Coaching tree? For Bill Walsh, it was more like a coaching biosphere.
Under Walsh and his successor, George Seifert, talented assistant coaches routinely left the 49ers for top jobs elsewhere, but equally sharp minds miraculously sprouted in their place.
At the top offensive assistant spot, Sam Wyche was replaced by Paul Hackett, who was followed by Mike Holmgren, who was succeeded by Mike Shanahan, who was replaced by Marc Trestman. Even today, seven years after Walsh’s death, a half dozen NFL head coaches – Trestman, Andy Reid, John Fox, Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith – can trace their roots to him.
“He was a mentor,” said Walsh’s front-office ally, John McVay. “He was like a good high school teacher or college prof. He wanted to see his guys move up and then move out for head-coaching jobs. I mean, there’s a list as long as your arm.”
The Jim Harbaugh coaching tree?
It appears to be in full blossom. But it’s been in that state for three years and has yet to bear any real fruit. It might be time to call in an arborist.
Sure, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s name is hot. But it was hot following the 2011 and 2012 regular seasons as well. And on Thursday, two head-coaching openings where Roman was in play – with the Redskins and at Penn State – slammed shut when Washington hired Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Penn State settled on Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. The Vikings also have shown interest in Roman.
Perhaps Roman’s biggest obstacle is Harbaugh, not because Harbaugh is blocking his career path, but because he casts such a long shadow. There’s an outside perception that Harbaugh draws up the schemes during the week and calls the plays on Sunday.
He doesn’t. Roman calls the plays, which are relayed through Harbaugh to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The head coach can change or veto a play. How much that occurs is unknown, but it’s safe to say the offense belongs more to Roman than Harbaugh.
The team’s defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, said Thursday he hasn’t been contacted about any head-coaching jobs.
The frank, no-frills Fangio did an excellent job assembling the 49ers’ current defense – with an added degree of difficulty awarded because it occurred in a lockout year (2011) – and he’d be a sage, calming influence for any unstable organization. (I’m looking at you, Cleveland and Washington.)
The Redskins, however, followed the league trend by hiring Gruden, an offensive-minded assistant in his mid-40s. The Browns also seem to be zeroing in on offensive assistants, this despite the fact that five of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs – Carolina, Denver, Indianapolis, New England and Seattle – are coached by men with defensive backgrounds.
A third 49ers assistant, Jim Tomsula, also is being eyed by the Vikings for their head-coaching job.
Tomsula is adored by his players, he drips charisma (an introductory news conference starring head coach Jim Tomsula would have real staying power on your DVR), and he would whip that Minnesota defense back into shape. But promoting a defensive-line coach to head coach would be bold and unprecedented.
Mostly, the 49ers assistants are victims of their own success.
Since Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011, the coaching staff has been preoccupied at least through late January. Head-coaching interviews happen in early January, and teams prefer to have their new head coach in place midway through the month so they can get a jump on hiring the best assistants and have their full staff on board and evaluating personnel for the run-up to free agency.
The best thing for Roman’s career aspirations, ironically, might be a first-round playoff exit. It worked for Gruden.
Cohesion certainly is key to success, as Alex Smith and anyone who endured the Nolan-Singletary era and its revolving door of offensive coordinators can attest.
But Walsh also knew new blood was critical for staying sharp and unpredictable. And, according to McVay, he made sure to keep that blood flowing.
“We always had guys that wanted to come here,” McVay said. “It was a great place to work. Bill was very open and very inclusive. He gave them a lot of responsibility. And when it was time for them to move on, he would beat the drum for those guys.”