Three head coaches dominated the NFL in the 1980s to a mind-boggling extent. Bill Walsh, with the 49ers, Joe Gibbs, with Washington, and Bill Parcells, with the Giants, represented the NFC in nine of the 11 Super Bowls between 1981 and 1991. The others were won by the Bears, in 1985, and the 49ers, in 1989, coached by George Seifert in the season following Walsh’s retirement.
Not only that but each of the three head coaches met the others at least once in the playoffs. Between them, the three coaches contested two NFC Championship games, two Divisional playoffs and one Wild Card playoff. It’s a pretty extraordinary record and one that Bob Glauber examines in Guts and Genius, which tells the story of each man’s time as head coach.
The book has an interesting structure, with Glauber focusing each chapter on just one of the three coaches. They don’t rotate in a strict order, either, so a four-chapter run in the first half of the book alternates between Walsh and Gibbs before checking-in with Parcells again. It gives the book an unpredictable rhythm that stops it becoming boring or predictable.
It can be confusing at times, however. With these teams playing each other so often and ending up in so many Super Bowls, it can take a minute to realise you’re reading about a game that was already covered in a previous chapter, from a different perspective. The benefit, though, is that you get time to learn about each coach, his challenges and goals, without constantly switching between them.
Glauber, who is the president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and a longtime football writer and columnist, describes how all three coaches had rocky starts and could have been fired. Parcells perhaps came closest to losing his job. In late 1983, the Giants tried to recruit Howard Schnellenberger, then coaching the University of Miami, but were told the time wasn’t right. They decided to stick with Parcells for one more year – by which time the Giants were a playoff team and showing signs of improvement.
That’s not the only way that events could have unfolded differently. Bill Walsh was a big fan of drafting Phil Simms, for example, who later won a Super Bowl with Parcells. Meanwhile, Glauber explains that the Cowboys were keen on drafting Joe Montana but Tom Landry, the Dallas head coach, already had three quarterbacks and felt that taking another would be a waste of a pick.
A few of the stories here will be familiar to anyone who has read some NFL history. Walsh’s development of the West Coast offense at Cincinnati, for example, casts such a shadow over modern football that it has been recounted in many books and this one is no exception. Joe Theismann’s career-ending injury at the hands of Lawrence Taylor is here too, as is Bill Belichick’s unexpected, don’t-worry-about-the-run game plan for the Giants’ Super Bowl XXV win over the Bills. Of course, many people, especially younger readers, will be reading them for the first time.
There are plenty of new stories, too, including an interesting section on how Bill Walsh would have dealt with Colin Kaepernick and his protests during the national anthem. Walsh’s son, Craig, believes his father would not have tolerated the distraction. However, Dr Harry Edwards, the sociologist and civil rights activist who Walsh hired as a consultant for the 49ers, believes that the coach would have found a way to accommodate the protest and prevented it from becoming the scandal it eventually became.
Each of Glauber’s three subjects has inspired plenty of books but this is a good overview of their impact and offers an insight into how each man drove the others to greater heights. Whether you want to relive the football of the 1980s or learn about it for the first time, this is a book that’s worth reading.
Photo: Joe Gibbs by Keith Allison