Bill Walsh took great chances on the football field and with the people who worked for him.
Take Jerry Rice, the superstar receiver he plucked from tiny Mississippi Valley State in the first round back in 1985. And Tyrone Willingham, the man he mentored during Willingham's Stanford coaching days and one of the first participants in Mr. Walsh's minority fellowship program.
Nicknamed "The Genius" for his schemes that became known as the West Coast offense, Mr. Walsh died at his home Monday morning after a long battle with leukemia. He was 75.
"He gave me the opportunity to come to a winner, San Francisco out of Mississippi Valley State University," Rice said. "I was the 16th player taken in the first round. It was all because of Bill Walsh and what he stood for. I think that was very unique for him, because he could see talent."
Mr. Walsh changed the NFL with his innovative offense and a legion of coaching disciples, breaking new ground and winning three Super Bowls with the 49ers.
"This is just a tremendous loss for all of us, especially to the Bay Area because of what he meant to the 49ers," said Joe Montana, San Francisco's Hall of Fame quarterback. "Outside of my dad he was probably the most influential person in my life. I am going to miss him."
Mr. Walsh also produced an army of proteges.
Even a short list of Walsh's adherents is stunning. George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet all became NFL head coaches after serving on Walsh's San Francisco staffs, and Tony Dungy played for him. Most of his former assistants passed on Walsh's structures and strategies to a new generation of coaches, including Bucs coach Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak, Steve Mariucci and Jeff Fisher.
"This was a loss of such a great man who meant so much to so many people, and I was one of them," said Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was undrafted out of San Jose State and playing in the Canadian Football League when Mr. Walsh gave him a chance.
"I spoke to him as I spoke to my father," Garcia said.
Mr. Walsh is widely credited with inventing or popularizing many of the modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of plays held by coaches on almost every sideline, to the practice of scripting the first 15 offensive plays of a game.
"The essence of Bill Walsh was that he was an extraordinary teacher," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "If you gave him a blackboard and a piece of chalk, he would become a whirlwind of wisdom."
Mr. Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles. He was NFL coach of the year in 1981 and '84, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
He visited with friends until the end, and attended basketball games at Stanford all winter. Willingham, now at Washington, and Stanford donor and alumnus John Arrillaga went to see Mr. Walsh on Sunday, presenting him with the Stagg Award for his outstanding service to football.
Mr. Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program in 1987. Willingham and Marvin Lewis were among those who went through the program, later adopted leaguewide.
Mr. Walsh twice served as the 49ers' general manager, and Seifert led San Francisco to two more Super Bowl titles after Walsh left the sideline.
In 2004, Walsh was diagnosed with leukemia - the disease that also killed his son, former ABC News reporter Steve Walsh, in 2002 at 46.
Born William Ernest Walsh on Nov. 30, 1931 in Los Angeles, Mr. Walsh was coaching in Fremont, Calif., when Marv Levy, then the coach at California, hired him as an assistant.
Mr. Walsh is survived by his wife, Geri, and two children, Craig and Elizabeth.
0 Titles for San Francisco in 29 NFL seasons before Walsh's arrival
2 Stints as coach at Stanford, going 34-24-1
3 Super Bowl titles for Walsh, tied for second all-time
10 NFL playoff wins, in 14 games
14 Current or former NFL coaches that assisted him or of his proteges
47 His age when he became 49ers coach
585 college winning percentage in five seasons (two stints at Stanford)
617 NFL winning percentage in 10 seasons