NEW ORLEANS — They are now bonded forever, tied to a legacy nearly unmatched in professional sports. Bill Walsh, George Seifert, and Jim Harbaugh — the three coaches who have taken the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Of course, Walsh is the Big Kahuna of the group. The finest football mind of his generation, and perhaps of all time, assembled a series of teams that won three Super Bowls in the 1980s, and may have won even more under his auspices had he not retired in 1989, just after his beloved team beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
Seifert, who was Walsh’s defensive backs coach from 1980 through 1982, and his defensive coordinator from 1983 through 1988, took over in his old boss’ stead and picked up two Super Bowl wins of his own — a 55-10 walloping of the Denver Broncos in his first year as the team’s head coach, and a 49-26 thrashing of the San Diego Chargers five years later. Seifert is seen by some as an afterthought in this dynastic tree, and while it’s true that he was coasting and coaching on Walsh’s fumes to a point against the Broncos, it was a very different team that beat the Chargers.
It took a long time and a lot of hard years for the 49ers to get back here. Almost 20 years, five different coaches, and a great many front office mistakes took place before a run of good moves in the last few years put the franchise back in a position to win, and the hire of Harbaugh in 2011 put those pieces in place.
Through a run of more than 30 years, these three coaches have some interesting connections. After he left the 49ers, Walsh bounced back and forth between Stanford and San Francisco, coaching at Palo Alto and doing some advisory work for his old NFL team. One of the best things Walsh ever did for the Stanford Cardinal, though, was to drop the hammer on a rising college coach and former NFL quarterback by the name of Jim Harbaugh. Walsh hired Harbaugh there in 2007, and Harbaugh told me on Wednesday that he learned a great deal from the NFL’s greatest thinker.
“Coach Walsh did call me and left a message on my phone to see if I would be interested in the Stanford coaching job,” Harbaugh recalled. “I was intending to leave that message on my phone for the rest of my life, but I lost that phone or dropped it in the toilet or something. I can’t remember which it was, I lost it or dropped it in the can, but I don’t have that message anymore. Truly one of the most memorable things was getting that message.”
Harbaugh certainly didn’t drop that opportunity in the can. From 2002 through 2006, Stanford never won more than five games, and bottomed out at 1-11 in 2006. Harbaugh turned it all around with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, a pretty good quarterback in Andrew Luck, and a tough-minded philosophy that permeated every area of the program. Harbaugh took Roman, Fangio, and that philosophy to the NFL, and left Luck and Stanford in a much better place. In return, he got to learn the highest dimensions of coaching, team-building, and football in general from Walsh.
“So many different things,” Harbaugh said when I asked him what he learned from the great man, who passed away in July of 2007. “When we first got to Stanford, Coach Walsh would come in and one of our favorite things to do was to sit down and watch recruiting tape with our offensive staff. There was one day in particular that we had all of the quarterbacks lined up, and there were seven or eight quarterbacks. There were a lot of names that you’d all know that are playing big-time college football and professional football. Coach Walsh was with us and we ranked them. My memory is that Andrew Luck was his, and our, favorite.”
Seifert, a native of the Bay Area and a 49ers fan long before he was a coach, is ecstatic over his favorite team’s return to prominence, and he puts all the credit on the new guys.
“He’s doing it with his own system and his own way of doing things,” Seifert said of Harbaugh in December of 2011. “It’s not the West Coast offense or anybody else’s offense, or anybody else’s defense, or anybody else’s way of operating the organization. He has his own way of doing it, and he’s been influenced by a number of outstanding coaches and players through the years. And he’s kind of put it all together in this pretty neat package. Let’s just kind of enjoy it and have fun with it. I think we’re all fortunate.”
Roman, who is as much or more a facilitator of the 49ers’ current offensive success as Harbaugh himself, worked for the Carolina Panthers from 1995 through 2001. It was there that he got to work with Seifert, though under less than ideal conditions. Seifert replaced Dom Capers as the Panthers’ head coach in 1999, and after two middling seasons, everything bottomed out in 2001, when the team went 1-15.
Still, Roman looks back on his time with Seifert as one of the prime factors in his current success. In fact, he says, most of the advanced blocking and rushing schemes he now uses to power the NFL’s best and most diverse run game came from Seifert.
“George had a lot of great ideas, and he’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around,” Roman told me on Thursday. “I have a great relationship with him, and we still stay in touch. He’s a great coach, obviously — a Hall of Fame coach. I learned so much from him, I can’t really put it into words. He kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot about offense, defense … the entire team. I’m very thankful to him for that opportunity.”
The new 49ers’ staff is full of gratitude to the men who preceded them. The best way to pay that forward, of course, would be to grab the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title and keep the 49ers undefeated in those games. But even if that doesn’t happen on this Sunday, the team’s new blood has things set up for long-term success in ways we haven’t seen since their benefactors patrolled the sidelines. And that’s a unique victory in itself.