• Steve Bowles

Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 14: The Dapper Nolans


Image Credit: Newsom

 



Dick and Mike Nolan weren’t just one of the few father-son combos in history to serve as head coaches of an NFL team. They were also known for their sartorial splendor and reverence for those who came before.

January 19, 1968: If the Age of Aquarius was to bestow upon the citizens of the City by the Bay some watchable football for a gosh-darned change, then Richard Charles Nolan was going to be the man in charge.


Dick Nolan was born on March 26, 1932, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a part of the country that would later become known as the “cradle of quarterbacks” thanks to its birthing of Hall-of-Fame signal callers such as Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino. Nolan himself had played the position as a prep at White Plains High School in New York, before converting to running back and safety at the University of Maryland, with whom he won the 1953 national title. He went on to a nine-year career as a ferocious NFL safety that included two separate stints with the New York Giants, plus one-year spells with the Chicago Cardinals and the expansion Dallas Cowboys. That season in Dallas, 1962, was his final one as a player. He sustained a serious shoulder injury late in the year, ending his season and his career. He became Tom Landry’s defensive coordinator, a position he would hold through the 1967 season. Although the Cowboys were a feckless, fetid mess for much of that time, Nolan’s defenses ranked solidly in the middle of the pack. Then, in 1966 it all came together for Landry’s men, as Dallas won its division with a 10-3-1 mark, while boasting a defense that allowed the second fewest yards and the fourth fewest points. The 1967 Cowboys repeated their division-winning success, and though they allowed more points and yards than in ’66, it was still among the league’s better defenses. It was enough to pique the interest of a struggling team out on the West Coast.


 

The San Francisco 49ers under Jack Christiansen were bad.


A former safety and punt returner for the Detroit Lions, Christiansen, hired in 1959 to be a Niners assistant coach, had snatched the reins from Red Hickey in 1963 after an 0-3 start prompted Hickey to resign. The 49ers under Christiansen went 2-9 the rest of the way, but one of those wins was a 20-14 victory over the eventual NFL champion Chicago Bears, the only game Chicago would lose all year. It was enough to convince owners Tony and Vic Morabito to keep Christiansen around, but success would prove elusive. The 49ers went 4-10, 7-6-1, 6-6-2, and 7-7, finishing no higher than third place in the four-team Western Division, and posted a negative point differential in all but one of those four full seasons. The 1967 season was the most frustrating, as San Francisco jumped out to a 5-1 record before proceeding to vomit all over themselves the rest of the way. Christiansen was fired on December 20, becoming the first head coach to get the boot since Red Strader in 1955.


A change was needed. The Niners had an outstanding quarterback at the helm, John Brodie, and they were wasting his prime.


So, the Morabitos tabbed Dick Nolan to take over the program. It was an unheralded move; news of the hiring received a short, two paragraph story tucked into the side of Page 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle two days after the hiring, below a Peanuts comic strip and a story about the San Mateo Bridge being sold for $57.50, and next to a tale of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s beloved Siamese cat being found, “hungry but unharmed,” after six days trapped in the cathedral’s crypt.


From the outset, it wasn’t a sure thing that Brodie would be around long. “At the present, I’m not thinking of trading him,” Nolan said. The plan was for Brodie to compete with George Mira for the starting job. Brodie not only won the competition with Mira, but he would remain the team’s QB for the next several seasons.

 

At first glance, it didn’t seem as if the Nolan 49ers would be much better than the Christiansen 49ers, but there were subtle hints at an upward trend. Their 7-6-1, third-place finish in 1968 didn’t seem much of an improvement over Christiansen’s final year, but the Niners actually scored more points and allowed fewer points than they did in ’67.


However, the 1969 season was a clunker, as the Niners went 4-8 with a pair of ties. It was supposed to be the final season in old Kezar Stadium, the old bowl perched in the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park and next to the Haight-Ashbury district. The Haight, too, had seen better days. The Summer of Love was only two years in the rear view, but the neighborhood had rapidly deteriorated into a cesspool of speed freaks, rapists, robbers, and boarded-up windows. The confines of Kezar Stadium were no more hospitable, as it was known around the NFL as the premier place to have a glass bottle or two flung at your head as you exited the field. However, the expansion of Candlestick Park would not be complete in time for the 49ers to begin playing there in 1970, so they were locked into Kezar for one more season.


