SANTA CLARA Should Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan look across the field during Sunday's NFC Championship Game, he'll see a 49ers team that still bears his fingerprints.
Nolan's 3 1/2-year tenure as 49ers head coach ended seven games into the 2008 season with a record of 18-37. It was during those years, though, that the 49ers assembled some key pieces of the teams that won the NFC West and reached the conference final each of the past two seasons.
Five of the 49ers' nine Pro Bowl selections this season joined the team under Nolan. Running back Frank Gore was drafted in 2005, while safety Dashon Goldson, left tackle Joe Staley and linebacker Patrick Willis were all members of the 49ers' 2007 draft class. Defensive end Justin Smith signed as a free agent in 2008.
Also drafted during Nolan's tenure were quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 who started last season's NFC title game, and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in 2006.
"Quite a few players he drafted and coached and brought into the league," Alex Smith said. "So, for sure there were seeds of it. The guys that have been there for that amount of time that's a piece of it."
It's the first time the 49ers are facing a Nolan-coached team in the regular or postseason since he was let go in 2008, and Nolan told Atlanta-area media Tuesday he's looking forward to seeing his former players before the game.
"I'm glad they've done well, and 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 as well that some of those guys are doing so well."
The 49ers were coming off a 2-14 finish in 2004 when they hired Nolan, who worked to introduce a blue-collar ethic. But the 49ers never achieved during his tenure their current level of on-field success, finishing 7-9 in their best season in 2006.
Nolan served as the defensive coordinator in Denver in 2009 and in Miami (2010-11) before joining the Falcons, who ranked 24th in total defense this season but allowed the fifth-fewest points in the NFL and had 31 takeaways, tied for fifth.
"He did some good things when he was here, definitely," said Goldson, who added Nolan "formed me into a good football player."
"It's just a different feeling around here lately," Goldson said. "It's kind of hard to go back to where we were because we've been dealing with a lot of success lately."
Besides wearing a suit during games to honor his father Dick Nolan, a former 49ers coach, Nolan is perhaps best remembered for his public dispute with Smith in 2007 over the severity of his shoulder separation suffered against Seattle in Week 4.
Smith later tried to play through the injury which would require two surgeries but struggled. Nolan said Smith's shoulder was fine and the problem was with the quarterback's confidence.
Smith said Tuesday no hard feelings remain after the two spent much of the 2008 season together as Smith recovered from surgery.
"We had that whole next year where I feel I really grew up a lot. I learned a lot from that entire situation," Smith said. "We got along really well after that. I think we both kind of I know I saw my fault in it.
"I for sure look back at that as, what could I have done differently as a young player in this league," he said. "I sure didn't know that stuff then, but you learn from it. But, yeah, no resentment at all."