January 31, 1995 in Sports

If He Needed To, Seifert Shows He’s His Own Man

Bill Lyon Philadelphia Inquirer
 

After the Philadelphia Eagles had taken apart the 49ers 40-8 on Oct. 2, one of those attack-dog radio call-in shows polled its San Francisco listeners. In that irrational mind-set so typical of the modern jackal pack, 85 percent snarled the head coach should go.

And this was George Seifert’s response: “I’d like to thank the 15 percent who voted for me.”

He is a droll man with a wry, dry appreciation of the absurd. Monday, the coach the pit bulls wanted fired only four months ago was answering questions about what exactly constitutes a dynasty, which is what the 49ers have come to resemble.

As always, his answers were measured, thoughtful, well-spoken, and hardly ever delivered with any detectable edge. Seifert appears to be as tightly knotted as his necktie. He shows neither interest in nor inclination for crowing.

Certainly, he is the least appreciated coach of his time. Just as Steve Young had to follow Joe Montana, Seifert had to follow Bill Walsh. In San Francisco, the idolaters were certain that Walsh and Montana were in charge not only of football, but of sunrise and sunset as well.

And so, just as Young emerged at last from under the solar eclipse cast by Montana, so Seifert has crept out of Walsh’s gravitational pull.

Young threw for six touchdowns Sunday night, and made it seem as though he could have thrown for six more as the 49ers confirmed their place in record books and history books, the first franchise to win five Super Bowls.

And Seifert, no longer perceived as just a caretaker, coached a team that was most assuredly his - 45 players on this squad were brought in after Walsh left, and nine new assistant coaches had been added.

“We like to think that this is an organization that is continually evolving, that perpetuates itself,” Seifert said.

There is no false bravado about him. None of the Jimmy Johnson ego, the Buddy Ryan braggadocio, the Jerry Glanville adolescence. He takes none of the credit, and only smiles when it is suggested that the best thing he does is “not screw up” an awesome collection of talent.

That is no small accomplishment, incidentally. That not screwing up. It’s been done before, coaches mishandling, misunderstanding, allowing players to drift, to lose concentration, to collapse into cliques. It’s one of the reasons why the best team doesn’t always win.

Monday, Seifert was asked if he had to compromise his values this season when the 49ers brought in free agents who did not seem to fit the razor-cut image of the Niners. Most notably Deion Sanders.

“I gave Deion the same speech I give to all new players,” Seifert said “I think I did adjust my personality to the new club. Winning made it easy. And fun.”

There is something admirable in that, that a man who just turned 55 was able to adjust. Football coaches, for the most part, are notoriously rigid. And it wasn’t as though Seifert left the key in the lock so the inmates could take over the asylum, though the 49ers did became visibly more demonstrative.

The coach may have bent some, the organization may have struck some compromises, but you get no sense that there was any sort of ethical sellout. The Niners believe that the organization is more important than the individual, and to carry out that philosophy they have the perfect coach. Seifert was an assistant for nine seasons. He has seen them come and go, and knows that none, including himself, is irreplaceable.

And he doesn’t appear the least bit uncomfortable deflecting the credit.

“These players established a standard beyond what we as coaches had,” he said.

But what of the man himself? What do we really know of George Seifert beyond that sideline facade, which is silver hair, the continuously pursed lips of a man not satisfied, and the frown of concentration of a perfectionist?

“I prefer to keep my private life just that,” he said.

He succeeds.

We do know that he is ragingly superstitious, about where he stands, how he dresses, where the team stays, about blowing three times through the hole of a Lifesaver before popping it into his mouth.

He grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco, and as a high school student in the 1950s sold programs at 49ers games so he could get in for free. He went to the University of Utah and got a degree in zoology and thought about becoming a science teacher. He is married (to Linda) with a son (Jason) and a daughter (Eve).

He coached only three seasons of college ball, none successfully. In 1975-76, at Cornell, his record was 3-15. Hardly an indication of what was to come.

What has become the quintessential George Seifert story is about his persistence. He was in the Pacific Ocean and had hooked a huge sea bass when his boat began to take on water. Seifert wouldn’t let go of the reel. The boat finally capsized. He had to swim 20 minutes to make shore. Within a week, armed with a new boat, he went back to the same spot.

And caught a big sea bass.

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