And what a season it was. Buoyed by a remarkable defense that featured the likes of Cedrick Hardman, Skip Vanderbundt, and Dave Wilcox – all drafted under Nolan’s watch – the 1970 squad finished with a 10-3-1 record, and Brodie, now age thirty-five, had one of his best performances, completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards and 24 touchdowns. The final game at Kezar was a 24-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. The security guards wore helmets. A fan named Wayne Tarr held a sign that read, “GOODBYE SEAGULL PEN – HELLO CANDLESTINK.” The 49ers fell behind early 13-0 and were down 20-7 as late as the third quarter before mounting a comeback, scoring 17 unanswered points. “Our players showed guts and character,” Nolan said. San Francisco went on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round – the team’s first postseason victory since 1949, when they were in the old All-America Football Conference – only to lose in the next round to Nolan’s old team, the Dallas Cowboys. But the blueprint had been established.

“Dick was a defensive strategist,” Wilcox said years later. “He changed the attitude of the 49ers from what had been going on there for a while. It was a lot more detailed than what we had done prior to him coming to the team.”


What ensued was simultaneously a successful and frustrating era for the San Francisco 49ers. In 1971, now ensconced in Candlestick Park, the Niners once again won the division, only to lose in the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys. In 1972, the Niners once again won the division, only to – guess what? – lose in the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys, this time on a last-minute touchdown pass by backup quarterback Roger Staubach, who had replaced starter Craig Morton earlier in the game, as the Cowboys overcame a 28-13 deficit. Still resplendent in his trademark sideline suit, Nolan could do no more than trudge somberly off the field while his former team celebrated on the Candlestick Park Astroturf. Inside his office, he sat slumped in his chair, unable to move. His thrice-vanquished men sprawled out in every corner of the locker room, eyes down, muscles barking. Rugged tight end Ted Kwalick was smoking a cigarette in the training room underneath a sign that said, “No smoking in training room.” Finally, the press pack gingerly ventured into the coach’s office. Nolan was never one to dole out profound quotes to the Fourth Estate, and he was certainly not in the mood to do so after yet another playoff loss. Had something like this ever happened before? “No,” he said quietly, his head still down. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.” Did the Niners get too conservative with the lead late in the game? “I didn’t think so,” he answered, before adding, “[i]t was just situations that went wrong at the finish, like on that last series of ours when a holding penalty took us out of field goal range.


“At the end,” he said opening up a bit, “we were playing prevent defense. But when they get inside the 30 [yard line], you have to go man-for-man.” It was that “man” coverage that led to the Dallas game-winning touchdown.

 

After those back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances, the 49ers fell back to earth, posting identical 5-9 records in 1973 and 1975, sandwiched around a 6-8 1974 campaign. Through it all, Dick Nolan was a pillar of strength and influence, whose dapper outfits and dark hair made him stand out on the sidelines. Despite the authoritative appearance, he was a calming, studious presence in the locker room who was popular with players, coaches, assistants, and management alike. “He scared me out of my pants once at halftime when he gave us a loud lecture,” one unnamed player said.


But fans don’t care what you look like, or how serene you are, as long as the team performs, and as the losses piled up over that three-year period, the Faithful began to turn on him, hissing, booing, and demanding his removal. The Niners finally fired him on December 26, 1975, a decision made under fan-applied duress by team president Lou Spadia that he characterized as “with extreme regret.” The dismissal caught Nolan by surprise.


“Some things about the firing surprised me,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle the following day. Asked if the thought the need to boost season ticket sales was behind the decision, he replied, “The season sales are a lot better than when I came here … but I’m only replying to a comment on your side. I have nothing to say about the firing itself. I’m a football coach and I know this happens.”


“That was the toughest time, but that’s the life of a coach,” said his son, Mike. “My dad never took it personally, and he didn’t take it personally when it happened again in New Orleans.” The Crescent City would be Dick Nolan’s next stop, three years after his San Francisco tenure ended.

