SANTA CLARA Step 1 for a new NFL coach: Lock yourself in a film room and study every catch, cut, backpedal and buttonhook by each player you've inherited.
That's what Jim Harbaugh and his offensive staff did immediately after taking over the 49ers in January 2011. His counterpart on defense, however, played it cool. Vic Fangio wanted a close-up look at his new pupils that was unclouded by the defense their previous coaches had them playing. He wanted to take his time in picking out the top 11. And only when he had that group in mind would he settle on a scheme that suited them.
Fangio's patience outlasted a 132-day lockout. And after finally evaluating his new players, he made all the right moves.
He turned Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman into first-time starters for the 49ers, found a perfect role for raw rookie Aldon Smith and made Carlos Rogers, the wise and respected veteran of the secondary, his nickel cornerback.
Fangio's defense held opponents to 14.3 points a game, was virtually impenetrable against the run and landed four players in the Pro Bowl. Many expect that unit to carry the 49ers a franchise made famous by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Steve Young and one currently led by an ex-quarterback to its sixth Super Bowl.
In a league in which the most famous defensive coordinators are hyper-aggressive both in scheme and in personality Fangio, 54, is the thinking man's alternative.
He's not a practice-field screamer.
"If he calls you out, he's going to call you out in a meeting behind closed doors," said cornerback Perrish Cox.
Fangio spends game days in the relative quiet of the coaches' booth, and he is refreshingly honest both during his once-a-week news conferences and in the 49ers' meeting rooms.
"I think Vic was born with truth serum in his veins," Harbaugh said. "And it's not always popular, but he tells it like it is. And on a staff, in a working staff on a team, to be able to attack problems and get ideas on the table where the best idea wins Vic is the leader on our staff in being able to do that."
Harbaugh said Fangio also has a dry but sharp wit, something rare but welcome in the win-or-else, no-fun NFL.
A case in point: When the rickety Candlestick Park elevator broke down during the 49ers' Aug. 10 exhibition game against Minnesota, Fangio didn't rush down flights of stairs (and back up again) to the locker room at halftime like his gasping and sweaty offensive counterparts. He stayed put.
"I had a hot dog," he said. "I've had better."
The Philadelphia connection Fangio's march to the Super Bowl begins next Sunday against an old friend and former ally.
Fangio was 25 when he got his first job with a professional team, the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL, working for head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Vince Tobin. He also fell in with another young assistant named Dom Capers, who now runs the Green Bay Packers' defense.
Fangio calls that stint his "lucky break in coaching."
The Stars blitzed often and were one of the first defenses to bring pass rushers from unconventional positions like safety and cornerback and from an array of angles. The Stars appeared in all three of the league's championship games and won two of them.
"It was really both of our first exposures to pro football," Capers recalled in a phone interview. "They were fun years for a lot of reasons, mainly because we won."
The USFL officially folded in 1987 but Mora, Fangio and Capers moved on to the New Orleans Saints. They brought several players, including linebacker Sam Mills, with them.
The Saints initially used a 4-3 defense but soon turned to a 3-4 system that featured the "Dome Patrol" a fearsome linebacking corps that included Mills, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, and another USFL refugee, Vaughan Johnson.
It's the only linebacker unit from one team to be voted to the Pro Bowl in the same season, and Fangio was the position coach.
"The benefit was that early in my development as a coach I got exposed to great players," Fangio said. "So it set a high standard and a high bar of what a great player is."
The experience also started a lifelong friendship with Capers, who later became head coach in Carolina and Houston, hiring Fangio as his defensive coordinator both times.
In Green Bay, Capers' defense blitzes more often than Fangio's in San Francisco, and it operates out of its nickel package more often.
But the concepts, the language and the values all date back to the Philadelphia Stars. The two men even sound the same.
"We can have a conversation on the phone and talk a language that we both speak as far as football lingo and techniques and assignments," Fangio said. "It's very easy for us to talk because of our background together."
Said Capers: "When you spend as much time together as we have, you can speak the same language, so to speak."
The two friends parted ways in 2006 after a regime change in Houston, and Fangio has been working with a Harbaugh ever since.
Fangio spent three seasons as a defensive assistant under John Harbaugh in Baltimore before agreeing after several attempts to run brother Jim's Stanford defense in 2010. Fangio's nickname at Stanford is further testament that a coach can be quiet but commanding. Soon after arriving on campus, the defensive players began referring to their new coach as "Lord Fangio," and they took great joy in finally getting the better of Harbaugh and their more popular offensive teammates, including Andrew Luck, in practice.
"It was his whole persona of just being laid-back and that everything he did just seemed to work," former Stanford safety Michael Thomas said of the nickname. "It was like, man, this guy could do no wrong. He was like a higher being. It was just a joke among us. But it caught on quickly."
In one year under Fangio, the Stanford defense went from being ranked 90th in the nation to finishing in the Top 25 in six categories. The Cardinal finished the season by winning the Orange Bowl.
The 49ers' defense went through a similar turnaround in Year One under Fangio, finishing tied for first with Capers' Packers in takeaways and fourth overall in total defense. The only thing missing is a bowl win.