San Francisco 49ers

Calm in the storm: Vic Fangio remains steady during 49ers’ chaotic season

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leads a 49ers practice in 2012 in Santa Clara. “I’ve ... never been comfortable to be a self-promoter,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leads a 49ers practice in 2012 in Santa Clara. “I’ve ... never been comfortable to be a self-promoter,” he said. Associated Press file

You’re not going to see 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio snapping at his head coach on the sideline the way one of his counterparts, the Saints’ Rob Ryan, was caught doing several times this season.

You won’t find him barking at an opponent like Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett two weeks ago when 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin tangled with one of Haslett’s players on the sideline.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find Fangio at all.

Television cameras love drama and commotion, which means they don’t love Fangio. On game days, Fangio sits on high behind a pane of 11/2-inch glass in the coaches booth, which gives him both a chess-master’s view of the action below and removes him from the emotion of the sideline.

If the NFL coaching stereotype is the combustible control freak who chews out referees during the game and gives triumphant speeches after it, consider Fangio, 56, the antithesis. He’s calm, consistent and solid. And he doesn’t seek attention.

“I’ve just never been comfortable to be a self-promoter,” he said. “It’s always better to hear good than bad. But being asked to do stuff like this (interview) or having to talk about yourself, I just don’t feel comfortable. It’s not a coach’s place to do that.”

This year, however, the man his former Stanford players dubbed “Lord Fangio” is finding it difficult to remain in the shadows.

When the season began, a defensive stumble seemed unavoidable. The two most talented players on the roster, linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, would be out for at least half the season.

And the attrition grew. Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis started six games before being lost for the season. Cornerback Tramaine Brock has started just one game. The 49ers have played the last 31/2 games with their third-string nose tackle. It doesn’t appear Bowman will play at all in 2014.

The starting defensive lineup for today’s game against the Raiders will feature six players who didn’t start against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game 101/2 months ago.

Still, Fangio’s unit hasn’t sunk or even dipped. The 49ers are fourth in the NFL in yards allowed after finishing fifth, third and fourth in preceding years. With the offense struggling to find the end zone, the defense is the reason the 49ers still have a shot at the playoffs.

Humble beginnings

“He’s doing a fabulous job this year,” former NFL coach Jim Mora said. “He always does a good job. But this year with the injuries and stuff – I talk to him and text him and tell him what a great job he’s doing.”

Mora has known Fangio since 1984, when Mora coached the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars and Fangio, then 26, arrived looking for work.

“I don’t know what we paid him,” Mora said. “I don’t know if we paid him anything at all. I don’t know where he lived or slept or whatever. All I know is that he came in and we put him to work.”

Fangio began the season as an offensive assistant and got by because general manager Carl Peterson would slip him a $100 bill once a week. As the year went on, Mora handed him more responsibilities – offensive and defensive quality control and assistant defensive-line coach – and in 1985 gave him a salaried position, strength and conditioning coach.

“I made $20,000,” Fangio said. “Thought I was rich.”

Mora found his young assistant to be smart, capable and – rare for someone in Fangio’s position – unafraid to speak his mind.

“I’d be sitting in a meeting and I’d say, ‘Do you guys agree with that?’ or ‘What do you think?’ ” Mora said. “And most of them would nod their heads or (say), ‘That’s fine, coach.’ If Vic didn’t agree, he’d speak up: ‘I don’t think that’s right’ or ‘Maybe we should do this.’

“Whenever I wanted an honest opinion and one that I respected, I’d go to Vic. Because I knew he’d be honest with me. He’d tell me the truth – even if he thought I didn’t like it, he’d tell me.”

Straightforward style

Fangio brought that candor to the 49ers.

Whereas head coach Jim Harbaugh heaps sugary praise on all his players, Fangio’s assessments stand out because of their bluntness.

Earlier this year, he said outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks wasn’t performing as expected because he was overweight. He said he was pleasantly surprised by cornerback Perrish Cox’s strong season because he figured Cox would slack off after a standout offseason.

Why would he think that?

“Been his history,” said Fangio, who told Cox the same thing.

Practice squad linebacker Shayne Skov has known Fangio since 2010 when both were at Stanford. Skov was having a rough practice that season when Fangio noticed.

“He wasn’t yelling, didn’t raise his voice at all, but straight-up called me out,” Skov recalled. “It was probably the harshest scolding I ever got in my career. He wasn’t, like, upset or angry. He was just stating facts. But the truth cuts, you know? Maybe even more than any sort of emotion.”

Skov said his Stanford teammates quickly embraced Fangio’s straightforward style, which also has made him popular among his 49ers players.

“A lot of coaches tell you things that make you feel good,” said former 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers, now with the Raiders. “Coach Vic doesn’t do that. He’s not going to tell you what you want to hear, he’s going to tell it to you straight. He’s not going to tell you one thing and then tell the GM something else.”

Said Fangio, whose father was a tailor who ran his own shop in Scranton, Pa.: “For me, the more that it’s real – this is the way it is, no fluff, no French pastry involved, no gimmicks – it serves yourself better in the long run. And I think in the long run it helps you dealing with the players because they know you have no hidden agenda.”

Track record of success

Players also trust Fangio because he’s good at his job.

If this season is his finest in 15 years as a defensive coordinator, 2011 is a close second. That was the year Fangio’s patience outlasted a 132-day lockout.

When he was hired that offseason, players like Bowman, Ray McDonald, Brooks and Tarell Brown hadn’t been starters. Rogers never met expectations as a former first-round pick in Washington, and the 49ers signed him a week into training camp.

Fangio resisted making any decisions on scheme or starting positions until after the lockout, which ended in late July, and he had a chance to evaluate his new players in person. He had to work quickly, but he ultimately put everyone in the right spot.

The defense held opponents to 14.3 points a game that season, was virtually impenetrable against the run and landed four players in the Pro Bowl, including Rogers.

“We just clicked that first season,” Rogers said. “I had my best years playing for him.”

In 1997, Fangio was a finalist for the head-coaching job in San Diego, which went to Kevin Gilbride. Washington asked to interview him in the most recent offseason – he was one of 11 candidates it considered – but the team hired Jay Gruden 10 days before the 49ers’ season ended, and Fangio never had a chance to interview.

His backers, including Rogers and Mora, can’t see how he can be left off any team’s list after what he’s accomplished this season, even if he’s not waving his arms about it.

“If a general manager and owner, if they really knew what the hell they were doing, they would know this about Vic, they would look at the 49ers’ defenses and what he’s accomplished under the circumstances,” Mora said. “They would see that about the guy.

“That’s what bugs me about these people that are hiring head football coaches. I mean, go find someone who’s done something and has been productive.”

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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