49ers coach remembers toughness, tenderness of dad

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- To his grandkids, Dick Nolan was Pop, an advice-giving, storytelling source of love and joy.

Dick Nolan's kids knew and appreciated that side of him, too. However, they also knew their dad's tough-guy side, the persona that helped him succeed as a safety for the New York Giants on the 1956 championship team and later as a division-winning head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

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Dick Nolan 1932-2007

His son Mike, who now coaches the 49ers, was focusing on his father's tenderness during a memorial service Saturday when he became overwhelmed by emotion. So, for levity, out came a reminder of the toughness.

"To his grandchildren, I'll say this: He was a lot better to you than he was to us," Mike Nolan said. "You never saw the belt."

Nolan then pulled off the belt around his waist and snapped it several times, smiling throughout his theatrics. With his five siblings standing behind him, mixing laughter with tears, Mike Nolan was glad to have loosened the mood of a ceremony that was having trouble living up to its billing as a "celebration of life."

"That wasn't planned," Nolan said. "But it sure helped me out."

Dick Nolan died last Sunday following a long bout with Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer. He was 75 and had been spent several months in an assisted-living facility near his longtime home.

About 200 people, including Dan Reeves, Lee Roy Jordan and several more former NFL players and coaches, joined Nolan's widow, Ann; their children and grandchildren for the service.

Two grandchildren wept as they spoke, one -- a college football player -- calling Pop his best friend, another saying how happy she was to have recently come across a picture of the two of them dancing.

"There's no question Dad loved football, partly because of the game but mostly because of the relationships," Mike Nolan said. "I never saw my father rude or unappreciative in all my life. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was always willing to lend a helping hand or a word of encouragement."

Dick Nolan won a national championship in college at Maryland, then joined the Giants, where he was teammates with Tom Landry on their title team. Nolan ended his playing career for Landry on the 1962 Dallas Cowboys, then broke into coaching on his staff.

Nolan's first head coaching job was in San Francisco, where he lifted the 49ers from years of mediocrity to three straight division titles. They fell a game shy of the Super Bowl twice, losing to Landry and the Cowboys both times. Nolan later was head coach of the New Orleans Saints, then rejoined Landry's staff. His final season was 1990, having worked his final two years under Jimmy Johnson.

Football was almost a side note during Saturday's service. Speakers remembered him mostly as a loyal husband, father and friend.

"Dick did strive to be happy. He was himself. He loved much and is being loved much," the Rev. Anh Tran said after reading the poem "Desiderata."

Mike Nolan was picked by his siblings to deliver the eulogy. He opened by asking everyone to think of their own moment with his father worth celebrating.

Minutes later, sensing the mood turning somber again, Nolan said, "I'm going to look over your heads, there are too many sad faces. C'mon, help me out here."

He said his father loved telling football stories -- "And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of them" -- but his life went beyond the game.

"He was a great role model for each one of us, how to work, play or love," Nolan said.

Nolan spoke of Alzheimer's robbing his father's memory, but that he would "always light up when (his grandkids) were in the room." He said his mother recently had asked whether her husband still remembered her.

"No," Dick Nolan told his wife. "But wherever you go, I'm going to go with you."

Mike Nolan choked up before telling that story, again snapping the belt to try helping compose himself.

He finished with this message: "We'll remember the good times and what we learned from you in the tough times. We love you."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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