Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 10: George Seifert & Coaching His Boyhood Team
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Most young football fans hope to one day play for their hometown team, but rarely dream of leading said team to glory as the head coach. San Francisco native George Seifert had the pleasure of doing the latter with the 49ers, and on top of that, he had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Bill Walsh.
George Seifert is a son of San Francisco. Born in the city in 1940, Seifert attended Polytechnic High School, at 710 Frederick Street (it has since closed, though a few of the buildings remain), across from the Niners’ then-home at Kezar Stadium, and he regularly attended 49ers games, frequently serving as an usher, thanks to a coach who had connections. He then attended the University of Utah, where he majored in zoology and played football on both sides of the line of scrimmage – offensive guard and linebacker. “I wasn’t a great player, by any means,” he humbly recalled in 1989. “I was in good shape. I guess that’s how I’d describe myself.”
Humble beginnings as a college coach
Upon completing his studies, he latched on as a graduate assistant with the Utes’ coaching staff for a season before taking his first head post at tiny Westminster College, a Protestant school in eastern Salt Lake City. Under the young coach’s tutelage, the Parsons (they would be renamed the Griffins in the late 1970s) went 3-3. He paid more dues as an assistant at three big-time programs, Iowa, Oregon, and Stanford, serving as the defensive backs coach at the latter two stops. Working for former 49ers coach Jack Christiansen at Stanford, Seifert transformed their DBs into the Pac-8 conference’s best in 1972 and 1973, mentoring future NFL players such as Randy Poltl, and Dennis Bragonier.
Then the Ivy League came calling. Seifert accepted Cornell University’s offer of their head coaching job.
It was a disaster.
The Big Red went 3-15 over Seifert’s two seasons in Ithaca, including an unsightly 1-8 mark in 1975. Athletic director Dick Schultz fired him after the 1976 season. “I remember thinking that he really got screwed,” recalled John Curran, a free safety under Seifert, to Sports Illustrated in 1990. Seifert had inherited his predecessor’s roster, which Curran described as “subpar even for the Ivies.”
“The trouble was [Seifert] didn’t know much about the Ivy League,” said Jim Hofher, who played quarterback under Seifert and later served as Cornell’s head coach for seven years. “There are no scholarships in the Ivies.” Prospective student-athletes typically came only from privileged families, thus reducing the available talent pool. Besides the cost of tuition, the elevated academic qualifications and demands of the Ivy League schools often meant that the most talented athletes in the country rarely, if ever, sought admission to any of their schools. In terms of football talent, the Ivy League sits solidly behind the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC – the so-called “Power 5” conferences – as well as some of the mid-major conferences. Even though Yale’s 18 football titles are the most all-time, no Ivy League team since the Bulldogs’ 1927 team can claim a title, and that was one which was retroactively awarded by the College Football Researcher’s Association in 2015. No Ivy has won outright since Cornell’s 1915 squad.
After his dismissal from Cornell, Seifert returned to Stanford, where he tutored the Cardinals’ (the pluralizing s was dropped in November 1981) defensive backs under their new head coach, a bright young ex-NFL offensive coordinator named Bill Walsh, age forty-six. In 1979, Walsh, who long sought an NFL head-coaching job, accepted an offer to run the 49ers. The following year, he lured Seifert thirty miles up Highway 101 to be the 49ers’ defensive backs coach.
Making his mark in the pros
Seifert served in that role through the 1982 campaign, then Walsh promoted him to defensive coordinator. For the next six seasons thereafter, Seifert’s squads finished in the top ten in fewest points allowed. The 49ers’ 1987 defense ranked number one overall, the first time in NFL history that the Niners led the league in fewest total yards allowed. Walsh’s marvelous offensive mind and Seifert’s underrated defensive acumen collaborated to propel the 49ers into the Team of the Eighties.
But as the Eighties ambled into its latter stages, change was fast approaching in San Francisco. As brilliant as Walsh was, his commitment to perfection consumed him, and by the 1988 season, the strain and the stress of coaching was beginning to wear on him. He endured “emotional breakdowns” in meetings with team president Carmen Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo. The 49ers had gone 10-6 that year, modest, by their standards, but still good enough to win the NFC West.Each defeat gnawed at Walsh. “There were times when we lost a game and he might not come out of his shell and start working on the next game plan until Thursday,” Seifert recalled in a 2019 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was that emotional. I don’t exclude myself from being bothered by the fact that we lost a ballgame. But Bill was as much in the tank as anybody I’ve ever seen when we’d lose a game.” After a Week 11 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders, a distraught Walsh turned over all play-calling responsibilities to assistants Dennis Green and Mike Holmgren for the rest of the season.
