Bill Walsh’s final days in the 49ers organization were sadly approaching. It was the spring of 2004, 25 years after he first arrived to transform not only the 49ers but the entire NFL.
It was time for glorious reflection.
One afternoon, Walsh set aside an hour to revisit history, to talk about a draft pick from his first year in 1979, to explain the third-round arrival of quarterback Joe Montana.
“It’s almost a timeless experience,” Walsh began. “It seems like yesterday, in a sense. Then you think of everything that’s occurred since.”
The Team of the 80s. The Super Bowls. The fourth-quarter comebacks. The innovative offense. The quarterback controversy. The tearful exits. And, of course, the gallant beginning.
San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. right, congratulates Coach Bill Walsh, left, and quarterback Joe Montana in the locker room at Stanford Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 21, 1985 following their 38-16 Super Bowl XIX win over the Miami Dolphins. (AP Photo)
“There wasn’t any way of predicting how great Joe would be,” Walsh told me in that March 2004 interview, inside an office neighboring the 49ers’ practice field.
“We knew he’d be very good, but how can you quantify one of the greatest players of all time? You just don’t know that until it happens.”
The NFL draft is an annual crapshoot, often reliant upon educated guesswork. This year’s version, set for April 23-25, is being hailed as historic. Selections will be made virtually from the computers and phones of team officials’ homes, where they’re sheltering amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
NFL drafts are not measured by how they’re conducted. More important is how players end up faring.
No pick proved more instrumental to the 49ers’ fortunes than Walsh’s selection of Montana on May 3, 1979. Walsh, who coached the 49ers to their first three Super Bowl titles, passed away in 2007 at age 75. What follows is this treasured interview from 2004 in which he recaps the road to Montana:
In this Nov. 9, 1986 file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana throws a pass during the first quarter against the St. Louis Cardinals in an NFL football game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Drafted by the 49ers in the third round in 1979, Montana was the perfect quarterback for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. An unshakeable leader who performed his best in tight situations, he led the 49ers to four championships in nine seasons and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
Why did it even happen?
Walsh: “We had Steve DeBerg, and he was a good quarterback. People thought a lot of Steve. We felt we didn’t have anyone else on the roster, and so we had to have a quarterback, and hopefully a man who had the potential to someday replace Steve.
“I traveled the country all over with (then-quarterbacks coach) Sam Wyche. We saw Phil Simms, deep in the Appalachia area (at Moorhead State). We went to Miami of Ohio to watch a player (quarterback Larry Fortner went in Round 12). The person who was sort of a mystery was Joe. We finally made arrangements to see Joe in Los Angeles at UCLA.
“It really didn’t take long to decide on Joe. His quickness, the only person I could connect with that was Joe Namath, (who) had the quickest feet of any quarterback I had ever seen. Joe Montana had the same quickness, agility and fluid movement that Namath had. And he threw the ball fine in our drills.
Sidebar: Montana worked out earlier for Wyche and alongside James Owens, a UCLA running back whom the 49ers would select in the second round, before taking Montana. “They were putting me through different footwork and watching me throw different passes,” Montana recalled in an exclusive 2004 interview. “You get a reputation you don’t have a strong enough arm. … I did a lot things he liked. I didn’t throw the ball as hard as I could every play, but I made difficult passes he wanted me to throw.”
What was Montana’s draft stock?
Walsh: “There wasn’t any question when Sam and I got on the plane to come back that Joe was in our plans. Now, it was when can we draft him? Our team was in desperate need of virtually every position. We did not have a wide receiver, no matter what Mike Shumann might say. We had Freddie Solomon and Mike, and we felt that maybe we could improve on that. So we needed a wide receiver, some speed. We didn’t have a first-round draft choice and a number of choices, all because of the O.J. trade. We had Dallas’ pick in the third round, right at the end of the third round. And we had a second-round pick.
“I don’t think there was a scout on our staff who did not like Joe Montana. John McVay liked him. Tony Razzano liked him. All the guys that saw him liked Joe. His workouts, some people would not have seen the things that we saw.”
Sidebar: McVay, the 49ers’ all-time great personnel executive, concurred how there was a unanimous consensus to take Montana. That bred something else. “I remember there was no shortage of people who take complete and absolute credit for drafting Montana,” McVay recalled in 2004. “Bill went down and worked him out in SoCal, and Bill, he’s got the Midas touch.”
DO NOT USE. IN SPECIAL SECTION. From left, statues of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Head Coach Bill Walsh are featured in the Edward J. Debartolo, Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame gallery at the Levi’s Stadium 49ers Museum in Santa Clara, Calif., on Tuesday, August 5, 2014. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)
Was Montana a secret gem?
Walsh: “Sam and I got on the plane (back from L.A.) and said, ‘We want Joe. Now we have to decide when to draft him. Do we take him with our second pick or can we wait and take him in the third round? We canvassed every team in the league, one way or another. We didn’t state why we were calling but we always brought up his name along with others.
“And we were the dregs of NFL football. Nobody could really take us very seriously. We found as many people as possible that would respond to our phone calls, and to a man, even those that were pretty high up in scouting and personnel, either felt he would not be drafted and would play up in Canada or he’d be drafted fifth round or later. That was the consensus.
