Before he became one of the game's great innovators, Bill Walsh coached football at Washington Union High School in what was then known as Centerville, California. While there, he was like a comet, bringing good fortune to a hard-luck team and introducing high school football to the early designs of the West Coast Offense. This is his story.
Here he was, recently graduated from San Jose State University with a master's degree in hand and a growing family to support, young Bill Walsh was 25 and brimming with confidence. It was just his luck that Washington Union High School had recently fired its coach and was looking for a fresh start. Whether it was due to their having lost the past 26 out of 27 games or the fact that their previous coach was caught in a compromising position with a cheerleader, the Huskies were lost and needed a leader.
Walsh stepped into a perfect situation. Previously, Centerville (present-day Fremont) was isolated with not an interstate in sight. But just a year before Walsh arrived, I-880 opened, connecting Oakland to San Jose and opening the door to endless possibilities. Soon, housing developments began popping up up and down the newly opened interstate and with it came a population boom. In a little more than a year, Washington Union grew from a school of 750 to more than 3,000 students.
Bill Walsh was paid just $4,650 that year plus a $250 bonus for having a master's degree and along with leading the football team, was charged with coaching the swim team and teaching P.E. But his success on campus didn't begin on the gridiron, it began in the gym. There, he became one of the most liked teachers on campus as he treated everyone with dignity. Teachers began to notice how his classes seemed to be more joyful than others and took note of this aspect as they watched his teams perform on the fields of friendly strife.
Building a Winner
The new coach of the Huskies inherited a roster filled with juniors and scattered with seniors hungry to bury the scars of their past in glory. For his first quarterback, Bill Walsh chose senior Hiro Kurotori, a gifted runner who had been interned with his family in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Surprisingly, Walsh's Huskies upset powerful Mountain View in their first game with Kurotori lofting a 36-yard touchdown pass to Grady Hudson proving to be the difference in the shutout.
Unfortunately, the promising runner wouldn't last the season under center. After he bruised his collarbone early in the season, Walsh moved him to wingback while anointing Bob Hidalgo as his newest signal-caller. While he had never before played the position, Walsh would mold Hidalgo into a quarterback and the more gifted passer would lead the Huskies the rest of the way during their resurgent season.
As the season progressed, Hidalgo proved to be exactly what Bill Walsh needed to operate his still-developing offense. While most teams powered through in a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach, Walsh dared to challenge the status quo. He attacked the Three Deep Zone that was popular at the time, overloading a single zone with two or three receivers. Defenses were often caught off guard and like NFL defenses a quarter of a century later, were often left flat-footed.
Still, change is often tough on everyone. After tying Camden in a scoreless affair and getting slammed by Los Gatos 24-0, Washington Union went through the rest of the season going through some growing pains as Walsh changed the offense three times.
He kept things interesting by introducing odd formations that would later regurgitate years later in the NFL. Before there was William "the Refrigerator" Perry and before the inspiration behind that movement, Guy McIntyre, was even born, there was Steve Barnett. The big 250-pound offensive tackle was destined for the NFL and was used in a unique formation that Walsh had come up with for short-yardage situations: the Elephant series. Walsh would have three bigger running backs (or converted linemen) stand behind his other offensive linemen and would either have his quarterback hand off to one of them, keep the ball himself or hand it off to an end that was coming from the receiver spot on a fly-sweep.
However, their defense remained stellar all year long, pitching four shutouts. Despite closing out 1957 by losing to James Lick 25-6, the Huskies knew that they had something special brewing for 1958.
Going into 1958, Bill Walsh and his troops knew that if they hunkered down and really focused on working together maybe, just maybe, they could win the league title. They began the season shutting out San Lorenzo 12-0 and dominating Fremont (20-7), Willow Glen (25-13) and Samuel Ayer (45-9). Yes, his team was putting things together, but football has a way of humbling teams at just the right time.
In the fifth game of the season, the Huskies were on a roll against undefeated James Lick and had the ball in the Comets' red zone when the bottom fell out. the Huskies' running back fumbled at the goal line and watched as James Lick promptly returned the pigskin nearly 100 yards for the deciding score. James Lick: 9; Washington Union: 2.
Although he would live a career filled with heart-wrenching losses and awe-inspiring victories, Bill Walsh would never forget the pain he felt on that fateful Friday night in Centerville. Half a century later, he would still wake up in the middle of the night, haunted by the ashen faces of his Huskies.
From there, the Huskies would dominate the rest of the way. Much like the year before, they would dominate on defense while putting up just enough points to come away with the win. They squeezed by Los Gatos (7-6), pummeled Andrew Hill (24-7), shut out San Jose (13-0) and stayed focused til the end against Lincoln (19-12).
By season's end, the Huskies finished with the league title, were ranked as Northern California's fifth-best team and had eight players make up the 22-player all-county lineup, with six of those on offense. Far and away, the best season that Washington Union High School had ever had. But change was just around the corner.
Times were changing in the East Bay. In 1959, the school district split, costing Bill Walsh just about every single one of his returning starters. As a result, the Huskies won a single game that year. When the season was over, Walsh was hired away to coach under Cal's new head coach Marv Levy, entering a portal of infinite opportunity.
From then on, Bill Walsh was on a fast track to a very promising career where he would pick up new concepts wherever he went. From Cal and Stanford to Oakland and Cincinnati, Walsh would learn new tricks of the trade and gain lifelong connections that would prove invaluable down the line as he built a dynasty in San Francisco. And it all began in Centerville, California with a group of young overachievers who dared to challenge the status quo.