. Following his career at Stanford, knowing what happened to him in Cincinnati, when Paul Brown gave the [head coaching] job to Tiger Johnson. That was a bad situation for him. But I really wanted to meet with him and talk to him, because there was just something about him.”
The two men spoke about more than football that day.
“We talked about the way he operates, his philosophy,” DeBartolo said. “We talked about my family, his family, his wife Geri and their kids, my wife Candy and our kids. We even talked about his mom. We talked about his long-range plans.”
Walsh then told DeBartolo his vision of what the two could do together.
“He said, ‘I know you’ve had some coaches in here, but if I’m lucky enough to get this job, I plan on being your coach and us having a lot of success together.’”
DeBartolo had found his man.
“We ended our meeting with me standing up and saying, ‘I would really love to have you coach this football team,’” DeBartolo said. “He said, ‘Well, you have yourself a coach.’”
Walsh was delighted after the meeting, his dream of becoming an NFL head coach finally realized after so many years, so many different jobs, and all that self-doubt and all that anger over having been passed over. At forty-seven years old, Walsh’s time had arrived. He could look back on his career and his life that at times seemed quixotic in its grand aspirations, that sometimes seemed hopeless, but that always—always—had at its core a single-minded focus and purpose to do whatever it took to get to this point.
Walsh learned early in life that his greatest asset was self-reliance, even when it meant going his own way in the face of difficult circumstances. Born in Los Angeles in 1931, Walsh grew up in a blue-collar household. His father, William, made ends meet as a body-and-fender repairman. The family moved frequently, spending time in southern California and Oregon, and Bill was mostly a loner who found it difficult to make and keep friends because of the frequent moves. Over one three-year period, he attended three different high schools.
“I had never had the same teacher twice in my whole academic career, and all that adjusting had kept me from being much of a student,” Walsh told author David Harris for his 2008 book The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty. “Having to be the new kid always destroyed me.”
“My dad resented his dad because he moved him around,” said Walsh’s son Craig. “He grew up in an era of a lot of drinking, and there wasn’t a lot of sharing of emotions between my grandfather and my father. They had a different relationship. They were never very close. There’d be a lot of drinking and screaming and yelling at his mom. It was a blue-collar world. There wasn’t a lot of hand-holding.”
One incident in particular had a profound influence on Walsh. When he was around twelve years old and living in Los Angeles, his mother, Ruth, got him a pet duck.
“It was a little baby duckling that my father raised,” Craig Walsh said. “The duck would wait for my dad to come home from school, and the duck would come over, and my dad would embrace the duck, feed the duck.”
The duck grew over a period of time, and Walsh delighted in tending to it.
One day he came home around dinnertime, and the duck was gone.
He looked around the yard and couldn’t find it, and finally went inside and asked what had happened to the duck.
His parents didn’t answer.
Walsh then smelled what his mother was cooking for dinner.
“My grandfather had killed it and was going to eat it,” Craig said.
It was a devastating moment.
“I think right then and there, everything just formed solid for him,” Craig said. “He didn’t want to be part of this group. He was close to his mother, but his dad was out of business. He couldn’t stand him. He realized right then that it was going to be up to him. He wasn’t going to get any guidance from his parents. He was going to get what he wanted through hard work.”
Sports had become Walsh’s way of fitting in when the family had begun moving around, and he took to football and later boxing. Though only an average running back and defensive end at Hayward High School in the East Bay, about twenty-five minutes south of Oakland, he longed to play for a big-time program at either UC Berkeley or Stanford. There were no offers, though, and Walsh wound up playing quarterback for two years at the College of San Mateo, a junior college, and transferred to San Jose State as a junior, where he played receiver for two years.
Walsh also took a keen interest in boxing, winning the school’s 190-pound intramural championship as a junior and eventually boxing in some amateur bouts. At the beginning of his senior season, he met freshman Geri Nardini and fell in love almost immediately. It was Nardini’s first day of school.
“He invited me to a boxing match, and I said ‘I don’t even know where I am. I’m here with my roommate,’” Geri said of her first meeting with Walsh. They married shortly after Walsh’s graduation and just before he enlisted in the Army for a two-year stint at Fort Ord in Monterey.
Walsh was promoted from private to corporal shortly before his enlistment was up, and he also continued boxing. Geri gave birth to their first child, Steve, while Walsh was still in the service.
While Walsh was still uncertain about his career path, something disturbing happened at Fort Ord. During the period of basic training, one of Walsh’s platoon mates committed suicide. It would have a lasting impact on Walsh and change his way of thinking about how to be an effective leader.
