The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Rest in peace, Genius

Jeremy LittauAs a kid growing up in the Bay Area circa the 1980s, you pretty much had to idolize the San Francisco 49ers. To me, Bill Walsh was always the maestro behind the dynasty, the perfectionist genius whose master stroke turned a moribund franchise into a consistent winner.

No, this is not a sports post. To be truthful, though, the passing of Coach Walsh (who started his coaching career at my old high school, Washington High in Fremont) hurts a bit. I grew up idolizing both his sense of class and innovative spirit. And as I think about what he did for the NFL, I can see that the lessons found in his coaching career have been passed on to a generation of people like myself.

In honor of Coach, some Walshian lessons for the cyberjournalist in the middle of changing times. …

1. Innovate: Bill Walsh is the father of the West Coast offense, a style that emphasizes using the passing game to set up the run. While it is seen as a working strategy today, it was revolutionary for its time. How are media companies dreaming revolutionary dreams today? Are we following the trends and doing what others are doing, or are we creating? It seems as if everyone is getting on board the blog train now after a few years, but the real sparks in the industry understand that blogs were so three years ago and are looking for what’s next.

2. Buck the conventional wisdom: Walsh thought outside the box and went against the grain. His offensive philosophy was innovative and a counter to conventional wisdom. People didn’t believe his style of football could work, but he believed in what he was doing and made it successful. The lesson applies to media companies who are clinging to the safer options rather than dreaming up radical new ways to serve consumers.

3. It begins with the team: As much as Walsh understood about complex football offenses, he also knew the value of great personnel. He was always highly regarded for creating the WC offense but he never got enough credit for his personnel-evaluation acumen. The 49ers had great drafts in the 1980s under his supervision. Walsh drafted great talents, but he also drafted players who fit his system. This convergence of system and talent in mass communication is a big problem. If you want to innovate, you don’t just hire a bunch of IT guys. You need people who understand IT and journalism, and there are not nearly enough of those people in the business right now.

4. Practice as if you are playing: Under Walsh, the 49ers demanded perfection even on the practice field. Players on defense said they felt ready every Sunday because they went against the full force of the league’s best offense in practice every day. Attention to detail and strong planning are a must, you cannot rely on the “Field of Dreams” concept that if you build any old Web site, they will come.

5. Above all, do it with class: Above all, I admired Walsh because he led with the force of great character. You work hard for something you believe in, and Walsh made believers out of his players. Most of us got into journalism because we believe in it. Now we are in the midst of hard times; I don’t believe we will fail in transitioning the industry, but I do believe that the true believers are the ones who will survive. And not to turn this too sportsy, but to quote Tom Hanks from A League of their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.”

Goodbye, coach Walsh. I do believe I see the world through better eyes because of you.

July 30, 2007 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau

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