Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Classic Post from the Past: the Death of Bill Walsh

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh: The Anecdote

One good thing about Bill Walsh's death -- possibly the only good thing when you get down to it -- is that it will reinvigorate certain aspects of my basic reporting class this fall. As Walsh's legend receded in recent years, at least among non-sports fans, the pungency of some of my recollections from my Chronicle days also receded.

Walsh, you see, provided several of my better stories about the pitfalls and the attractions of being a reporter. It was a quarter century ago, sometime in the run up to Walsh's second Super Bowl that I was chosen from among the Chronicle's feature writers to do a "personal" profile of the Great Coach, his life outside of football or before football or above and beyond football.

All this while Walsh prepared for the Super Bowl. I had a deadline. I had no expectation of doing anything in-depth and remarkable given my brief, so I did what you do: I called the Niners PR department and asked them to help me set it up and to point me toward some sources.

They said I could have 15 minutes -- 15 minutes! -- with Walsh, but that as far as pointing me towards friends and family, well no. Walsh was a very private man, the PR person said, and did not like friends and family bothered. Okay, I said, not caring much one way or the other that I did not have his permission to bother family and friends. I was no Woodward, much less a Bernstein, but I knew how to do reporting without some PR person holding my hand. I made some phone calls, talked to some people, got some refusals, got some referrals....

The PR guy called me. You're calling up Walsh's friends, he said. Walsh's friends are calling him because they don't have permission to talk to you, and they know he doesn't like to be talked about. Now back then we did not say Duh! Had we, I could have. Yeah, I did say. I'm doing you know my job. I'm, you know, reporting. At this point, the PR guy started to cooperate, gave me a list of Official Friends, who had been prepped for my call.

The unprepped friends were better interviews. Lesson One, young people.

Second lesson: Not everybody is scared of their daddy. Without the help of the Niners PR department, I tracked down one of Walsh's kids. He shared several stories of a distant father whose interests lay outside the family. I must admit that I was surprised. Lacking a journalism education, I learned the reporter's job in the school of soft knocks at a city magazine, and I had never come across someone so willing to diss a famous daddy who was apparently a nice guy or at least a much nicer guy than most successful coaches, so many of whom give the impression they are on loan from Hitler Youth.

I put some of the son's angst in the final story, but I could have got more of it, I'm guessing.

Had I wanted to write that kind of story.

Lesson Two: I wish I had pressed the kid harder. But having gotten more from him, I don't know how much more of it I would have used. Bill Walsh was no Daddy Dearest (a reference that implies the mold that covers most of my references and war stories), just a father who sometimes put career before family, at least in the eyes of his son. The older I get, the more I realize how much friction we create as we move through life and the more I realize that such details aren't exactly a revelation. So maybe I put just enough about father and son in the piece.

Lesson Three: But the more you know the better. As I tell my students, fill up your notebook and then decide. (And be careful what you tell your editor because then you lose control. Some editors are real bastards.) Having it doesn't mean you have to use it. But go get it. The PR guy still declined to put me in touch with Walsh family members -- that lust for "privacy," remember. I not only tracked down the son, I tracked down Walsh's dad somewhere in Southern California. This took some work. I got the old man on the line, made my pitch -- I think I said something like "... doing a story and would like to talk to you..." -- and the old man said, voice quavery, "He's a wonderful boy" and hung up. I did that thing the textbooks say to do. I called back and said that we had been cut off.

Well, he hung up again.

Lesson Four: Obsession is fun. Everybody was telling me that Walsh was a very private man, but no one could tell me why. He just was. I began to wonder if .... I will tell you all, friends of the blog. I have come to tell you all. I decided Walsh was either adopted or illegitimate or born a little "too soon," if you know what I mean. I obtained his birth certificate. I forget what I had to do to get it. I've long since forgotten my methods, but quite legally I got a copy, and it showed nothing unusual. He was born when he said he was and to the people his official bio said he had been born to. If they had been married for less than the requisite period before his birth, that I could not find out. I wouldn't have used that fact if I had been able to determine it. I'm almost absolutely certain I wouldn't. I don't think I would have used anything I found out of an embarrassing nature concerning Walsh's origins.

Anyway, the editors would have killed it.

But I wanted to know.

Lesson Five: A majority of American males are failed jocks. Male newspaper reporters reflect the general population in that particular. That means when you drop a general assignment reporter into a sports story the danger exists the reporter will want to seem more knowledgeable than he actually is, to buddy up, to show some cred. So it was with me during my 15 minutes with the great coach himself. I wasted valuable time asking football-related questions that the regular sportswriters had asked earlier and better.

What I should have done is say: I played high school football and am a fan of football at all levels. That means from your point of view I know *Fuck All* about football so we are not going there. I should have pressed him and pressed him more about what really did seem a privacy fetish -- and what about your son? -- and if he threw me out, all to the better.

Lesson Five and a Half, Young People: You'll become friends with a famous subject about once in a million years. And when it happens you should ashamed. Once every two million years is about right. Story short: I wasted his time. I got nothing.

