In 1979 Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers was in search of a new head football coach for his struggling team. The 49ers had just completed a 2–14 season in 1978 and were in desperate need of a change. DeBartolo Jr. looked to a household name in northern California as a young Bill Walsh was the head coach at Stanford University and a well known football coach, a part of some famous coaching trees (Paul Brown, Al Davis, Sid Gillman). Walsh was an offensive guru, known for eventually creating an offensive style that spread throughout the football world.
Walsh was hired to take the helm of the 49ers ship as head coach and general manager in hopes that things would turn around. After being hired, he went to work implementing his new standard of performance. This standard was not just reserved for football players, it was for everyone in the entire San Francisco 49ers organization. And Walsh was ruthless in his implementation of his standard of performance. Every detail to running the organization was thorough and explained to each staff member. Everyone in the organization knew exactly what was expected of them (Walsh even went as far to give a detailed standard for how every phone call in the 49ers front office would be answered and transferred). Nothing slipped past Walsh in his standard of performance. The standard was high, for everyone. From wide receivers running routes to interns running paperwork, he was obsessive about every detail.
In his first season as a head coach Walsh’s 49ers had the exact same record as the season before he took over. 2–14. Despite ruthless implementation of his plan, the results were identical to when the team was led by someone else. However, it was clear that the 49ers were playing more competitive football and progress underneath the surface was being made. It was, however, very taxing. Not everyone was on board with the new standard of performance and Walsh received pushback, resistance, and even made many personnel changes to get the right people on board. Duplicating the exact same record in year one did produce a level of cynicism in the organization, but Walsh pressed on. He had gained the trust of many in the organization through his leadership style and brilliance of offensive systems. Same record, but not the same process. Things were heading in the right direction.
In his second season as head coach of the 49ers, Bill Walsh led the team to a 3–0 record to start the season. After wins against the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Cardinals, and New York Jets the 49ers were rolling. Perhaps the standard of performance was finally working? The tipping point had, perhaps been reached and now this train was moving. A snowball rolling down hill? After three straight wins, the 49ers proceeded to lose seven games in a row. The season was imploding. After a 2–14 record in his first season, the 49ers under Bill Walsh were now 5–21. The worst record in that stretch in the entire NFL.
With a 5–21 record and a standard of performance that Walsh was adamant on (some felt to a fault, including some assistant coaches), the 49ers headed to take on the Miami Dolphins and Hall of Fame coach, Don Shula. A loss in this matchup would be eight in a row and would certainly put Walsh on the hot-seat in the ever competitive National Football League. They went on to lose 17–13 as self-inflicted penalties and a few missed opportunities became their demise. Now, the 49ers and Head Coach Bill Walsh were officially at rock bottom.
After holding it together addressing the team in the locker room and the media in the post game press conference, on the plane ride home, the unraveling of his emotions hit the fan. In the front of the plane, after a 5–22 start to his NFL head coaching career, the future hall of fame coach sat in his chair and broke down sobbing. His assistant coaches, seeing what was happening shielded him from the players, pretending to have a conversation as a group. As the emotions ran wild, and the frustration, grief, and despair of his efforts becoming futile, continued to conquer his mind and emotions, Bill Walsh had decided he would turn in his resignation in the morning after returning to San Francisco. He had decided, not contemplated or thought about, he had decided.
“MOST DEBILITATING OF ALL-DEVASTATING OF ALL-WAS A GNAWING FEAR THAT I DIDN’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN NFL HEAD COACH.”
— BILL WALSH
As the six-hour flight from Miami to San Francisco progressed, Walsh began to regain some composure. He decided against turning in his letter of resignation and would press on. Hanging by a thread he was emotionally back on his feet, a bit wobbly, but on his feet at least. Ready to press on. He began to prepare for the next week and the 49ers would stagger to the end of the 1980 season with a 6–10 record. The second losing season of his young NFL head coaching career.