Mike Nolan would carve out quite a coaching career in the in his own right, one that is still going on as of this writing. Like his father, he played safety in college, but at the University of Oregon. Overlooked by every NFL team, he remained in Eugene as a graduate assistant coach, then was a position coach at Stanford, Rice and Louisiana State. He got his first NFL gig in 1987 as the Denver Broncos’ special-teams coach and drifted from team to team over the next seventeen years serving as a position coach and defensive coordinator, building up a reputation as a solid mind on the defensive side of the ball.


Image Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Kat Wade

January 19, 2005: Exactly thirty-seven years to the day after the 49ers hired his father, Mike Nolan was announced as the team’s fifteenth head coach in its history. Like his pops, Mike would be replacing someone who had a rough go of it; in this case, Dennis Erickson, who went 9-23 over a two-year stint that would be forgettable if it weren’t so comically inept. It was a bittersweet time for Mike, as he was becoming an NFL head coach for the first time while Dick, now seventy-three, was in declining health, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It was around this time that he came up with the idea of wearing a suit on the sidelines, not only as a tribute to his debonair father, but as a tribute to all the other suit-wearing head coaches from Dick’s era, such as Vince Lombardi, Weeb Eubank, and Tom Landry.


There was only one problem: corporate America.


Specifically – Reebok and the NFL. The league had changed significantly since Lombardi, Landry, et al., were prowling the sidelines. Double-breasted suit jackets and ties had long since become passé, giving way to such unfussy fashion as Bum Phillips’s cowboy hat and large belt buckles, or Don Shula’s sweaters, or Bill Walsh’s logo-emblazoned half-button shirt partially obscured by a logo-emblazoned puffy jacket, or whatever the hell Bill Belichick is wearing. By the time Mike Nolan took over the reins in San Francisco, Reebok and the NFL were in a $250 million licensing agreement that mandated all players and coaches wear the apparel company’s gear on the field.


Thus began a two-year battle between the coach, the National Football League, and Reebok over sideline threads. Meetings were held. More meetings were held.


Still more meetings were held.


There were negotiations. There were more negotiations. There was likely an indefatigable volley of curse words and personal insults slicing through the air during those negotiations. Finally, in 2006, an agreement was reached.


The initial judgment?

  • Mike Nolan was free to wear a suit. But for only two games.

  • Reebok was to be the manufacturer of said suit.

And, apparently, it had to be the most God-awful design imaginable. “The black suit [Reebok] cobbled together did not exactly have Giorgio Armani worried - nor even the menswear designers at Sears or J.C. Penney,” fashion critic Richard Torregrossa harshly noted in the San Francisco Chronicle. “[E]ven [the fans] realized that the suit was more befitting a toll-booth operator than a man of Nolan’s stature and dignity.”


Ouch.


Well.


People were rightly pissed off. Here was this good and decent man who wished to honor his father and a few of his father’s peers; instead, he had Reebok sticking their corporate nose in it, while the NFL was content to aid and abet and agree to a half-assed compromise. Angry e-mails were fired off to both parties, and 49ers fans began wearing suits to games in solidarity. Eventually, the NFL and Reebok took notice, and realized that the courts of public opinion in the Bay Area and around the country were pounding the gavel too vociferously for them to ignore.

They wisely relented.


“Commissioner Goodell took a harder look at it and he supported the issue,” NFL director of corporate communications Brian McCarthy said, undoubtedly clenching his teeth to choke back a frown. “In recognition of Nolan’s desire to salute and honor his father, we expanded (the policy) to meet his request.”


Reebok hired Joseph Abboud Apparel to design and make the suit, which Nolan would be allowed to wear for all eight Niners home games in 2007. They also gifted him an entire wardrobe that included “blazers, pleated pants with cuffs, and dark suits in worsted wool and silk blends,” wrote Torregrossa. Of course, corporations being what they are, the ties had to be embroidered with logos. Tiny logos, but logos, nonetheless.

 

Mike Nolan debuted his own dapper look on September 10, 2007, a Monday Night Football affair against the Arizona Cardinals. The Niners prevailed, 20-17, when wide receiver Arnaz Battle took a handoff from quarterback Alex Smith and ran around the left side for a 1-yard touchdown run with under a half-minute to go in the fourth quarter. Overall, though, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler’s play calling “was so conservative,” wrote the Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald, “that even Pat Buchanan would have been critical.” The defense came up big when needed. Nolan was effusive in his praise of a rookie linebacker whom the Niners had selected in the first round of the draft. Patrick Willis recorded eleven tackles and was already drawing Ray Lewis mentions from his besuited head coach.


