Sporting Business: The Football Turnaround

Recently, we joined a conversation over lunch with Football Coach Mark Kaanapu, and his guest, Craig Walsh, former Athletic Director at Menlo College. Craig: I was at Menlo College in '79 and '80. My dad (Bill Walsh) suggested I go to Menlo. They had a great program. At that time, Menlo was a junior college, allowing athletes to compete for two years. It was competitive football because there were a lot of good high school football players who wanted to continue to play but weren't ready for Cal, Stanford, or other major universities.

It was a great stepping stone for me to come to Menlo and play football. After Menlo, I was recruited to play for UC Davis. After graduating from UC Davis, I worked in commercial real estate for 15 years before I decided to get back into athletics. Dad gave me a tip that Doug Cosbie, Menlo's athletic director and head football coach at the time, needed somebody to help run the athletic program. I was hired in 1996 as the wide receivers coach and assistant athletic director. The college's football team was in a state of utter despair, coming off a 0-10 record. Somebody came up to me on my second day of the job and said, “Listen, the bright spot is that we have an All-American kick returner on our team. He led the NCAA in yards last year. Why don't we play him at running back!” The player had ten times more kickoff returns than anyone in the country. He was getting a five yard clip. The reason he had so many returns was that the other team was scoring so many touchdowns!

Doug and I decided to recruit at all the Bay Area high schools for their best supporting players. We asked the high school coaches, “That guy who got a scholarship somewhere, who was he throwing the ball to? Who was blocking that guy?” Those were the players who could help our program. They were not the most noticeable athletes, but they could play well.

Mark: Our first coaching lineup included Tom Rathman from the 49ers and Keena Turner, who has Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. Craig: We started finding athletes who had good grades and could play football.

In 1996, we actually started to win some games. We were interviewed by Gary Radnich, a local TV sports figure. Up to that point, we had only won one or two games in three years. We made the bold prediction that we would win more games than we would lose. That season, Menlo found a way to win 6 games. In previous years, other teams scheduled our road games as their homecoming games because they saw it as a guaranteed victory. Within two years, teams were seeing us as a threat. Soon, I was having trouble scheduling games due to the rise of our program and the addition of our outstanding players from California and Hawaii.

I think our success was due to a combination of coaching and better players with a stronger work ethic, which Doug Cosbie had brought to the campus. He played for the Dallas Cowboys for a number of years; I played for a very successful football program, so we knew what it took to be winners. I knew that camaraderie had to exist in order for the kids to do well in school and on the field. We set up a mentoring program, matching incoming freshmen with upperclassmen. Those older students would be role models and help the freshmen adjust to a new environment while introducing them to campus life. These students and their mentors became good friends, and many have continued their friendships to this day. We collaborated with teachers to help athletes become better students. Students were required to report to me on their academic progress twice a year, good grades and bad grades.

My dad (Bill) would come to the games and practices to give fresh eyes on how we were doing. Respect was the number one thing in my dad's eyes. We had inherited some bad apples who were constantly getting in trouble on and off campus. My dad told me that for us to be successful, we had to unite the players. We could not have a segregated dining room. We took his advice, and athletes were assigned seating numbers to avoid cliques. If cliques formed, they would undermine the coach and what the team was trying to accomplish.

My dad and I had a vested interest in doing something right. As a coach, If you see somebody do something and it doesn't jive with the way you do it, you've got to say something. So my dad would sometimes sit down and talk to Ken Margerum, Doug Cosbie and me about some of our schemes.

My dad's mind was constantly on football. He would always feel comfortable sharing his opinion on game strategies with us. Dad would say at halftime, “run these different formations” or “get back to this.”

Dad focused on dedication. People knew that when things got tough, my dad could handle it. One thing you didn't want to do is let him down by not doing your job.

Mark: At my first game as Menlo's head football coach, I saw NFL greats Guy McIntyre, Jessie Sapolu, Ronnie Lott and Ryan Leaf on the sidelines. When the whistle blew for halftime, we were down. Bill Walsh came up and gave us some advice on what changes to make in the second half. We took his advice and ended up beating the No. 1 team in the country!

One of Craig's claims to fame is that he is responsible for the first four-year Menlo College All-American, wide receiver Cornelius Ruff.

Craig: Ruff was a junior college transfer who had some good numbers in high school, but he didn't have a good junior college career. After graduating from his JC, he wasn't offered scholarships to continue his education at a four-year college. He was an underachiever because at that time he lacked personal confidence. We told him that he could be a pretty big fish in a little pond if he played in our system. It took a long time for him to break through some of the things he had learned and to listen without fear that it would be a bad experience. I tried to have an open door policy with the players so they knew I would always be in their corner.

In 1997, I took on the role of athletic director and needed to restructure the athletic program. I started the women's basketball and soccer programs when we were woefully under the minimums for the NCAA. I called the head coach at UC Davis and asked if they had an assistant coach who was looking to be a head coach. They suggested Caitlin Collier, who was in her first year at Dominican University as an assistant coach. We promoted a person from the business office to be the head women's soccer coach. We made the minimums for accreditation and we had a nice balance. On top of their coaching duties, Collier and the men's basketball coach, Keith Larsen, served as assistant athletic directors.

Mark: When Craig and I started out here, the athletics offices were in the downstairs closet of the admissions building. I remember sitting there late at night drawing plays on the board. I'd sit on the table; Craig would sit on the chair; and we had a couple guys standing, cramped in this room. I can see us now—in a poorly lit closet, late at night, drawing up plays, not even noticing or caring where we were.

Craig: Great memories of a great turnaround!