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Key Event In Bengals History: Paul Brown Hires Bill Johnson Over Bill Walsh

It's rare that we use James Walker as a resource for inspiration on a post, but we had to on this one. It's a good one, perhaps geared towards our esteemed veteran readers with an intimate knowledge of the franchise's history. Walker issues the simple question. "What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Cincinnati Bengals -- for better or worse?" His top four selections are:

  • Paul Brown starting the franchise in 1968
  • Drafting future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz
  • Last-minute loss in Super Bowl XXIII
  • Mike Brown taking over as the owner.

We have another.

From 1968 through the 1975 season, a man named Bill Walsh worked under Paul Brown as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator -- and perhaps mentor for a time. Predictably so, the Bengals offense ranked outside the top-ten only once during Walsh's stay in Cincinnati, and that was the first year of the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.

On January 1, 1976, Brown decided to retire from coaching, naming Bill "Tiger" Johnson as the team's head coach while Brown would serve as the team's general manager. Walsh, already feeling that Brown worked against his candidacy for a head coaching job in the NFL, decided to resign and leave Cincinnati once Brown passed him over. After a season as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator, Walsh spent two seasons as Stanford's head coach until the San Francisco 49ers make their legendary hire in 1979.

By this time, Bill Johnson was no longer the Bengals head coach. After starting the 1978 season with five consecutive losses, Johnson met with Paul Brown and both agreed that change was needed.

"Bill met with us this morning and we mutually agreed that something had to be done," Paul Brown, general manager, said in a prepared statement Monday.

"He is a fine, proud man and he put the welfare of the club first and agreed that a change could help our situation."

The team would go on to finish the season 4-7, followed up with another 4-12 season in 1979, Rice's final season as the team's head coach.

Through his first two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh compiled an 8-24 record.

Then 1981 rolled around.

Walsh's 49ers finished the regular season with 13 wins while Forrest Gregg, during his second season as the Bengals head coach, posted a 12-4 record and the AFC Championship. Bill Walsh would face his former team for the first time in Super Bowl XVI.

Including Super Bowls Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XXIII, Walsh would go on to post a perfect 5-0 record against Cincinnati.

"By the time we got to those games, I didn't even think of the history," he said. "We were just playing another team. But when the plane took off the first time we beat them in Cincinnati, I looked back down and I was euphoric. I just sat there quietly. It was snowing down there. Lights on. We were gone."

Walsh's Hall of Fame resume is well known. Three Super Bowls. A .609 regular season career winning percentage, the Roy Oswalt of the Cincinnati Bengals. A coaching tree that includes names like Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, George Seifert, Jim Fassel and Dennis Green with Walsh at the head of the table. And that tree keeps growing today with names like Andy Reid, John Fox, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Brian Billick, Jack Del Rio, Mike Tomlin, Rod Marinelli and former coaches like Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci.

Generally speaking, we don't care for what-if arguments, but this was a big one. Obviously Paul Brown founding the franchise could be considered a key event; otherwise there's no team. Anthony Munoz, while a great selection, isn't one of the franchise's key events; though the argument is fair. Mike Brown taking over as the owner in 1991 was huge. The last-minute loss in Super Bowl XXIII? Against Bill Walsh.

Not only did Paul Brown overlook a Hall of Fame head coach in the mid-70s, that same head coach would showed up a couple of years later to beat the Bengals in the only two Super Bowls they participated in. Choosing Bill Johnson over Walsh has to go down as one of the biggest events in franchise history.