Lesson Six: Oh there was perhaps one more little reason why my 15 minutes of infamy proved so useless and my good questions somehow didn't get asked. I almost never taped. Never have. Too much trouble. Made me lazy. Note taking makes clear the degree to which you are asking good questions because you are either doodling or racing to keep up. But with the Great Walsh I decided to tape, figuring everything was going to be gold. (I've said before that nothing was. A waste of his time and -- much worse -- a waste of mine.)

Maybe half way through the interview I notice the tape recorder has stopped. My face goes full spectrum, a real rainbow coalition. I open the record, pull on the cassette and out comes a veritable skein of tape. It looked like a taffy pull. Yeah, maybe so here's another reason for a failed interview.

You should have seen the look on Walsh's face. I should have said: You have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. I see that is true. And so on and so on.... What a recovery I should have made, could have made, didn't actually make.

Thus, a nightmare interview lives on in dreams. It wasn't exactly a dropped pass in the end zone, but so it felt at the time. Today? An anecdote, a story to be told over drinks, a reminder that 90 percent of life is showing up. But only 90 percent.


Greg Pabst said...

My trail crossed Walsh's in 1992 when he returned to Stanford and I was Marketing Director at KFRC radio - and we had Stanford football and basketball on the air.
The coach had just come through a bad patch, working "color" on NFL games for NBC (I believe). He got poor reviews - justifiably - and wanted little else to do with the "media," which, it turns out, kind-of included us.
Naturally, we wanted to use his voice on promo spots for the games.
We asked. He dodged.
KFRC had a mobile studio, a complete recording and broadcast facilty built into a recreational vehicle. I suggested to the boss we take the mountain to Mohammed.
I called my contact in the Stanford Athletic Director's office and scheduled a live promotional broadcast for Morning Drive and, oh by the way, we'll be there when morning practice finishes and could we get Bill for a few minutes and, sure, I'll Fax you the "drops" (lines) we'd like him to read.
So Tim Jordan, our dazzlingly talented production manager and I get the keys and the morning team and head south on 101 early on a beautiful fall day in Palo Alto.
A pretty good show. Interviewed some kids from the band (on suspension at the time for some kind of hi-jinx which I don't remember) some other Stanford people that I don't recall either and the cheer leaders.
My intern, a good looking kid - son of a friend of mine - and a student at Davis allows cheer-leader-wise that "they really aren't that cute." I have to explain that they get to Stanford by being the smartest cheer leaders in America. I don't think he got it.
Show finishes, the morning team disappears like the morning fog and we drive the Sturgeon (as the white RV was known in the engineering department) across campus to the practise field and Bill Walsh.
I snag him as the post-practisce team heads for the locker room. "Hey, Coach, we gotta record a few comments from you for the radio. Take about ten minutes."
Deer in the headlights eyes. Lips mumbling "I got a lot of things to do."
Me, too.
I steer him into the mobile, tape's already loaded, he and Jordan sit down, I'm punching the buttons.
I've been in uncomfortable positions myself and witnessed the same for others many times. But this is one of the worst ones I've ever seen. Poor guy was blowing the read, sweating (it was pretty warm in there and we'd closed the windows against ambient noise) and visibly in somw kind of pain.
We got what we needed, but this was clearly a man who was out of his zone.
Let me suggest that Bill Walsh was only comfortable when he was the "The Genius." And the few minutes I spent with him - while he was reading copy I wrote - was not a Genius moment.
Possibly, he wasn't a genius father. Certainly, he wasn't a genius behind a microphone.
Some of his former players talked on the news last night about being Bill's "men." Joe Montana said Walsh was the most significant person in his life.
I wonder how Joe's Dad felt about that?
Joe also moved his family from Woodside to Napa so that his son could conveniently go the famous-for-having-a-great-football "program" DeLaSalle High School. Sounds as if the virus is passing down the generations.
Bill Walsh was a great coach, everybody agrees. And the choices he made were apparently to be the best at his chosen vocation, above anything and everything else in his life.
Some of us do that. Some of us don't. Some of us can't.
Read the life of Alexander the Great (and anyone else called The Great), Napolean Bonaparte, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Joe DiMaggio - and I suspect, William Shakespeare.
Add Bill Walsh to the list.
Every one of them made a difference in the world at large by becoming the best of their own narrowed world. And we seem to have needed them all.
I'm sure not one of them would have tolerated a tape jam in the middle of an interview.
And I'm also sure none of them would have been good company at dinner.
So it goes...
Greg Pabst

david silver said...

wow - excellent post and excellent list of lessons.

i like this one: "Having it doesn't mean you have to use it. But go get it."

and nice comment pabst.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Pabst knows everyone. Pabst had tea and scones with Stalin where they swapped "bad date" stories about Madame Curie.

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Peter Moore said...

Bill Walsh is dead??

....J.Michael Robertson said...

You didn't even know he was sick.

But seriously folks. My world at any given moment is populated by people I thought were dead but aren't. I am reminded that they aren't. And about the time they die I will have finally absorbed the fact they aren't -- make that weren't -- dead. So once again I will be wrong in just the opposite way. What he's not dead? is succeeded by What he *is* dead?

Bob Hope is ... ?