By this point, Bill had passed forty years old and all of his previous callowness had disappeared. Still fit and handsome, his once sandy hair had turned prematurely silver in what would eventually become his signature stately, professional look, and his confidence had burgeoned. “After four or five years with Paul Brown:’ he remembered, “I realized I was ready to be a head coach. I looked around me and felt because of the experience I’d had, I could organize and orchestrate and plan and prepare and do all the things a head coach does as well as anybody. Some of it was learning from Paul’s example and some of it was from my own independent thinking, but I was sure I was ready. I didn’t make any secret of my feelings and, looking back on it, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was somehow threatening to Paul. Paul was not someone who looked out for his assistants. He looked out for what he thought were his own and his club’s interests and expected his assistants to adjust accordingly.” In Walsh’s case, that included Brown’s repeated denials that any other teams had expressed an interest in him as a head coach, even though they had and he’d denied them permission to talk to Walsh, then concealed the approaches from Walsh himself.
By the 1975 season, however, the fiction surrounding the Bengals offense had worn through and the media began singling out Walsh as its architect, identifying him as a hot prospect for head coach, and creating, Bill noted, “a subtle difference in the way Paul treated me.” At the same time, the media began to speculate about Brown stepping away from coaching. Brown himself refused to address his possible retirement from the sideline and, according to Bill, “near the end of the season, he became quite mysterious” about it. The Bengals won their division that year, then lost in the playoffs to the Raiders and two days later, New Year’s Eve, the mystery of Brown’s future was resolved. A local sports columnist called Bill at home with the news that the team was releasing an announcement the next day. Paul was resigning as head coach, the columnist explained, and he was naming Bill Johnson, the Bengals offensive line coach, to succeed him. Brown was out of town, as was Johnson, and neither could be reached for comment. What did Bill think about the move?
For several moments, Walsh couldn’t find any words to respond.
Years later, when the hurt was scarred over, Bill had a ready analysis in response to the question, why? “When push came to shove,” he speculated, “Paul just couldn’t bring himself to turn it over to me. There was something like jealousy involved, mixed with a kind of resentment. I had my own ideas and thoughts about everything, including personnel and the rest. He just couldn’t figure out how he was going to handle me if I became head coach. He must have been struggling emotionally to come to terms with his own retirement and the thought of losing control to me was just too much for him.”
Walsh had no such analysis that New Year’s Eve, however. This was “the greatest disappointment” of his life and he was overrun with pain and humiliation and almost panic. When he got off the phone with the columnist, Bill immediately told Geri they were going to have to leave, sounding very much like a man looking for a place to hide. But there was no such option in the immediate moment. “Paul was out of touch, purposely;’ Walsh remembered, “and he had Bill out of touch, purposely. He had put out a press release and he wanted people to digest the news; then he’d return to Cincinnati in a few days. Meanwhile, I was inundated by calls from the media because I was the only person available to speak for the Bengals.”
Patiently, Walsh answered the calls and did all the interviews after the TV trucks showed up in his driveway. He told them that Bill Johnson was a good coach and a good friend and that it was a good move and the organization wouldn’t skip a beat. His face revealed none of his feelings, but all the while he was dying inside. “Sometimes, I didn’t think I could live through it.” Bill explained. ”At that moment, I was truly broken. It was crushing. I was very, very lost.” He turned to his friends for consolation but he was almost inconsolable. “The rejection was devastating for him;’ one remembered. “We spent a lot of time together afterward and he was completely distraught. He was devastated to the point he had no idea where to turn. He didn’t know if he could even continue in football.”
Several days into the new year, Paul Brown returned to town and he and Bill had their first and last extended encounter on the subject. Bill was close to tears throughout. Brown, now as cold as Walsh had ever seen him, offered no explanation but did make it clear what he wanted to happen next. He expected Bill to remain loyal to him and the organization, which meant staying on to call the plays and run the offense just as he had been. He was willing to give him a raise, but Brown announced in no uncertain terms that he would not allow Walsh to leave.
Bill pointed out that his contract was up in another week and declared that he was leaving and there was nothing Brown could do to stop him. “I couldn’t possibly have stayed;’ Bill remembered. “To have done so would have been tantamount to giving up my career. I would have been relegated to just being some journeyman offensive technician and nothing more for the rest of my professional life.” By that point, he had already worked out a deal with the San Diego Chargers.
Brown was livid at the defiance, immediately interpreting it as a personal betrayal, and made it clear he intended to punish Walsh for his response. Paul Brown’s last words to Bill amounted to a threat. He would never be an NFL head coach, the legend vowed. Never.
Bill Walsh left Cincinnati shortly thereafter, now driven by his need to prove his former mentor wrong.
For his part, Paul Brown did everything in his power to make sure his threat came true. “His vindictiveness was really something;’ Bill remembered. “He set about trying to destroy my career and discredit me any way he could.” Within months, two NFL teams who had Bill on their short list for head coaching jobs backed off after talking to the Bengals’ owner and being told that his former assistant was just “too soft” to lead an NFL team. Brown told another inquiring team that Walsh was “unfit” to be a head coach and advised yet another that they “shouldn’t touch Walsh with a ten-foot pole.”
A year later, shortly after Stanford University hired Walsh away from his assistant’s job at the Chargers and finally gave him the opportunity to run a football program, he received an envelope in the mail, without a return address, but postmarked Cincinnati. Inside was a clipping from the Cincinnati Enquirer announcing Walsh’s hiring at Stanford. Scribbled across it in a familiar-looking hand were the words “burnt bridges:’ There was no accompanying note or signature to identify the sender, but for the rest of his life Bill was convinced that it too had come from Paul Brown.