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A great mind for the game

There's no denying the greatness of Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach who died Monday at 75.

Walsh is one of just four coaches — Weeb Ewbank, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick are the others — to reach at least three title games and never lose.

As the offensive coordinator for the prickly Paul Brown, Walsh began to develop what would become known as the West Coast offense and helped make Cincinnati a division champion in just its third season.

He guided San Francisco to a Super Bowl victory in just his third season, two years after its second straight 2-14 debacle. Excluding strike-shortened 1982, the 49ers wouldn't finish under .500 again for 18 years, long enough for an entire generation of Bay Area fans to forget that their heroes in scarlet and gold ever had been losers.

Unlike some superb coaches who were much better with the X's and O's than with selecting players, Walsh had a scout's eye for talent. Under his direction, San Francisco traded up for a Division I-AA receiver named Jerry Rice and drafted mainstays Dwight Clark, Jesse Sapolu, John Taylor, Charles Haley, Bill Romanowski, Tom Rathman, Carlton Williamson and Guy McIntyre in the third round or later.

The third round is also when Walsh chose a Notre Dame quarterback with a flair for the dramatic in his first draft with the 49ers back in 1979. Guy named Montana. He could play a little.

Walsh also just knew that ex-college and USFL star Steve Young, languishing in Tampa Bay, was worth more than the pair of draft choices he gave the Buccaneers for the quarterback in a 1987 heist.

And Walsh had the guts to walk out on top and never coach another NFL game, something that fellow retiring champions Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil couldn't resist. He left the 49ers in such good shape that they cruised to a repeat the next year under former assistant George Seifert.

Just 57 when he retired after winning a third Super Bowl in eight years and with a healthy Montana, Young and Rice on his roster, Walsh didn't stay away from football. He broadcast for NBC and established the NFL's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program that has produced coaches like Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis.

Walsh coached a second stint at Stanford and returned to the 49ers as general manager in 1999, overseeing their rise from the bottom for a second time, signing quarterback Jeff Garcia from the CFL and landing a starter with his last draft pick, seventh-round tight end Eric Johnson in 2001.

It can be argued that Washington's Joe Gibbs winning three Super Bowls with three lesser quarterbacks (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien) tops Walsh's three with Montana.

Did Montana make Walsh or the other way around? No one ever will know for sure, but Walsh was 12-8 against fellow Hall of Fame coaches Gibbs, Noll, Don Shula, Tom Landry and Bud Grant. That's a testament to excellence, as is Walsh's .714 playoff winning percentage, third best among those coaches with at least 10 postseason victories.

And Walsh's proteges, most notably Mike Holmgren, still use his quick-hitting, short passing scheme to confound defenses from coast to coast.

That's plenty of legacy for one coach's lifetime.

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