Kyle Shanahan’s initiation into the 49ers family began years ago.
While his father, Mike, was running the 49ers’ offense from 1992 to 1994, Kyle tagged along as a ballboy. And of course, players tried to make the kid feel included.
“We forced him to sit on Santa Claus’ lap at the team Christmas party,” recalled former 49ers tight end Brent Jones. “I think (Santa) was actually Bill Walsh. And we told him that was part of the deal – if you were a child of one of the coaches or players, you had to sit on Santa’s lap.
“He was probably 14 or 15. I’ve got pictures somewhere.”
Shanahan is now 37, an accomplished coach himself. And Monday, the 49ers placed at least a share of their future in his lap, making him the 20th head coach in franchise history.
“He’s not only a smart football man, but he’s a leader who sets the tone through his work ethic,” new general manager John Lynch said Thursday in a news conference introducing the two. “I like what Kyle represents because he’s (dedicated). He knows what he wants, and he’s going to find a way to make that happen.”
While the move had been expected for days – the 49ers had to wait until after the Atlanta Falcons, with Shanahan as offensive coordinator, lost the Super Bowl in gut-wrenching fashion to the New England Patriots – one could argue that for Shanahan it was part of a natural progression going back much further.
They could point to the childhood spent around football, the father who won three Super Bowl rings as a coach and the swift ascension through the NFL’s coaching ranks, capped by orchestrating the league’s top-ranked offense last season in Atlanta.
Indeed, Shanahan said in his introductory 49ers news conference Thursday that becoming an NFL head coach had been a goal “my whole life.” He added, though, that he would not have accepted just any job. And in a way, his hiring marks a return of sorts, to a place that helped dictate his path.
Shanahan said his early experience with the 49ers has “always been a special part of my heart.” He recalled summers spent at the team’s training camp in Rocklin, sleeping on a rollout bed in his father’s room with former offensive-line coach Bobb McKittrick as his connecting roommate, playing pingpong nightly with wide receiver John Taylor.
“It took me two years to beat him,” Shanahan said, “and then after I did, he finally told me he was going to start using his right hand.
“But guys like Harris Barton, Tom Rathman, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, all these guys have really been a big part of my life, even though I was only with those guys for three years,” he said. “It’s just, those are the guys I looked up to and guys I wanted to be.”
HARD WORKER CLIMBS COACHING LADDER
He would not reach their level in pads. A wide receiver in college, Shanahan played his final two seasons at Texas, totaling a modest 14 catches for 127 yards. He then landed a job as a graduate assistant at UCLA in 2003 under then-head coach Karl Dorrell.
“He had a knack for just loving the game and understanding the process of seeing what defenses do and reacting to it and trying to make plays for the offense,” Dorrell, now a receivers coach for the New York Jets, said by phone. “It was kind of in his DNA, so to speak. He was already in that mode of a coach prior to him landing his first job.”
Dorrell had met the younger Shanahan while coaching receivers in Denver under his father. But the decision to hire Shanahan, he said, arose not out of loyalty to the family but because he recognized in Kyle “somebody who wanted to plant his own roots.”
“He put in the work – there’s no question about that,” Dorrell said. “By no means did he think he was entitled to anything. He was trying to work his way up the ladder.”
He did so quickly, spending two years as a quality control assistant in Tampa Bay under Jon Gruden, then two more as a position coach in Houston under Gary Kubiak. In 2008, the Texans made him the youngest coordinator in the NFL at age 28, giving him the reins to an offense that finished in the top five in total yardage in each of the next two seasons.
What followed was far less smooth. In 2010, Shanahan left Houston to be the offensive coordinator in Washington under his father. But his first season was marked by tension with veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowl player who ultimately was benched late in the season as the team went 6-10.
Recalling his season with Shanahan to the East Bay Times recently, McNabb said: “We both had our egos. There was no sitting down and discussing what we were going to do to make it easier for every party going forward.”
Shanahan worked with three primary quarterbacks in four seasons in Washington. His offense tailored around Robert Griffin III thrived in Griffin’s rookie season in 2012 but stalled the following year, which Washington finished 3-13, leading to the Shanahans being fired.
Thursday, Shanahan recalled his time in Washington as “a great learning experience. I wouldn’t take it back for the world. It wasn’t the most fun place to be at. There was a lot of ups and downs. But I think it was a pivotal point in my career. I think I got a lot better from it.”
Those years likely contributed to a perception, which hasn’t dimmed much, of Shanahan being cocky – something he took exception to when asked about it Thursday.
“You get humbled every single day,” he said. “As soon as you feel good about yourself, you’re going to get humbled very quickly. So I never really feel that good. I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m cocky and arrogant. But I also don’t know a lot of people, either.”
His self-assessment led to one of the lighter moments of Thursday’s news conference.
“There’s really two things that are important to me, and that’s my family and football, and that’s really all the things I think about,” Shanahan said. “As sad as that is, it’s true.”
Still, the 49ers could perhaps use an edge as they attempt to rebound from a 2-14 season under the recently fired Chip Kelly. Broadcasting a Falcons game weeks ago, before either was hired by the 49ers, Lynch made a prophetic observation about Shanahan.
“Kyle, I think he goes in these (head-coaching) interviews and maybe comes off a little confident, a little arrogant,” Lynch said. “I don’t care. I want an arrogant coach. I want a confident coach. I’d be hiring that guy in a second.”
TRIUMPH, HEARTBREAK IN ATLANTA
It wasn’t only Shanahan’s attitude that convinced the 49ers to give him a six-year deal, an extraordinary show of faith in a man with no head-coaching experience. Atlanta’s offense last season led the NFL in points per game (33.8), ranked second in yards (415.8) and produced the MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan, earning Shanahan the Assistant Coach of the Year honor from the Pro Football Writers Association and The Associated Press.
His tenure there ended painfully. The Falcons blew a 28-3 third-quarter lead in a 34-28 overtime loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, after which Shanahan was pilloried for his play-calling late in the game – namely, to continue throwing when a more conservative approach might have helped Atlanta salt away a championship.
Thursday, days removed from the loss, Shanahan said he was still “definitely grieving on it, and I probably will for a while.” Ryan, though, said after the game he did not blame his coordinator.
“Too aggressive? No. I thought Kyle did a good job,” he said. “I thought we played the way that we play. We always play aggressive, and play to win, and we had opportunities as players.”
Already, the 49ers had begun to envision that style for their own. Not 24 hours passed between the Super Bowl’s dramatic ending and the 49ers officially naming Shanahan their new head coach. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman attended the news conference, observing his fourth head coach in as many seasons.
“I can say for myself, standing on the sideline (last season while injured) watching the Falcons just move the ball up and down the field, with my intellect, he had me (confused),” Bowman said. “So I’m glad to have him on our side.”
His rise from 49ers ballboy to their head coach complete, Shanahan now faces a much larger challenge: Restore the luster to a faded franchise.
“I think he’s one of the brightest minds in the game,” Lynch said. “He’s proven that, I think, every step of his career.
“He had a big challenge because his dad was kind of a big deal in this league. But Kyle, I think to me, he’s a guy who soaked in all the knowledge and experience of being a coach’s son, but then went out and did it on his own, and has become his own man.”