Walsh a treasure in Bay Area

Bill Walsh? Oh, nothing special. He only reinvented football in Northern California. He only changed the tenor of an entire sporting generation with the success he fostered. He made it cool to like the NFL north of L.A. Other than that, no big deal.

Think Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, Tom Landry in Dallas, Don Shula in Miami. That was Walsh in and around San Francisco, and he created almost all of that aura in one compact decade of NFL coaching. Almost 20 years later, you'll find no shortage of people still asking why Walsh wasn't more often consulted within the franchise lately. It's that kind of a shadow.

The NFL undoubtedly feels a collective loss at the passing of Walsh. But as important as he was to the league, and as far as the Walsh coaching tree's branches now extend, it is in Northern California that Walsh's absence is most acutely felt: San Francisco and Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, Marin -- all the places where it came to feel all right to invest emotionally in the fortunes of a sports team because Walsh was the one coaching it.

Walsh was that important. He was less magnetic than Joe Montana, certainly, and on his best day not one-tenth as fiery as Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. But without Walsh, the car just doesn't go.

If you were making a list of the most important things ever to happen to sports in Northern California and didn't put Walsh's ascension as coach up near the top, you'd be laughed out of the room. He was more than the 49ers' guy, for one thing. He played wide receiver at San Jose State and and drew up plays on cocktail napkins for Stanford head coach John Ralston in the 1960s. He was the head coach at Stanford in the late-'70s, and later returned there not once but twice, first as head coach again and then as the interim athletic director.

But it was the Walsh-Eddie DeBartolo relationship that sealed the deal. It was that relationship, with the brash young owner hiring the utterly self-confident coach -- a hiring settled over a bottle of wine at a landmark San Francisco hotel -- that altered the fortunes of a franchise for nearly a quarter century.

You wonder why the Bay Area loved Bill Walsh and never stopped loving him? The 49ers were so bereft when he took over as head coach in 1979 that his first season ended with a 2-14 record -- and no one blamed him. This was a franchise that had known some success over the years, had seen John Brodie in his prime, but it was lost in space by the time Walsh got down to the sideline. Undertalented, badly organized and absent a plan, the team had spun out completely.

By then, though, Walsh had cobbled together the basic components of what became known as the West Coast offense (interesting, since Walsh first began toying with it while an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals in the late '60s). He knew he wanted quick quarterback drops and quick reads. He wanted passes so short and true they could be easily substituted in any run-traditional situation. He loved catch-and-run plays that put the ball in the hands of his receivers -- Dwight Clark, John Taylor, Jerry Rice, et al -- and then allowed them to be athletes.

He borrowed from the masters, people such as Sid Gillman and Paul Brown and Al Davis and others, but the resulting system was uniquely Walsh's -- until teams, always interested in copying whatever works, began spreading the West Coast religion throughout the NFL via Walsh protégés such as Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden.
By then, Walsh's success was pretty much complete. Two years after that 2-14 debacle, his 49ers, now operating with Montana behind center, won their first Super Bowl. They would win five in all under the Walsh system, three for him and two for his successor, George Seifert -- and Seifert, for all his success in the Steve Young era, never did outrun the legend of the man he replaced.

One reason Northern Californians held Walsh in such regard, in fact, was the man's impeccable sense of dramatic timing. Walsh quit after an even decade as an NFL coach, in 1989, after winning another Super Bowl. He left on top. He gifted Seifert a team and a system that would go right out and win another championship the next season.

He didn't stay too long. In fact, Walsh did it just right, if the goal was to leave the people wanting a little more. And what's so interesting about all that is Walsh later regretted the move. He was tired, yes, and burned out after having served as coach, GM, president and jack-of-all-trades for the hard-charging DeBartolo. But Walsh spent some of his final years wondering just how much winning his 49ers might have accomplished had he stuck it out a while longer.

It's an imponderable, of course. Eventually, the NFL changed the salary rules that had allowed DeBartolo and Walsh to stockpile talent and keep it out of the hands of the competition (Young famously languished on the sideline for years, waiting for Montana to be done), and as Walsh's disciples fanned out across the league, they took with them some great modified versions of the offense he designed.

Those would have been some killer matchups, Walsh against Holmgren's Packers or Shanahan's Broncos. Instead, Walsh segued into a second stint at Stanford, and served as a kind of constant adviser to DeBartolo. In time, an embattled DeBartolo had to give up the franchise, and only then did it become apparent that the Walsh era had passed.

It passed with a whimper, the John York-Denise DeBartolo ownership axis just shredding the franchise, beginning with a nonsensical firing of Steve Mariucci from which the 49ers never really recovered. It only increased San Francisco's yearning for the Walsh years. It's something the fans in Northern California never really did get over, and that feels absolutely right. When you get the good stuff, accept no substitutes.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," published by HarperCollins, is in national release. A regular contributor to ESPN.com., Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.