Two months later, Dick Nolan, seventy-five, succumbed to his illness at the Autumn Leaves assisted-care facility in the Dallas area, surrounded by kin. “All the family was able to see him and say goodbye, and he went peacefully,” said Nancy Bellagamba, Mike’s sister. “We were prepared for it because he had battled illness for a long time, but it’s still the shock of him passing away. My father was a good man. We all loved him, and we’ll miss him dearly.”


“Dick was a great man, a great family man, and a great coach,” said former Broncos head coach Dan Reeves, who played in Dallas when Nolan was beginning his coaching career. “It’s just a sad day.”


“I’m saddened. I thought he was a great coach,” said Larry Schrieber, a 49ers running back from 1971 through 1975. “We all respected him. He got everybody to play hard, and I think that’s the main job of a head coach.”


Mike Nolan would lead the Niners into the 2008 season, and was fired after a 2-5 start, replaced by defensive coordinator Mike Singletary. Nolan posted a record of 18-37 during his three-and-a-half years at the helm, which was marred not only by the losing, but the constant churn of offensive coordinators (four during this short time), his decision to draft Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005, and a public feud with Smith over the quarterback’s injured shoulder in 2007. Still, the early shoots of what would eventually become a Super Bowl roster under Jim Harbaugh had sprouted under Mike Nolan’s watch. After leaving the 49ers, Nolan returned to Denver to serve as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator and has been bouncing around the league ever since. He may or may not ever receive another offer to run an NFL team, but he will always be known for, among other things, bringing a brief touch of class to the game in a wonderful and poignant tribute.


 

You can follow Steve on Twitter here!


Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!


Sources

“A New Coach for Old 49ers.” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 January 1968, p. 3.


Associated Press. “Dick Nolan, 75; Coached the NFL’s 49ers and Saints.” Los Angeles Times/LATimes.com, 12 November 2007, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-nov-12-me-nolan12-story.html


Brown, Daniel and Dennis Georgatos. “Ex-49ers Coach Dick Nolan Dies.” East Bay Times/Bay Area News Group/EastBayTimes.com, 12 November 2007, https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2007/11/12/ex-49ers-coach-dick-nolan-dies/


Corona, Al. “Sad Saturday: Unbelievable 49er Loss.” San Francisco Examiner, 24 December 1972, p. 3B.


Crumpacker, John. “End Around with :22 Left Caps Drive.” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 September 2007, p. B1.


FitzGerald, Tom. “Good, Bad, But A Win.” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 2007, p. D1.


Kroichick, Ron. “Coach Established 49ers as a winner.” San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, 12 November 2007, https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Coach-established-49ers-as-a-winner-3235040.php


Maiocco, Matt. “NFL Gives Nolan Permission to Wear a Suit at All 49ers’ Home Games This Season.” Santa Rosa Press Democrat/PressDemocrat.com, 13 June 2007, https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/nfl-gives-nolan-permission-to-wear-a-suit-at-all-49ers-home-games-this-sea/


Rosebaum, Art. “It Doesn’t Hurt, Coach.” San Francisco Chronicle, 29 February 1969, p. 42.


Rosebaum, Art. “The 49ers’ Last Day at Old Kezar.” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 December 1970, p. 2.


Rosebaum, Art. “Nolan Fired – A Victim of Fans?” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 December 1975, pp. 31-32.


Torregrossa, Richard. “Nolan Scores One for the Suit.” San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, 7 September 2007, https://www.sfgate.com/49ers/article/Mike-Nolan-scores-one-for-the-suit-2522877.php


Walter, Bucky. “Melancholy Nolan Stunned.” San Francisco Examiner, 24 December 1972, p. 2B.


Wilson, Darrell. “A ‘New Look’ at 49ers Camp.” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 February 1968, p. 39.


Wilson, Darrell. “49ers’ Victorious Kezar Finale.” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 December 1970, p. 63.