Mike Nolan’s 3½-year tenure as coach for the 49ers offered few highlights on the field.
An 18-37 record before a mid-season firing in 2008. No playoff berths for a franchise used to winning championships. A parade of offensive coordinators unable to develop Alex Smith at quarterback.
Yet to call Nolan’s run in San Francisco a complete failure would clearly miss the point. He took over a franchise decimated under the leadership of former general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson and began acquiring the pieces that Jim Harbaugh later used to make back-to-back runs to the NFC Championship Game.
Nolan, now the defensive coordinator in Atlanta, gets the chance to see the results of some of his work when the Falcons host the 49ers on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
“There’s a lot of players still playing there that we added, that I’ll see. I look forward to seeing them before the game. I’m glad they’ve done well. Not only for those players, but for the organization,” Nolan said. “I put a lot of time and effort into that. So, in a strange way, it’s a little rewarding that some of those guys are going so well.”
San Francisco owner Jed York said he gives Nolan “a lot of credit for helping set the foundation for this current 49ers team.
“It’s never easy to let somebody go that you have so much respect for, and you wish things had worked out differently for Mike. ... He is a very classy man and he’s a heck of a football coach,” York said.
Ten of the current 49ers were acquired during Nolan’s regime, including first-team All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson, second-teamers defensive tackle Justin Smith and left tackle Joe Staley and key contributors like running back Frank Gore, tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, defensive lineman Ray McDonald and cornerback Tarell Brown.
That helped transform the organization from a laughingstock that went 2-14 in 2004 in the final season under Erickson into a respectable one that still fell short of the playoffs.
“He turned us around,” said punter Andy Lee, one of 13 players left from when Nolan coached. “When he first got here, we were the worst team in the NFL. Then we slowly started this climb from being the worst team in the NFL to a mediocre, possible playoff team. He did a good job. I really don’t have anything negative to say about him. He definitely was part of the turnover part of this organization.”