Finer Points of Coaching Elude Singletary

SAN FRANCISCO - He wanted winners. He said as much. A billboard along the freeway near the Candlestick off-ramp with his image reiterated the proclamation. Mike Singletary was a man of little pretense.

Also, unfortunately of little coaching experience.

He understood X's and O's. Presumably he also understood how to motivate, although some of his methods were borderline. What he never seemed to understand was a head coach at any level must deal with the media, that the daily questions, the frequent criticism come with the territory.

That Mike Singletary once did the Super Bowl Shuffle, that he was elected deservedly to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was for those who deal in nostalgia. The NFL, as we all know, is about now, not then.

Maybe Singletary was doomed from the moment he was elevated to the position with the San Francisco 49ers, who through bad fortune and bad management had evolved into a rudderless organization.

In October 2008, when he became the interim replacement of the man who hired him, Mike Nolan, Singletary immediately began leading with his chin when he would've been better off using his head.

The very first game he was in control after moving up from the role of defensive coordinator, Singletary, in a graphic attempt to show the Niners were "getting their tails whipped,'' dropped his trousers in the locker room at halftime.

He showed some stylish boxer shorts. The Niners, down 20-3 to Seattle at the time, showed little improvement, eventually falling, 34-13.

Success is a long time coming in sports. Failure arrives quickly. The Niners in the 1980s were the NFL's elite team, under the free-spending ownership of Eddie DeBartolo - no salary cap in those days - and the directional brilliance of Bill Walsh, who not only knew how to develop an offense but to identify the players able to run it.

When DeBartolo was stripped of the franchise after being convicted of trying to bribe the former governor of Louisiana, it was transferred to his sister, Denise, and taken over by her husband, John York, a pathologist who went about things maddeningly wrong.

The front office fell apart and thus the team fell apart. In 2004, the once-proud, once-dominant San Francisco 49ers were 2-14, the poorest record in pro football.

Enter Nolan, once a ball boy for the 49ers when his late father, Dick, was head coach, in the early 1970s. Mike Nolan persuaded York he could restore the glory, and he did manage to get the team to 9-7 in his second year, 2006. That was as good as it got. And quickly it got very bad.

By the middle of the 2008 season, York's son, Jed, had become president and Nolan had become ex-coach, Singletary taking over. When in 2009, the Niners for the first time in seven seasons were able to finish as high as 8-8, predictions were for an NFC West Division championship in 2010. Not a chance.

The season started 0-5. Singletary fired the offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, he had hired. Singletary kept changing quarterbacks, from Alex Smith, the first pick in 2005, to Troy Smith, acquired as a free agent in 2010. Singletary kept warring with the media. The discomfort was overwhelming.

The art of a coaching is an interesting one. Rex Ryan could replace David Letterman he's so gregarious. Bill Belichick is only slightly more conversive than a CIA spy. The key seems to be to roll with the punches. Sure, it's easier with Tom Brady, yet problems always exist.

The Niners had some very good players but the Niners were not a good team. Singletary made the worst of bad situations. Every loss drew a response as if the world had ended.

Singletary was not responsible for the personnel, but he had a responsibility on how they performed. There were too many mistakes. There were too many debates.

Maybe not much should be made of that frequently replayed sideline confrontation between Troy Smith and Singletary in the loss to St. Louis last Sunday, Singletary's final game as coach. Yet, it seemed reflective of the 49ers' chaos.

You surmised Singletary sensed his time had run out, so he would depart on his own terms, a fighter still standing and swinging away as the final bell sounded.

In the locker room, the Niners at 5-10, finally eliminated from the playoffs, Singletary, in well-chosen words, said, "I'll put it this way: A personal failure. I'm the head coach of this team and obviously wanted us to do better ... There are some obvious question that I hoped would be answered as the season went on and obviously were not answered.

"I take full responsibility for every unanswered question.''

Several hours later, when the team arrived home from St. Louis, Jed York, who in 2008 appointed Singletary head coach, fired him.

The only answered question now is who would be 49ers' next head coach.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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