SEATTLE — When I left Seattle in 1986 for a 10-year newspapering stint in the Bay Area, the 49ers already ruled the region.
It was four years after Joe Montana connected with Dwight Clark for “The Catch,” leading to the first of two Super Bowl titles to that point under Bill Walsh, universally known as The Genius, capital T, capital G.
Jerry Rice had come along the year before, already giving hint of the wonder to come. Another future Hall of Famer, Ronnie Lott, during that ’86 season elected to have part of his finger cut off rather than have a pin surgically inserted; the amputation got him back on the field sooner. It was that kind of team, and people in the Bay Area ate it up, ravenously. Because it hadn’t always been that way.
I had known Walsh as the imperious Stanford coach during my years across the bay at Cal, when the 49ers were pretty much a laughingstock in the late 1970s. My prevailing memory of that previous 49er incarnation was of the San Francisco Examiner beat writer, Frank Blackman (later a colleague of mine at the paper) getting in a well-publicized scuffle with the team’s general manager, Joe Thomas, at a Washington, D.C., disco. In the middle of what would be a 2-14 San Francisco season, Blackman had written, “The 49ers are Joe Thomas’ team and they stink.” Thomas took offense. Go figure.
But those dog days were long past, as Walsh moved to the 49ers in 1979, unveiled his version of the West Coast offense, and changed football as we knew it. It was great fun being around that team, first as the Bay Area reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, when the 49ers were one of my beats, and later merely as an interested observer after I moved to the Examiner to cover the Giants in 1990.
I’m struck now by some parallels to the revival of the Seahawks, and not just the overlap of personnel. When I got there, Mike Holmgren was just starting a highly successful stint as Walsh’s offensive coordinator, and when I left to return to Seattle in 1996, Pete Carroll was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Both were Bay Area natives and childhood 49er fans who soaked up the Walsh wisdom (one generation removed, in Carroll’s case) and carried pieces with them en route to future successes. Those included the Seahawks’ first Super Bowl berth under Holmgren in 2006, and a chance for their second on Sunday under Carroll, against the latest highflying version of the 49ers.
Though their styles were dramatically different, Walsh was similar to Carroll in one important regard. He had burned inside to prove himself as an NFL head coach, steadfast in his belief that his methods, deemed unorthodox, would work at the highest level, just as they did in college. Whereas Carroll had two previous, unsuccessful head-coaching stints before he took over in Seattle, Walsh had been passed over multiple times when he was hired as a first-time pro head coach by 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo in 1979.
Elevated from Stanford (like San Francisco’s current savior, Jim Harbaugh), Walsh didn’t just thrive, he revolutionized. And the main engine was an unheralded, undersized third-round quarterback (sound familiar?) from Notre Dame.
That is not to say Carroll is the next Walsh. Or Russell Wilson is the next Joe Montana — there aren’t many, if any, of those; let’s see if he can win one Super Bowl, let alone four — but rather to point out that stars can emerge from the most unexpected sources.
The 49ers of Walsh and general manager John McVay prided themselves, like these Seahawks, in mining talent that others overlooked. There was Clark, drafted in the 10th round, Hall of Fame finalist Charles Haley in the fourth, mainstay running back Roger Craig in the second. Even Rice, the greatest receiver of all time, was passed up by 15 teams before Walsh traded up to nab him out of tiny Mississippi Valley State in ’85.
It was a swashbuckling, charismatic bunch, with a young, exuberant, omnipresent owner in DeBartolo who couldn’t have been a bigger contrast in style to the reclusive Paul Allen. Except, perhaps, for DeBartolo’s penchant for lavish treatment of his players — made easier to accomplish in those days without a hard salary cap.
With a Giants team that had gone 20-plus years and counting since its last World Series appearance (a drought ending in 1989), San Francisco fans lived and died most passionately with the 49ers.
Though they were typecast as an effete “white wine and cheese” crowd (to go with the stereotypical depiction of the 49ers themselves as “finesse” — never mind that Lott led one of the hardest-hitting defenses of its time), I always thought that was a bad rap. The 49ers fan base in those days struck me as being as rowdy and blue-collar as that of the Raiders, without the crazy costume. And as loud as possible in an already dilapidated stadium like Candlestick Park that didn’t have the acoustics to amplify the noise to ear-bleed status.
The Seahawks can only hope they are poised for even a semblance of the kind of historic dominance the 49ers unleashed. San Francisco added another Super Bowl title in 1988 in Walsh’s last year, one more in 1989 in George Seifert’s first season as Walsh’s successor, and yet another in 1994, with Steve Young replacing Montana at the helm.
And they can only hope that this current rivalry with San Francisco rises to the stature of the one between the 49ers and Cowboys. They combined to win six out of the eight Super Bowls between 1988 and ’95, meeting in the NFC title game three straight years.
But there are also cautionary tales with those 49ers to which any successful team should pay heed. The 49ers under Walsh were notoriously ruthless in getting rid of players who had outlived their usefulness (including Lott and Craig), and it served them well. But the messy exit of Montana in a 1993 trade to the Chiefs proved to be very painful for the organization. Montana and Young had coexisted uneasily for several seasons but tensions came to a head after Young was named league MVP in ’92 while Montana was out with an injury. The resulting divorce was an ugly end to a glorious era.
The team still thrived for a while, but DeBartolo’s involvement in the corruption case of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards led to a one-year NFL suspension in 1998. In 2000, DeBartolo ceded control of the team to his sister, Marie Denise DeBartolo York, ushering in a dark period in 49er history.
Harbaugh helped return the 49ers to glory, coinciding with a renaissance in Seattle under Carroll. And that has brought us to the game Sunday — a clash of my past and present lives, featuring two teams trying to get an edge for the future.