16 months after deciding he would resign from his post as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh led the 49ers to a win in Super Bowl XVI. In his third season as a head coach, Bill Walsh led the 49ers to a 13–3 season and a world championship. In the next seven seasons that would follow, Walsh led the team to five more NFC West division Championships, and two more Super Bowl Championships. After starting his first two seasons 8–24 (.250), worst in the NFL, Walsh would finish his final eight seasons 84–35 (.706).
After the slow start, Walsh would lead the team to six division championships and three Super Bowl titles. Walsh would develop an offensive system that would change the way entire organizations would approach the game of football. He also would go on to be recognized as one of the best developers of leaders and coaches in football. Walsh’s coaching tree extends to 32 other coaches who have become head coaches in the NFL, spanning household names such as Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Jack Del Rio, Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, and many others.
His standard of performance led to a prolific head coaching career that was cut short only by his own desire to step away from the game. As he went into retirement, many teams tried to lure him away from retirement to lead their teams to no avail. One story even circulated that a team approached him and left him a blank check for him to fill out as what his compensation would be. Walsh would eventually return to lead Stanford University for a few years and then take up a post in the San Francisco 49ers front office as vice president and general manager and then eventually as a consultant. In 1993 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was widely regarded as one of the best coaches and leaders in all sports, highly sought after as a consultant and his leadership philosophies would go on to impact schools, businesses and organizations all around the world. Bill Walsh is a legend. But, Bill Walsh almost quit.
I find it fascinating that as a leader progresses to new heights of accomplishments and hall of fame banquets that the difficult part of their story is often forgotten. We look at the rap-sheet of accomplishments of great leaders like Bill Walsh and assume that their journey to the top was free of setbacks, delays, frustrations, and despair. It’s easy to assume that you’re the only one sobbing on the front of a plane as your plan is not cooperating with how you thought it was going to go.
Perhaps you find yourself right in that space. Too distant from the start of your journey, where adrenaline and enthusiasm and plans seem to command your mind. Yet, too far from the finish or too far from any sign that you are gaining ground on what you set out to pursue. You may be on the lonely road where Bill Walsh found himself after defeat. Belief in the plan, but frustrated that you aren’t receiving any feedback or confirmation that it’s working. You don’t have to be a head coach in the NFL to relate to the pressures and stress of leading and implementing organizational change. When the results seem delayed it can be tempting to tap out, to decide enough is enough, “forget it.”
What if Bill Walsh had decided to actually submit his letter of resignation? Sure, he wouldn’t be out in the cold, he was an accomplished coach, likely would have been able to land a coordinator gig or an assistant role somewhere else. He would have retreated to “dreamer’s island” with a 8–24 head coaching record and hurt pride. He would never have won a super bowl (or three), he would never have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he would never have influenced over thirty future head coaches in the NFL, he would never have influenced generations of coaches and leaders who came behind him. He would never have revolutionized the game of football with his “West Coast Offense” style. Most importantly, he would have never experienced the satisfaction of facing adversity and pressing on, sticking to the plan to see it through.
Championships are great, awards are great, all the results we are pursuing are great, but the inner satisfaction of overcoming setbacks and delays and frustration and crying hiccups and rejection and obscurity and losses are immensely more valuable to our lives. They are worth the price of pressing on.
There are times to quit, Winston Churchill was quoted in World War II “Never give in, never, never, never-never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty-never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Even Churchill recognized there may be times where quitting is the wise thing to do. Good sense may say, “it’s been a great run, we tried, but it’s time to call it a day.” I’m not suggesting that we should never quit anything, I’m merely suggesting we should never quit too soon. If one of the most successful coaches and leaders of all time endured periods of doubt and wonder over whether he had what it takes to fulfill the role, you and I can keep pressing on a little longer as well. You never know what is on the other side of your resignation letter. Stuff it in the drawer for a few months or years from now and if you still feel the same way, hand it in. But don’t hand it in today.