“The consensus feeling among people is he wasn’t big enough, he couldn’t throw the ball far enough and had been inconsistent in college, because he didn’t start every game in college.
“But they couldn’t see his instincts and his competitiveness and more than anything else, his ability to control a game, as he did in the Cotton Bowl. If they couldn’t see that, what more could they see about a quarterback? We knew he’d be instinctive and move. He’d proven that on tape when he played.”
Sidebar: The Green Bay Packers were hot on Montana’s trail, too. Their quarterbacks coach, Zeke Bratkowski, flew to Los Angeles and worked out Montana at a neighborhood park. Green Bay coach Bart Starr passed on Montana in favor of nose tackle Charlie Johnson in the third round, despite Packers scout Red Cochran’s urging to take the Notre Dame quarterback. “I said I’d throw up and walk out of the room,” Cochran said in 2004. “That was how emphatic I was.”
How did draft day go?
Walsh: “We needed speed and (second-round pick) James Owens had just won the NCAA high hurdles and he was a good football player. In our drills, he did fine. As it turned out, we didn’t account for one thing: hamstring pulls.
“… We had some time (after the Owens’ pick). We had the whole second round. We didn’t want to arouse anybody’s interest that we were interested in Joe, because I had a history of developing quarterbacks.
“We didn’t want to arouse people’s attentions, so when we called other clubs, there were always three or four other players and his name would come up and we’d ask what they were thinking.
“So we did our homework all the way through, and then we drafted him and he obviously became the greatest player possibly of all time.”
Sidebar: Before that selection, Walsh and McVay checked with Notre Dame’s coaches for a scouting report. Walsh said the-coach Dan Devine’s modest recommendation was that Montana “can make a pro team.” McVay checked in with one of his former assistants at Dayton, Jim Gruden, who was then a Notre Dame assistant and succinctly advised about Montana: “Don’t hesitate and take him.”
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana leaves Memorial Church on the Stanford University campus following the private memorial service for former 49ers coach Bill Walsh Thursday August 9, 2007. Walsh died July 30, 2007 after a long struggle with Leukemia. (Pauline Lubens/Mercury News)
How did the pick feel?
Walsh: “In Joe’s case, it was decided we could hang in there and wait it out, because nobody would draft him. We drafted him with Dallas’ pick (at the end of) the third round (No. 82 overall). Nobody quarreled with that. We were excited he came up.
“Sam and I felt very strongly about it, as did everybody else. Everybody had sentiment toward Notre Dame.”
Sidebar: Eddie DeBartolo Jr., a Notre Dame graduate, was two years into his family’s ownership of the 49ers when they took Montana. Meanwhile, Montana anxiously awaited his draft fate while going from breakfast to lunch at The Kettle, a corner diner in idyllic Manhattan Beach. “They got word to us and I was excited, I was glad,” Montana recalled. “It was a great opportunity coming to a great city, and they had a Notre Dame owner.” When he heard people denounce the 49ers as the worst team in football, Montana’s retorted: “That will change. They won’t be the worst forever.”
Walsh: “Joe turned out to be a great player. It took some time. At Detroit (in November 1980), we split Charle Young out as a tight end and he ran a slant. Joe threw the ball into the stands. I don’t mean over Charle’s head. That ball went up in the stands and Charle looked around like, ‘What was that?’ Whatever it was, it slipped out of Joe’s hands because he was nervous or something.
“Point being, it was a work in progress with Joe. But I was really fortunate in that we had Steve DeBerg, who was playing well. But Steve couldn’t move and avoid anybody. It cost us dearly but he could step and throw. We could shift Joe in at certain times and felt we could be successful. Halfway through the 1980 season, he began to start.”
Who were Walsh’s top three draft picks?
Walsh: “Michael Carter would have to be in there. Joe goes without saying. What the heck, of course he’s in (the top three). Jerry (Rice) would have to be in. Dwight (Clark) would have to be in. When I say my three favorite draft choices, I don’t include Joe. Joe’s the franchise.
“We won four Super Bowls with Joe, and we could have very well won a fifth. We’d have won a Super Bowl along the way without him. I don’t who it would have been or when. But we put together a really good team. It could have been someone else, but never another Joe.
“It wasn’t though the franchise would just go defunct without him, because we developed some Hall of Fame players and great players at all positions. But the first Super Bowl, my God, it was mirrors, and Joe was a big part of that.
“Joe, of all people in the history of this franchise, is the center figure. That includes Y.A. Tittle and all those great players of the past. He’s the central figure of the San Francisco 49ers. Joe made it all work. Hell, he’s the greatest player in history.”
San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Bill Walsh, center, shares a laugh with quarterback Joe Montana, in red jacket at right, and receiver Dwight Clark, left, during picture day at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Jan. 16, 1985. The 49ers will meet the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX on Sunday. (AP Photo) AP Photo
How has the draft changed? (circa 2004)
Walsh: “It still takes professional judgment. It still takes an intuitive, instinctive feel for athletes and what they can do and how you detect them on your roster and how they fit on your squad. These are all things computer programs don’t connect with. That’s why we did so very well.”
Sidebar: Montana concurred with that as he surveyed the draft landscape back in 2004. “It’s crazy now, all the things they put you through,” Montana said. “The scary thing is half that stuff doesn’t make a football player.”