Big Hurdles Remain for 49ers
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 16, 2005

HIRING MIKE NOLAN was a positive step for the 49ers, but it is only part of the puzzle.

Nolan is ready to be a head coach, more than ready, in fact. He probably should have been a head coach years ago but he was held back by one bad interview, by which those hiring head coaches judged him for years.

He has learned from his mistakes. Nolan is now a polished public speaker, as he showed in the news conference after he was hired by the 49ers, and he also makes a favorable impression one-on-one, as he did during a meet-the-media session the new 49er coaches had last week at a Sunnyvale pizzeria. Only a handful of those who cover the team were there, and Nolan made certain he got around to all of us for short sessions.

In his ease with the media, he’s much unlike his dad, Dick, a 49er coach, 1968-75. Though Dick had no problems getting his message across to his players, he approached news conferences and interviews with the enthusiasm most of us have for visiting the dentist. That wouldn’t be possible for a head coach in today’s NFL, where media savvy is one of the pre-requisites. Not every coach is as photogenic or smooth as the 49ers former coach, Steve Mariucci, who is now in Detroit, but they all can deal with the constant media attention.

One of the common themes among coordinators who become successful head coaches is that they’ve been planning for years what to do when they become head coaches. For that reason, it was encouraging to see how quickly Mike Nolan put together his staff of 16 assistants – including one very impressive hire, Mike Singletary, who will be the assistant head coach as well as linebackers coach. Singletary has the same fire as a coach that he had as a player, and he will be coaching the unit which will be the key to the 49ers defense.

Nolan’s predecessor with the 49ers, Dennis Erickson, never had a chance, and a big part of that was his coaching staff. His first season, Erickson was saddled with several leftover coaches from Mariucci’s staff. The second year, he had his own coaches in place, which was even worse. Erickson was comfortable with them because they were all coaches who had been with him before, but the problem was that they weren’t very good.

Nolan shouldn’t have that problem because he’s picked assistants on their merit, not because of personal friendship.

THERE’S SOMETHING to be said for having an NFL coach as your father, if that’s what you want to do with your career. Jim Mora Jr. grew up learning about football, and he hit the ground running in his first year as head coach in Atlanta last season.

Mike Nolan should be able to do the same thing because, in a sense, this job is one he’s been preparing for all his life. He certainly knows about the passion of 49er fans because his family lived in Woodside, in the heart of the biggest part of the 49er fan base, when his dad was coach.

His father was an excellent coach who had no role in selecting personnel, which was ultimately his downfall. When the 49ers started winning in 1970, their draft position was near the bottom in subsequent drafts and they virtually lost two years, 1971 and ’72. Not only were the No. 1 picks in those years – cornerback Tim Anderson and wide receiver Terry Beasley – washouts, but the 49ers got very little help from any other players in either draft.

Mike Nolan should learn from that, as well as from his predecessor, Erickson, who didn’t want to get involved in the draft, either. A coach can’t afford that now. Nolan has to be involved, and from his public statements, it appears he will be the one making most of the final decisions, which hasn’t been true for a 49er coach since Bill Walsh.

Nolan was active in the interviewing of potential personnel people, including the one who was hired, Scot McCloughan, son of former Raider corner and current personnel man Kent McCloughan. The new hire comes with strong recommendations from his previous employer, the Seattle Seahawks.

Much work still needs to be done on the personnel side, though. The 49ers scouting department, once possibly the best in the league, has deteriorated badly because scouts have either left or retired. There has been too much emphasis on computer analysis. The 49ers should follow the example of the Oakland A’s, who use a computer model to find the type of players they want, but then thoroughly scout the players before either drafting them or making a trade.

THIS IS OBVIOUSLY a critical year for the 49ers. Anybody who went to games last season knows how many empty seats there were. The 49ers were officially sold out for the season, but many of those buying tickets didn’t come to the games – and the waiting list which had once been around 10,000 has disappeared.
The 49ers need to give fans some reason for hope. Making a clean sweep by firing both Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue was a good start, and fans have reacted favorably to the Nolan hiring, but there’s still much work to be done before the 49ers can climb back up the ladder.

NOTE TO READERS: I will be on the Ronn Owens show on KGO radio, 10-10:30 Thursday morning.

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