TAMPA - A group of middle-aged men stood in a side lobby at Tampa's A La Carte Pavilion five months ago, reminiscing about their dying mentor.
Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Randy Cross were attending a fundraiser for the DeBartolo Family Foundation when their thoughts inevitably turned to Bill Walsh, the former 49ers coach who was battling leukemia.
'Bill's spirits are up,' said Rice, the Hall of Fame receiver who was drafted by Walsh in 1985 and eventually defined the position. 'He's a fighter, he's a warrior and I love him to death. I call him 'The Genius' and he sure knew how to motivate players.'
Just then, Ed DeBartolo strolled by with a drink and a memory for his captive audience.
'Guys, I talked to Bill two weeks ago and he told me he just got a transfusion,' said DeBartolo, the man who hired Walsh as head coach in 1979 to turn around a 2-14 franchise. 'He said he's stopping off at the Pioneer local watering hole for a margarita.'
Cross, who starred on the offensive line in each of Walsh's 10 seasons as head coach, remembered the beginning of the 49ers dynasty.
'The best part was having been there when we were bad,' Cross said, recalling Walsh's 8-24 start in the two seasons preceding the startling 1981 championship run. 'Watching how he built that organization was fascinating. Bill wasn't afraid to take something old and turn it sideways.'
Craig was one of the league's most versatile backs, starring on the 1984 club that capped an 18-1 season by crushing Dan Marino's Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
'Bill Walsh knew what a football player looked like - period,' Craig said. 'For him, chemistry was everything. He knew we'd weed out any hothead that came into our organization. They'd either straighten out or they would be gone ... no matter how talented they might be.'
Rice and Cross shook their heads in agreement and everyone shared a laugh that evening.
On Monday, they cried.
Bill Walsh's passing at the age of 75 was not unexpected, but it was profound, nonetheless.
From his scripted plays and West Coast attack to the long list of his coaching disciples, Walsh became one of the NFL's most innovative figures.
He entered the Hall of Fame in 1993, five years after he left the San Francisco sidelines, but later returned to the 49ers as an executive in time to sign a feisty CFL quarterback named Jeff Garcia.
'The life of a champion has come to an end, but the legacy of the man will live on forever,' said Garcia, who earned three Pro Bowl berths with the 49ers and signed with the Bucs as a free agent in March.
Freddie Solomon, the former University of Tampa standout who played seven seasons for Walsh beginning in 1979, last saw his former coach in Las Vegas in the spring of 2006, when DeBartolo organized a three-day reunion to honor San Francisco's five Super Bowl champions.
'Bill was walking around like a proud parent,' Solomon said Monday. 'Here were all his children in town for a family reunion. This man had a major impact on the game of football. A lot of the plays that he designed I still see in today's game.'
In 1986, Walsh gave a relatively unknown college coach his first NFL job, overseeing San Francisco's quarterbacks. Two decades and 159 victories later, Mike Holmgren has developed his own coaching tree.
'I've always said Bill Walsh was an artist and all the rest of us were blacksmiths pounding the anvil while he was painting the picture,' Holmgren said.