One of the treasures of NFL books. Bill Walsh offers an in-depth view of the job of a head coach.
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 is 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 and honest about the ruthless nature of coaching in the NFL. 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.
Title: Finding the Winning Edge
Author: Bill Walsh, with Brian Billick and James A. Peterson
First published: Sports Publishing, 1998
Out of print: somewhat rare and expensive. Check AbeBooks
- Pro Football Journal’s Top 100 Pro Football Books, #17
- Featured in Chris Wesseling’s 10 Must Read Football Books
- Featured in The Scouting Academy Football Books list
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.)
Bill Walsh was the Hall of Fame head coach and general manager who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. While he was an assistant at the Cincinnati Bengals under Paul Brown he developed the West Coast Offense, which went on to become one of the most influential offensive philosophies in modern football, especially when run by QB Joe Montana at the 49ers. His other books including Building A Champion (1990) and The Score Takes Care of Itself (2009). He died in 2007, aged 75.
Brian Billick was assistant public relations director at the 49ers in 1979 and 1980, which is where he first worked with Walsh. By the time Walsh asked him to assist on Finding the Winning Edge, Billick had built his own coaching career and was offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. He went on to become head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and took them to their first Super Bowl win. He is also the author of Developing an Offensive Gameplan (first published in 1996), Competitive Leadership (2001 – co-written with James A Peterson), More Than A Game (2009), and The Q factor (2020).
James A. Peterson is a sports medicine specialist who has written or co-written more than 80 books, including several on sports fitness, football drills and football coaching.
“Deciding whether an individual is a ‘good’ draft choice is a subjective matter. Different people use different criteria when addressing this issue. For example, many sports writers tend to believe that if an individual is selected in the first or second round of the draft, then that athlete should meet Pro Bowl standards. In reality, such a perception is neither warranted nor reasonable. Personally, I believe a more objective, realistic approach to assessing the value of a particular draft choice involves looking at his specific effect on the team. In that regard, if a drafted player contributes to the team in a measurable way for at least two years, he should be considered a ‘good’ draft choice.”
“Keep in mind that the term ‘on the record’ means different things to different people. As a general rule, don’t ever forget that if you know something you don’t want to see in newspapers, don’t talk about it. ‘Off-the-record’ usually means you won’t see your comments for a week. ‘Strictly off-the-record,’ on the other hand, involves two weeks, while ‘strictly confidential’ may mean that your remarks won’t show up for a month or two.”
“A number of factors diminished Montana in the eyes of the NFL talent evaluators. He lacked the ideal size and arm strength. He seemed a bit too shy and reserved in his demeanor. He also did not have a particularly significant playing career at Notre Dame (i.e., he did not have a body of work from which definitive conclusions regarding his playing potential could be drawn). As a result, Montana was drafted in the third round-by all reasonable standards, an extraordinary ‘bargain’ for the San Francisco 49ers.”
“Develop a defensive system which highlights the players’ talents. Not only must the talent fit the system, the system must serve the talent. Incorporate elements of defensive football that allow the talent on the team to reach its fullest potential.”
Finding the Winning Edge is a fascinating read, but it’s essentially a textbook. The overall tone is very academic and it can be a slog to read it from cover to cover. Walsh’s style can be plodding. At times, he sounds like a police officer 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 show, 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 ever written by someone of his standing, and he still wasn’t satisfied? That tells you a lot about the man too.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
“I think that was a really, really smart book. And the reason that I think it was so well done is because, if you look at that period of football, there were a lot of attempts to do real insight stuff about the 49ers but that was the best one because Bill Walsh really wanted it done.”
“The most influential coaching text in the last decade.”
Michael MacCambridge, America’s Game (2004)
“The ultimate coaches ‘textbook’ on how to run a football team.”
Chris Willis, NFL Films
“Of the 36,000 copies sold in 1997, a hefty percentage have found their way to the desks of grade school, high school and college coaches around the country.”
Chris Wesseling, NFL.com
BUY THE BOOK
Out of print: somewhat rare and expensive. Check AbeBooks
Photo: John Martinez Pavliga