Finding the Winning Edge (Sports Publishing, 1998)
Bill Walsh, with Brian Billick and James Peterson
Out of print – rare and expensive
Listed: Pro Football Journal Top 100, #17; Chris Wesseling’s Top 10, #5; The Scouting Academy football books list
This is one of the treasures of NFL books. After a short stint at Stanford that ended in 1994, Bill Walsh retired from coaching and poured everything he knew about the job into this book. He worked with Brian Billick, a former 49ers staffer who would go on to win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and Jim Peterson, a writer friend of Billick’s, to help turn a mass of notes into a book. The result was a book so highly regarded that you’ll find a copy on the shelves in most NFL offices.
Getting your own is more tricky. At the time of writing, copies can be found for around $200 (even more here in the UK). On occasion, prices rise as high as $400. Around 36,000 copies were printed and, according to ESPN, Walsh was dissatisfied with the finished product, which might explain why it was never reprinted.
The rights now belong to Walsh’s family but, more than a decade after Walsh’s death, there’s little sign of a new edition, so the secondhand market remains the only option.
That said, this is a book for the obsessives. If you want to know about Walsh’s coaching career, then his first book, Building a Champion (1990), is easy to find. If it’s his leadership philosophy that interests you, then the posthumous The Score Takes Care of Itself (2009) is similarly common. But if you want to know how someone like Walsh thinks, how to run a team and the day-to-day detail of a head coach’s job (and every other coach’s), then this incomparable.
Walsh breaks down his training sessions and the philosophy behind them, takes you through the process of game-planning and explains how to evaluate players. He’s candid about almost every part of the job. For example, he acknowledges the imperfect nature of player evaluation:
“If a personnel department is doing an outstanding job of evaluating and acquiring talent through the draft and free agency, its failure rate (i.e., the number of players who don’t ‘pan out’ for whatever reason) can be expected to be around twenty percent.”
Sometimes his honesty reveals the ruthless nature of coaching in the NFL:
“When all but a few players make the extreme sacrifice, those who won’t, don’t or aren’t up to it are expendable.”
He even recommends sometimes releasing a player who has had a bad game as a warning to others. The root of that, he explains, is that a coach who is unwilling to make those kinds of decisions will eventually see his team fail and be fired.
There are diagrams and breakdowns of about 40 of his favourite plays, too. Interested in reading Walsh’s breakdown of the Montana-to-Taylor touchdown that won Super Bowl XXIII? It’s in here. (Actually, it’s in Building a Champion too, but you’ll get more cred from saying you read it here and learn more about how Walsh adjusted his plays to attack different coverages.)
That said, the book can be a slog if you attempt to read it from start to finish. It’s essentially a textbook, so it’s easier to absorb in small doses. The ‘writer’ brought in to help with this – James Peterson – had a background in writing about sports medicine, so the overall tone is very academic.
Walsh’s style can be plodding. At times, he sounds like a policeman giving evidence in court:
“Accordingly, I decided to address the employees of each area of the organisation regarding the requirements and responsibilities of their positions. Subsequently, I established policies and procedures involving each individual’s role and held meetings to discuss those roles with various groups.”
There are also plenty of sections that all but the most dedicated football books buff might want to skip. Having read it all, I can tell you that Walsh’s lecture to secretarial staff is not essential, nor is his outline of the ticket manager’s job description. They – and many more sections like them – really are in this book though.
Writers are often told to ‘show’, not ‘tell’. In other words, illustrate with an example or anecdote, rather than explain the theory of how something works. This book functions as a kind of extreme example of that: all of its flaws demonstrate, more effectively than anything Walsh writes, the obsessive attention to detail that an NFL head coach needs.
The fact that he put all of this down on paper, organising his thoughts into the most comprehensive coaching manual every written by someone of his standing, and he still wasn’t satisfied? That tells you a lot about the man too.
Photo: John Martinez Pavliga