Santa Clara University, 1979-1980
The Bill Walsh era officially began on July 14, 1979 when rookies and free agents reported to the new Santa Clara University training camp for the first time.
In reality, it started months earlier as Walsh slowly assembled an incredible collection of coaching talent. Among his new assistants were Denny Green, Sam Wyche, Bill McPherson, Norb Hecker, Mike White, Bobb McKittrick and Billie Matthews. Backing them in the front office were two men with lengthy football pedigrees: John Ralston and John McVay. Together, they helped spread the impressive Walsh coaching universe that still echoes throughout NFL football today.
Walsh used the initial camp practices to observe and rate the performance of his rookies. A stickler for detail and eager to establish a solid framework, Walsh explained the criteria he used to judge players:
- “Physical ability. There’s not a lot you can do about that. You’re either gifted or not.”
- “The ability to learn, to absorb and retain information. That’s classroom work.”
- “The ability to learn and master the different skills of football on the field. Some are better than others at this.”
- “To deal with others as part of the group. How well you’re able to get along with the other players on the team.”
On July 18, the veterans reported to camp and Walsh began to take a more hands-on approach. He showed particular interest in two young quarterbacks who seemed more likely to be looking for a fraternity party than leading a pro football team: Steve DeBerg, just 25 years old, and rookie Joe Montana, who turned 23 a month before reporting to camp. Their task was to follow in the footsteps of grizzled veterans John Brodie and Y.A. Tittle, the 49ers primary signal-callers from 1951 through 1973.
Little did fans, and probably teammates, know where the Notre Dame rookie would lead the 49ers. In an interview prior to his death, Dwight Clark recalled in a joyfully joking manner his first meeting with the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback.
“When I came out here for training camp I didn’t know anyone,” Clark said. “I was at a restaurant in Redwood City eating by myself and some guy came in wearing short shorts with a ‘Fu Manchu’ mustache. At first, I thought he might be another player, maybe a kicker or something. Then I saw his skinny little bird legs and realized he couldn’t even be the kicker. He came over to my seat and said, ‘Hi, I’m Joe Montana.’ We became immediate friends and went everywhere and did everything together. He had a car so maybe that’s why.”
Montana’s physical appearance may not have intimidated others, but Walsh was supremely confident he could develop his young quarterback in the same way he refined QB Ken Anderson during his years with the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh told San Francisco Examiner sports writer Frank Blackman, “You hope your quarterback will run the team, throw a minimal number of interceptions and make very few errors. That he’s not going to try and take over and carry the team on his back.”
Walsh also hinted at the West Coast Offense he intended to install. “It is a detailed method where you approach and analyze every part of the football game.”
After ten days of double practice sessions, Walsh rolled out his new offense in a scrimmage at Kezar Stadium, the 49ers home field from 1946 to 1970. Nearly 5,000 fans paid $2 to enter with all funds going to the Mayor’s Community Youth Fund. Prior to the scrimmage, fans were allowed on the field for autographs.
Once the hitting started, it was the defense that took over. DeBerg, Walsh’s anointed starting quarterback, ran the offense first. He moved the 49ers into the red zone twice but failed to cross the goal line. Montana took over in the second half and was equally ineffective. Fans grew restless at the offense’s inability to score, and when the hour-long scrimmage ended, Walsh called his players to the sideline for the usual post-game pep talk amid a scattering of boos.
Nevertheless, Walsh was pleased with his team’s overall performance. He praised the slashing rushing style of Paul Hofer, and vowed to make the Kezar Stadium scrimmage an annual event.
As the preseason games approached, coaches took notice of the work ethic of Clark, their 10th-round draft pick, and his signal-calling sidekick, Montana.
“I always thought I’d get cut,” Clark said. “At the Santa Clara camp, I never went through the front door because I thought I’d run into the guy who made the cuts. Joe (Montana) and I would go through the back door. Maybe he thought he’d get cut too. We’d stay after practice and I’d run routes and he’d throw to me.”
If Clark worried about being cut, it did not affect his play on the dormitory’s Space Invader video game during the club’s downtime. Showing off his quick hands and athletic moves, Clark earned top scores on the popular arcade game, often pocketing a few extra dollars from his spellbound teammates.
Walsh’s offensive scheme began to take shape on the first possession of the 49ers first preseason game, a 13-10 win over the San Diego Chargers. With DeBerg at quarterback, the 49ers opened the game with three short passes. WR Terry LeCount posted receptions of 15 and 12 yards on quick slants, and then Hofer picked up nine yards on a swing pass. DeBerg marched the 49ers 80 yards on 18 plays and finished the drive with a three-yard scoring dart to tight end Paul Seal.
After two dismal seasons, the Candlestick Park fans seemed to notice something new and pleasantly different. Walsh’s play-calling scheme, not yet known as the West Coast Offense, sparked the 49ers Faithful. They responded to the crisp short passes and machine-like drive with a roaring ovation.
The start of the second half marked the professional debut of Montana. He completed his first two passing attempts but netted just one yard. TE Ken McAfee nabbed Montana’s first pass for a yard, then RB Mike Hogan grabbed his second throw for no gain. Nevertheless, Montana moved the 49ers into field goal range and kicker Ray Wersching knocked it through the uprights from 39 yards out to put San Francisco ahead.
In his first game in a 49ers uniform, Montana completed eight of 10 passes for 45 yards. He also did something that would become increasingly familiar. He guided his team into position for the winning score.