“I was a tortured person,” Walsh wrote in his post-retirement book, Finding the Winning Edge. “I felt the failure so personally. ... Eventually I couldn’t get out from under it all. You can’t live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times.”
By the conclusion of Super Bowl XXIII, a narrow triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals that required a last-minute Joe Montana-to-John Taylor touchdown pass to secure victory, the nervous system let Walsh know that it felt attacked enough. On January 26, 1989, he announced that he would be stepping down, and Seifert was eventually named his successor. The kid who was born in San Francisco, grew up in the Mission District, and attended games at Kezar was now in charge of the San Francisco 49ers.
“A positive move”
George Seifert and Bill Walsh were polar opposites. They shared the same avuncular features: both men were wiry, silver-haired, professorial types. But Walsh made his bones designing offenses and Seifert worked his way up as a master of defenses. While Bill let things eat at him psychologically, George maintained a preternatural calm. “During the season, you just get in the flow of life,”Seifert said after he was hired. “There’s no escape from it. There are times [when] you get tired, but that’s anybody.”
The 49ers’ front office was rumored to have looked outside the organization for candidates, but they ultimately decided to promote from within. The players are the key constituency whose imprimatur is valued, and they weren’t shy about voicing their approval.
Running back Roger Craig: “I think George will do an excellent job, because he’s been searching for a head coaching job for some time, and what better place [than with the 49ers] to start his head coaching career? He knows the chemistry of how we work together.
“He makes things happen on defense,” Craig continued. “[People]talk about our offense, but our defense has really been the key in being quick-hitting and swarming to the ball. And George makes sure the team is prepared.”
Craig’s backup, Harry Sydney, echoed is teammate’s thoughts: “Bill is the offensive genius. George is the defensive genius. He puts people in the right place.”
Hiring Seifert was “a positive move,” said defensive back Tom Holmoe,“because it keeps our continuity. I think he’s deserving of it. You think of who else[could have been hired] and a lot of names pop up, but none as deserving as him.”
Seifert was actually close to signing on with the Cleveland Browns, who were suddenly on the search with the abrupt resignation of Marty Schottenheimer. But when the 49ers made their offer, he wasn’t going to refuse. Seifert would be taking over a roster that was long on talent and had just won a Super Bowl. Now ensconced in a comfortable, undemanding front-office job,Bill Walsh would always be a quick phone call away if ever George felt overwhelmed. This was a favorable situation that no other National Football League team could match.
There was, however, one fly in the ointment. Replacing a legend is never easy, and for the next few seasons Seifert would have to endure running an entire NFL roster and coaching staff with a Walsh-shaped shadow seemingly looming over him. When the 49ers followed up their Super Bowl XXIII-winning season by going 14-2 and trouncing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, Seifert became the first rookie head coach to win the game’s ultimate prize since Don McCafferty’s Baltimore Colts squeaked by the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl Von January 17, 1971. But yet, all anyone could talk about was how he did it with Bill Walsh’s players and Bill Walsh’s assistants.
Fair enough. However, repeating as Super Bowl champions is never easy for any team, something that Walsh himself admitted after stepping down.
“First,” Bill said, “you have to have everything go right for you during the year. Players have to have their best years, and you have to escape key injuries. That isn’t likely to happen two years in a row.”
In addition, said Walsh, “Everybody is pointing for you. They want to play their best against the Super Bowl champions, so you never have an easy game.”
Finally, “…your season is extended five weeks. That’s hard enough physically, but it also drains you emotionally. It’s very hard to bounce back and be at the top of your game again by next season.”
And in 1989 Seifert, to his immense credit, worked through all those obstacles. The roster stayed healthy for the most part; both Joe Montana and Steve Young dealt with minor injuries, but nothing that would invalidate them long-term, while a few others missed only a game or two. The 49ers played in some tough games, especially early on, such as a six-point victory over a mediocre Indianapolis Colts team in the curtain-raiser, followed by a narrow four-point victory over a bad Buccaneers team; then, two weeks later, a one-point home loss to the rival Los Angeles Rams, who at least had playoff aspirations of their own. The following week, the Niners had to overcome a 17-3 third-quarter deficit to vault over the Saints in New Orleans, 24-20. Finally, the 49ers had little difficulty in handling the extra weeks required for the postseason, crushing the Minnesota Vikings 41-13 and the Rams 30-3 before their Super Bowl snuffing of the Broncos. The 49ers became the first NFL team in a decade to repeat, matching the feat accomplished by the late-1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. Seifert was named Coach of the Year by several publications, including Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Weekly, and Football Digest.