“I think my dad’s takeaway was that you can only push someone so far before they act out,” said Craig Walsh. His father had shared this story with him shortly before Craig graduated from UC Davis, when he was considering whether to go into the military. “It really turned him off to that type of leadership, where you see the drill instructor in everyone’s face. That was one of the life lessons that changed him. He decided that this was not the kind of coach he wanted to be.”
Walsh briefly considered a career as a professional boxer, but he decided it wasn’t a practical way of supporting his family and chose coaching instead. His first job was as a high school football coach at Washington Union High in Fremont, California, where he also coached the swim team, taught physical education classes, and drove the team bus. He inherited a football team that had lost twenty-six of its last twenty-seven games, but Walsh had won the league championship within two years.
And now, nearly a quarter century later, he was about to live out his dream with the 49ers.
After an odyssey that included more than half a dozen stops at places as disparate as UC Berkeley, the Raiders, Stanford, Cincinnati, and even a semipro team called the San Jose Apaches—a team that went out of business a year after Walsh coached there—this was his chance.
“Bill always wanted to be a pro head coach so bad,” said John Madden, who, like Walsh, grew up in the Bay Area and served his coaching apprenticeship on the West Coast. “He wanted it so bad that he took the San Jose Apaches job. It took him a long time to get there [to become an NFL head coach] and if you look at his trail, it wasn’t an easy trail. He thought it would happen a lot earlier.”
Madden thought he’d have a chance to work on the same staff as Walsh in 1967, when Madden got the job as the Raiders’ linebackers coach after a three-year run as the San Diego State defensive coordinator under Don Coryell. Walsh had been the Raiders’ running backs coach under John Rauch in 1966, and it was one of the most miserable experiences of his life. Not because of Rauch, but because of Al Davis, who expected all his coaches to put in brutally long hours.
Not only that, but the constant second-guessing from Davis, who had just given up his role as coach but remained a micromanager of every aspect of the football operation, grated on Walsh that entire year.
- "Back in the pre-internet days, when football was a big game but not the gigantic one it is today, Bob Glauber and I cut my NFL reporting teeth on the Giants and the great teams of the NFC. I am so glad he wrote GUTS AND GENIUS, because sometimes I fear the greatness of the Walsh-Parcells-Gibbs generation hasn't been fully appreciated. Glauber captures the essence of the genius of Walsh, the domineering Parcells, and the wily Gibbs. The vividly told stories of how these three men had a grip on an era of football are valuable not just for football fans but for anyone who seeks greatness in any walk of life. This book is a must for any sporting bookshelf."—Peter King, Monday Morning Quarterback and NBC Sports
- "Bob Glauber, as he usually does, has written a book that takes football fans of all ages inside the lives of three of the most significant figures in the game's history. If you love pro football as I do, you will love this book."—Bill Polian, former GM of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts
- "Fabulous book. One of the best sports books I've ever read. This is the inside story of three of the greatest football coaches of their generation. They knew how to win, and this is the captivating story of how they won -- not just what made headlines, but the little tricks of brilliance no one knew about that made them champions."—Ernie Accorsi, former GM of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and New York Giants
- "Football began to climb to the heights it reached today in the 1980s, in large part thanks to Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs. Bob Glauber perfectly brings together these men, with that time, to give us a glimpse of the greatness behind the guts and genius."—Adam Schefter, ESPN NFL reporter and author of The Man I Never Met: A Memoir
- "Three dominant coaches, three dominant teams, one dominant writer. It's an irresistible combination. Long-time NFL writer Bob Glauber was right there as Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, and Joe Gibbs created the best three-way rivalry in NFL history, and now he brings incredible insight and perspective to one of the most fascinating eras in NFL history. Walsh, Parcells, and Gibbs combined for three Hall of Fame busts and eight Super Bowl championships, and Glauber takes us behind the scenes to reveal how it all happened."—Gary Myers, former NFL columnist Dallas Morning News, New York Daily News, and New York Times bestselling author of Brady vs. Manning and How 'Bout Them Cowboys?
- "Bob Glauber has done a magnificent job capturing these three Hall of Fame Coaches, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh and a great era of the NFL. A must-read."—Charley Casserly, former GM of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans
- "The extraordinary careers of these coaches are expertly interwoven to create a delightful and insightful read."—Library Journal
- "Glauber shows in fascinating detail how each coach built a foundation for success both on the field and in their relationships with owners and players. This has been a great season for football books...and this one adds to the treasure trove."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing