Bill Walsh took great chances on the football field and with the people who worked for him.
Take Jerry Rice, the superstar receiver plucked from a small-town college in 1985 after Mr. Walsh saw him playing on TV while flipping through channels in a hotel room. And Tyrone Willingham, the man he mentored during Willingham's Stanford coaching days and an early participant in Mr. Walsh's minority fellowship program.
Nicknamed "The Genius" for 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."
Mr. Walsh changed the NFL with his innovative offense - breaking new ground, winning three Super Bowls with the 49ers and leaving a legion of coaching disciples.
His system was based on short passes that were likely to be completed, not the high-risk, high-reward downfield passes that had been the norm.
"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."
Mr. Walsh's adherents include the past three Bucs coaches - Jon Gruden, Tony Dungy and Sam Wyche. George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Wyche, Ray Rhodes and Bruce Coslet became NFL head coaches after serving on Mr. Walsh's San Francisco staffs, and Dungy played for him. Most of Mr. Walsh's former assistants passed on his structures and strategies to a new generation, including 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 modern basics of coaching, from the laminated sheets of plays on almost every sideline, to the practice of scripting the first 15 plays of a game.
He was 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning six division titles. The coach of the year in 1981 and '84, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Willingham, now coach 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 Bengals coach Marvin Lewis went through the program, later adopted leaguewide.
Mr. Walsh twice was 49ers general manager, and Seifert led San Francisco to two more Super Bowl titles. In 2004, Mr. 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.
Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.
0 Titles for San Francisco in 29 NFL seasons before Walsh's arrival
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 one of his proteges
617 NFL winning percentage in 10 seasons