The term originated with the late-Eighties Los Angeles Lakers, who had won back-to-back National Basketball Association titles before failing in their quest for a third during the 1988-89 season, falling swiftly to the Detroit Pistons in four games. The phrase gained traction in the Bay Area in 1990. The 49ers matched the previous year’s output by once again going 14-2 while, not surprisingly, boasting one of the best defenses in the NFL. Bill McPherson, promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator when Seifert replaced Walsh, proved to be every bit the commander that his boss and predecessor was. San Francisco allowed just 239 points, an average of 15 per game, and even that was somewhat negatively skewed thanks to a 45-35 shootout victory in Atlanta in Week 5 and a 28-17 home loss to the Rams – the Niners’ first loss – a game in which Los Angeles scored three touchdowns in the first half and were largely hushed in the second.
The 49ers faced the Washington Redskins in the divisional round, and after allowing a touchdown and a field goal in the first quarter, proceeded to shut them out the rest of the way, winning 28-10. All that stood in the way between San Francisco and a shot at the coveted three-peat was the NFC title game against the New York Giants.
It was a low-scoring affair, as the teams trudged into their locker rooms at halftime with a 6-6 tie. A Montana-to-Taylor 61-yard touchdown connection in the third quarter injected some life into the Niners’ sideline: they had the lead and some breathing room. But then the offense sputtered, thanks to an inert running game, and the Giants’ Matt Bahr brought New York to within onepoint by nailing field goals of 46 and 38 yards. Then, needing to run out the clock to secure the narrow victory, Niners running back Roger Craig fumbled, the Giants recovered the ball, and Bahr clobbered a 42-yarder to win the game.
There would be no three-peat.
There would be, however, more recognition for George Seifert, as the Sporting News, The National, and the Washington Touchdown Club all bestowed Coach of the Year honors upon him.
Success on his own terms
The 1991 season was a transitional year for Seifert and the 49ers, as Montana missed the entire year with an elbow injury and Young took over the starting quarterback duties, as it turned out, for good. San Francisco finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs for the first time since the strike-shortened 1982 season, but they returned to postseason action in 1992 and 1993, posting 14-2 and 10-6 records and falling to the Cowboys in the NFC title game in both years. The defense, while good enough to help lift the team to playoff contenders, simply could not keep up with the Cowboys’lethal, multi-pronged attack.
So, Seifert decided it was time to do something about it.
In the months leading into the 1994 campaign, Seifert and the 49ers lured a Who’s Who of proven defensive talent to San Francisco: Ken Norton Jr., Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, and Toi Cook. But the splashy move came later when Deion Sanders, a free agent and one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, agreed to a one-year deal to lock down the boundary opposite Eric Davis. The move also allowed Merton Hanks to move back to his natural safety position, where he would thrive in 1994. The San Francisco defense, now in the care of Ray Rhodes (McPherson was promoted to an assistant head coach role with no coordinator duties), allowed the eighth-fewest total yards, the third-fewest passing touchdowns, and recorded the sixth-most takeaways. The offense, presided over by Mike Shanahan, sputtered early due to injuries along the offensive line, but once that group was settled, Young, Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters, and company were practically unstoppable. The 49ers went 13-3 (two of the losses were in the first five games, including one to old friend Montana and the Chiefs), and ransacked the Chicago Bears in the divisional round of the playoffs. That set up a re-re-rematch with the Cowboys in the conference title game, and when Davis ran back an interception for a touchdown on Dallas’s first possession, it signaled once and for all that this game would be different from their previous two playoff tilts. The 49ers dispatched the Cowboys 38-28, then trekked to Miami and dismantled the poor San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, 49-26. The triumph was a coming-out party for Young, who completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and a Super Bowl-record six touchdowns, finally escaping Montana’s shadow in the process.
And just as important, it was the first Super Bowl victory that Seifert presided over with a roster that was constructed largely at his behest. No one could accuse him of winning Super Bowl XXIX with Bill Walsh’s guys.
“You don’t stay a head coach for infinity”
Heavily sought-after following the Super Bowl victory, both offensive coordinator Shanahan and defensive coordinator Rhodes departed San Francisco to take head coaching jobs in Denver and Philadelphia, respectively. As a result, George Seifert had to work with new top-level assistants in 1995. Marc Trestman, who had been out of coaching for three years, was hired to replace Shanahan. To take over the defensive side, Seifert tabbed fellow S.F. native and former Jets head coach Pete Carroll. The Niners didn’t fare quite as well in 1995 as they did the year before, but still won 11 games and the division, then in the first round to the Packers. In 1996, San Francisco finished 12-4 and got a Wild Card berth (they tied with the Carolina Panthers, who held the tiebreaker over the Niners by virtue of their 23-7 win in Week 4). The Niners shut out Rhodes’s Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0, then fell to the Packers once again.
