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49ers: From Dynasty to Dysfunction, Part III

(Continued from Part II - Success Ends Suddenly)

John York went looking for the next Bill Walsh in January 2005.

York enlisted the help of team executives Paraag Marathe and Terry Tumey, along with his son, Jed, a recent Notre Dame graduate. Marathe developed a model of what attributes were shared by successful head coaches. Tumey, who played at UCLA, asked football questions.

The 49ers hired Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan as head coach. At the introductory press conference, York said he knew Nolan was the right man because of his understanding of what the 49ers mean to the Bay Area. Mike Nolan’s father, Dick Nolan, captured three consecutive NFC West titles as 49ers head coach from 1970 to ’72.

The 49ers owned the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2005 draft. They had a head coach, but they did not have an experienced personnel director – nor anyone to run the show during the selection process.

Nolan took on the lead role in hiring Scot McCloughan.

The first major decision of the Nolan-McCloughan pairing was the selection of quarterback Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Although Smith fell far short of expectations, he would outlast Nolan.

Nolan’s background was a defensive coach. He had very little knowledge of the offensive side of the ball. Therefore, he was unable to maintain any semblance of consistency.

He inherited a roster virtually devoid of offensive talent, and he entrusted offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to install the Bill Walsh offense. Even though the 49ers ranked last in virtually every offensive statistical category, McCarthy left after one season to become the Green Bay Packers' head coach.

Nolan and the 49ers got lucky, though. Norv Turner, recently fired as the Oakland Raiders' head coach, was named the new offensive coordinator. Turner brought his own offensive system to the organization. The 49ers seemed to be making strides with a 7-9 record in 2006. But when Turner left in February to accept the San Diego Chargers’ head-coaching position, Nolan was caught flat-footed.

Nolan had not put together a staff with a line of succession. Because it was so late in the process, he was unable to interview promising candidates on other staffs around the league. Instead, he promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler to the position – a decision Nolan admitted was a mistake. The 49ers’ offense again ranked last in virtually every statistical category, as the team finished the 2007 season with a 5-11 record.

Nolan engaged in a public rift with his Alex Smith, who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. And Nolan suddenly found his job in jeopardy. For two days after the season, the Yorks met to discuss Nolan’s future. They decided Nolan would remain as head coach, but McCloughan would be promoted to general manager.

Now, McCloughan had the power to fire the man who hired him.

McCloughan used that executive power on Oct. 20, when the 49ers’ record had sunk to 2-5. Nolan was fired after 3½ seasons with a coaching record of 18-37. McCloughan said all the blame does not fall onto Nolan’s shoulders.

Certainly, McCloughan deserves to take his share of responsibility for the failings, too. Smith has not produced. Neither has a bunch of their other first- and second-round draft picks, such as tight end Vernon Davis, linebacker Manny Lawson, guards David Baas and Chilo Rachal, and defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer.

The 49ers have invested huge money in defensive free agents Nate Clements, Michael Lewis and Justin Smith, but that unit has not showed any significant improvement despite the dollars being spent.

But the biggest disappointment has been the team’s offense. The 49ers were always known for a cutting-edge offense. But what’s worse than being bad in the Bay Area is being boring.

The 49ers had four different offensive coordinators – and four different offensive systems – in Nolan’s four seasons. In a desperate attempt to save his job, Nolan hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator this year. While Martz’s high-risk, high-reward offense was more aesthetically pleasing, it allowed too many sacks and turnovers to make much of a difference.

The Nolan firing signaled a change in the 49ers’ image. No longer was John York – who never appeared comfortable in a high-profile role – the face and voice of ownership. Jed York, 27, stood in front of the microphones to address the coaching change. It appeared to be a signal that John York will never be out front discussing football matters.

Many people close to the York family believe Jed is more like his uncle, Eddie, than his father. He wants to win at all cost. But the question is whether he has any idea about the formula for success.

“We need to reestablish our championship culture,” said York, whose official title is vice president of strategic planning/owner. “And we need a coach that has the intensity to match that championship-caliber culture that we’re looking for.”

Assistant head coach Mike Singletary took over as interim head coach. He has made his presence felt in a short period of time – and not necessarily in a positive way.

Singletary’s first major move was to bench quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, a favorite of Martz. O’Sullivan threw 11 interceptions and lost six fumbles before getting the hook. That decision was a popular move in the Bay Area.

When the 49ers fell behind, 20-3, against the Seattle Seahawks at halftime of his first game on Oct. 26, Singletary went ballistic in the locker room. To dramatize that the 49ers were getting their butts spanked, Singletary dropped his pants in front of his players. The incident was an embarrassment to the image-conscious 49ers.

Just three years earlier, the club caved into community pressure to fire public-relations man Kirk Reynolds when an in-house video designed to instruct the team’s players on the dos and don’ts of dealing with the media was made public, likely by a disgruntled former employee. The video displayed some nudity and spoofs deemed racially insensitive.

While news of Singletary’s pants-dropping was not intended to become public, some of his other actions were in full view of the nation.

In the third quarter, Singletary became outraged when tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall pick in 2006, was called for unnecessary roughness. Singletary pulled Davis off the field. When Davis’ reaction was “nonchalant,” Singletary banished him to the locker room for the rest of the game.

Singletary could barely control his emotions in his post-game press conference after the 34-13 loss.

"I would rather play with 10 people . . . rather than play with 11 when I know that person is not sold out to be part of this team,” Singletary said. “Cannot play with them. Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want people that want to win."

There was no question that Eddie DeBartolo – often emotional in his own right -- wanted to win. He found the right man, Walsh, to get the job done.

The Bay Area is not convinced the Yorks are capable of hiring the right people to get the job done. With empty seats becoming more common at Candlestick Park these days, it’s obvious that the fans are losing patience.

Matt Maiocco has covered the 49ers as a beat reporter for 14 years - the past nine at the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat. He is a three-time winner of Pro Football Writers of America awards, and he has authored two books on the 49ers.

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