There have been many invocations of the Bill Walsh legacy with the signing of Jim Harbaugh as the 49ers’ coach, and the comparisons are legitimate.
Walsh knew how important assistant coaches are to an NFL team. In college, recruiting is the most important factor and the successful coaches are the ones who bring in blue-chip recruits. In the pros, teams start with a relatively even playing field, so coaching the players well is vital.
For his first teams, Walsh brought in his friend Chuck Studley as his defensive coordinator. Walsh and Studley had been on the coaching staff in Cincinnati and had usually ridden to work together, with Walsh often asking questions about defensive schemes.
George Seifert was the defensive backfield coach and did a superb job in coaching three rookies — Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson — in what became a vital part of a great defense.
After the 1982 season, a disastrous one when drug use ripped through the squad, Walsh wanted to make changes to his coaching staff. But he was never one to approach personnel changes directly, so he took a circuitous path, claiming he wasn’t sure he would stay on as head coach — just long enough for Studley and others he wanted to leave to get other jobs. He was then free to elevate Seifert to defensive coordinator, and Seifert produced defensive schemes as elaborate as those Walsh had for the offense.
That lesson has been lost on recent 49ers coaches. Dennis Erickson compiled a staff of assistants who were good friends but not good coaches. Mike Nolan knew nothing of offense, but couldn’t resist giving advice to Norv Turner, who told friends he couldn’t wait to get away. Mike Singletary knew even less about offense, but fired a brilliant offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, and imposed his Stone Age views on Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson.
In contrast, Harbaugh put together a staff at Stanford that was more like an NFL team than a college one, an important factor in the team’s success.
Now, Harbaugh will put together a staff with the 49ers, and there is speculation he will raid his old Stanford staff for at least two assistants: Vic Fangio for defensive coordinator and Greg Roman for offensive coordinator. Both would be excellent choices.
Fangio, who has coached in the NFL, put together a very strong defense, which had not been true of previous Stanford teams. He would be a significant upgrade over Greg Manusky, whose defensive schemes were very erratic.
Roman was assistant head coach and offensive line coach. He designed the running plays, while Harbaugh put together passing plays, much as Walsh and offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick did for the 49ers. Harbaugh never made it clear who was calling plays, but many close to Stanford think Roman was. The fact that they have worked so closely together on a well conceived offense would make Harbaugh’s transition much easier.
The 49ers were better physically than their record in the just ended season. That’s what bad coaching can do to a team. With Harbaugh at the helm and better assistants around him, the 49ers should play up to their ability next season.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.