In eight years as the 49ers’ head coach, George Seifert compiled a record of 108-35, including the postseason. His .755 winning percentage was the best in NFL history at the time. He had won six Western Division titles and two Super Bowls. He still had a year remaining on his contract.
Seifert hoped for an extension. But team president Carmen Policy had other ideas.
Policy had become infatuated with Steve Mariucci, who for four seasons had been the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, where he mentored and developed their fire-balling signal-caller, Brett Favre. In 1996, Mariucci took a job as the head coach at Cal, leading the Golden Bears to a 6-6 record, merely good enough for a bid in the Alamo Bowl, where they lost to Navy. Still, Policy had been impressed with “Mooch,” who despite being just forty-one years old had amassed quite a résumé across various levels of football: lower-level college teams, major-conference college teams, the long-defunct USFL, and the NFL. Mariucci was personable, affable, and a superb motivator, and most important, he was well-versed in the 49ers’ West Coast offense, having learned its tricks and wiles from Mike Holmgren, now the Packers head coach, who called plays for both Walsh and Seifert during his stint in San Francisco from 1989 to 1991. Policy wanted Seifert to serve out the final year of his contract with Mariucci as his understudy, then elevate Mooch to the head position in 1998 after George’s contract expired.
The idea didn’t sit well with Seifert. After being denied the extension, he began to consider getting outof football altogether. That was made evident when he was asked about the future of the assistant coaches just days after the loss to Green Bay. “Hey, I might not even be here,” he blurted. In George’s mind, it was better to leave on his own accord than to play out the string as a lame-duck coach.
Still, it surprised Policy, owner Eddie DeBartolo, and just about everyone else when, on Wednesday, January 15, 1997, Seifert announced his resignation in a press conference at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. “There’s a sense that the time is right,”the now-ex-coach said. “There’s a clock we all have.” He added: “It’s time for some new blood. I’m not saying my blood is stagnant, but I’m saying let’s just pass this on to someone else. There’s a natural process to this thing. You don’t stay a head coach for infinity.”
Nobody was more taken aback than the players.
Bryant Young: “There was no hint that this was coming at all. I have no idea what’s going on here.”
J.J. Stokes:“Somebody told me, and my mouth fell open. The only thing I know about Mariucci is that he tried to recruit me to go to Cal when I came out of high school.”
Tyrone Drakeford:“I knew some changes were going to be made, but George resigning never entered my mind. He talks about the pressure on him, but this is a total surprise.” He added, “From what I understand, Seifert is always under pressure to win the Super Bowl. It keeps mounting each year he doesn’t win it. That’s part of the business. You take it as it comes.”
Steve Wallace: “It’s a cold day in January. I’m left speechless. I don’t know the reason. He’s a great coach, a class person. It’s a sad day for a lot of 49ers fans.”
“I don’t know if Seifert ever won the fans over,” wrote Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, referring to a fan poll conducted in early 1994 that suggested that only 15 percent supported the “offbeat” Seifert as coach,“but there isn’t any question he was a media favorite. Seifert may have never been slick or glib, but he steadfastly refused to put on airs.”
“Bill Walsh never had to deal with the personalities George has,” said veteran offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu. It was certainly true that player personalities had changed over the course of Seifert’s tenure as 49er head coach, and perhaps that also played a part in his desire to step down. Although he proved to be much more open-minded about shepherding boisterous personalities, such as Deion Sanders, than did Walsh, he initially had to be talked into it. “When Deion Sanders and William Floyd came to the team at the same time and demanded a loosening up of Seifert’s tight-collared 49er atmosphere,” wrote Scott Ostler of the Chronicle,“ Seifert gritted his teeth but backed off, and the team responded.”
And now, he was no longer the 49ers’ head coach, a victim of the pressure to win championships, a casualty of the changing times, and having fallen prey to a team executive who was, frankly, ready to see him depart. Like Seifert did when replacing Walsh, Steve Mariucci would have some big shoes to fill.
Postscript: After two years out of football, Seifert returned to helm the Carolina Panthers, an expansion team in only its fifth year of existence. After three seasons, during which he went 16-32 (including an awful 1-15 showing in 2001), Seifert was fired. He never coached again. On November 16, 2021, Seifert was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame, alongside Olympic gold-medal swimmer Summer Sanders,football player James Jones, and San Jose Mercury News sportswriter Mark Purdy.
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