Walt McPherson

Walt McPherson’s sports legacy is more difficult to categorize than most athletes’, coaches’ or administrators’ because he had an impact on so many college sports – baseball, basketball, football and golf. But the location of his legacy is easy to pinpoint.

It’s at San Jose State University, where his name runs along each side of the basketball court in the Event Center in huge letters: Walt McPherson Court. “I’ve never been a legend before,” he said the night the court was dedicated in his honor.

He was simply the last person at the university he served for 35 years to recognize the fact. He played three sports there after an outstanding athletic career at San Jose High, coached four Spartan sports, was athletic director, ran the physical education department and finished up as commissioner of the West Coast Athletic Conference.

There was hardly any area of San Jose State sports that McPherson touched that doesn’t still bear his fingerprints. As soon as he graduated in 1939 – after a career in which he lettered in three sports and captained the 11-1 football team in 1938 – McPherson was hired by his alma mater as freshman baseball coach. Just 22 years old, he was the nation’s youngest head coach. The next year he was added as an assistant on the football staff, and the year after that became head basketball coach.

Navy service in World War II interrupted McPherson’s tenure at San Jose State, but he returned in 1945 to coach baseball, basketball and golf. “With basketball and baseball, I thought I knew the sports pretty well,” he said. “In golf … they were all better golfers than I was.” Indeed, his 1948 golf team won the NCAA championship.

But it was in basketball that McPherson achieved his most public success, compiling 264 victories over 17 seasons, the most of any coach in school history. Twelve teams had winning seasons, three won conference championships, three went to postseason play and the 1950 team climbed to as high as 17th in national rankings.

“He cared a great deal for his players,” said George Clark, a player on the 1950 team. “He had a wonderful memory and remembered the names of his players long after they graduated. He followed their careers and knew the names of their wives. He was like a life-long counselor.”

Bill McPherson

Bill McPherson managed to elude the public’s radar detection, which is hard to do in a community where football is king and you’ve been involved in every level of the local game from the Bellarmine jayvees to five 49er Super Bowl champions. But as the Santa Clara native said in an interview while he was the 49ers defensive coordinator, his next-to-last job, “if people know who you are, then when things go bad, they know who to yell at.”

Not many things could have gone wrong in McPherson’s career, though. From the time he played at Bellarmine in the 1940s until retiring from the 49ers in 2005, when he was director of pro personnel, he was always moving up in the football world. Up, but not out. Except for three seasons at UCLA in the mid-1970s, where he was defensive line coach under Dick Vermeil, and a season as linebackers coach under Vermeil with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1978, his fulfilled his football career within 50 miles of where he was born.

It was a career that included Bellarmine, Santa Clara University and 27 years with the 49ers, the first 20 of which were in five different assistant coaching capacities. And that, of course, was what kept him out of the public eye. He was always an assistant coach.

“The guy has forgotten more football than most people know,” said Gary Plummer, a 49ers linebacker for four seasons under McPherson. ‘”Without a doubt, Mac is the best guy in the NFL in terms of the front seven on defense. He likes being around the defensive linemen and linebackers. He’s a throwback. He appreciates the toughness of the game. He loves smash-mouth football.”

When McPherson finished his playing career at Bellarmine and Santa Clara, where he was a defensive tackle, he returned to the Bells and then to the Broncos as coach. He helped Pat Malley revive Santa Clara’s football program and remained there from 1963-74. That’s when Vermeil lured him away to UCLA, the connection that would eventually take McPherson to the NFL.

Bill Walsh called McPherson after his first season in Philadelphia, and the opportunity to return home was too much to resist. After collecting five Super Bowl rings under Walsh and George Seifert in various assistant’s positions, McPherson moved into the personnel position where he evaluated NFL talent and worked on game plans.

What’s he doing in retirement? What retirement? McPherson’s back at Bellarmine helping coach the junior varsity.

Jennifer Azzi

When Jennifer Azzi began playing basketball for her junior high team in 1981, girls in Tennessee schools were just a few seasons removed from the antiquated rules that had limited players to only three dribbles and confined two players on each team to the defensive end of the court. Title IX, the federal law that opened up sports opportunities for girls around the country, was just beginning to produce a core of female scholarship athletes. Women’s sports had not yet been added to the NCAA. Stanford’s women’s team was mediocre, watched by fewer than 100 fans per game. And women’s professional basketball was still learning its alphabet, moving from one forgettable failure of a league to another: LPBA, WBL, WBA, WABA.

When she retired in 2003 after nine years of professional basketball in the American Basketball League and Women’s National Basketball Association, basketball had the highest public profile of any women’s college sport and it had become the first successful women’s professional team sport.

Azzi was a pioneer in all that by changing America’s idea of what female athleticism was all about, in the process creating acceptability for the girls who followed her to train hard, play with guts and skill, and lay claim to glory.

That junior high team Azzi played for never lost a game. Oak Ridge High was 86-11 during her four years with a Tennessee state championship semifinal appearance her senior season. But when she arrived at Stanford, she was not an immediate starter on a team that had gone 13-15 the year before.

“She was not a complete package when she arrived,” Coach Tara VanDerveer told Sports Illustrated. Four years later she was. She led the Cardinal to a 32-1 record and its first NCAA championship in 1990. The two-time All-America was the Final Four’s most valuable player and Naismith National Player of the Year. Women’s basketball had arrived on the national stage, and Azzi was one of its most compelling stars.

Her professional opportunities lay in Europe, where she played five seasons. But her opportunity to further raise the level of the women’s game was in the United States, where she was a member of the gold medal team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Atlanta was a triumph for women’s sports in the United States, launching professional leagues in softball and soccer as well as two in basketball. Azzi was a founding player of the ABL, making its all-star team all three seasons of the league’s existence as a guard with the San Jose Lasers. The ABL lost its competitive battle with the WNBA, and when it folded in 1998, Azzi moved to the rival league where she was tops in three-point field goal percentage three times and first in free throw percentage twice.