Dick Nolan passed on patience, preparation, family love to son Mike

SEATTLE -- At countless moments during his first three seasons running the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Nolan has wondered what his father would do.

Whether facing a player's defiance, a personnel quandary or even a down-and-distance dilemma, part of this veteran NFL coach still craves advice from Dick Nolan, who had the same job his son now holds for eight seasons -- through 54 wins, 53 losses and a cultural revolution in San Francisco.

Yet even before the father died Sunday, the son couldn't ask. Alzheimer's disease took Dick Nolan away from his family many months before his death. The father who beamed with pride when his son got both men's dream job in January 2005 rarely emerged in recent months.

"They say with (Alzheimer's), you die twice," Nolan said recently. "That's true."

Dick Nolan, a hard-hitting NFL safety before getting into coaching, left a bigger legacy than his six children and a long list of loyal teammates and grateful players.

He left his kids with a few firm ways of looking at life and coaching -- lessons his third child still values dearly. Though Mike Nolan can't ask, he still has an idea what his father would do in most situations, based on four decades of watching the man he grew up hoping to emulate.

"I know his father was a big influence in his life, in the way he looks at things," 49ers owner John York said recently. "I've always admired that about Mike."

The son clearly figured his father would approve when he decided to coach the 49ers against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night. As Nolan stood on the Qwest Field sideline before the game, he received good wishes from dozens of players and coaches on both teams.

Mike Nolan first figured out his father was more than just his father when he was a 9-year-old ballboy sitting wide-eyed in the 49ers' team meetings.

As everyone from Dan Reeves to John Brodie could attest, Dick Nolan handled most everything in his coaching career and his real life with inexhaustible amounts of patience and hard work -- two traits he shared with longtime friend and colleague, Tom Landry.

"He was as tough as any man I've ever known when it comes to effort expended," said Brodie, the 49ers' best player before Bill Walsh and Joe Montana transformed the franchise in the 1980s. "You could measure success by time invested in getting a job done, Dick would be at the top of the list. He drove himself relentlessly."

Yet Dick Nolan's six kids never doubted his love for their mother, Ann. The couple doted on each other and their six children, who all knew every job was temporary and every home an impermanent resting place.

That's why Nolan usually catches a morning ride with his wife, Kathy, from their home in Saratoga, Calif., to the 49ers' training complex in Santa Clara. They discuss their days and their four children, but mostly enjoy each other's company - a rarity in the lifestyle they've chosen.

"Coaching is temporary, but family is forever," Nolan said.

Most 49ers fans know Mike Nolan wears suits and ties on game day for reasons other than vanity. His father came up in the time of Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and their peers whose dignified dress often matched the fans, and whose authority was obvious in an American era when authority figures were dwindling in popularity.

When the summer of '69 hit San Francisco as the exclamation point on a period of remarkable cultural upheaval, Dick Nolan was the authority figure in charge of the city's team in the nation's most militaristic sport. The 49ers played their home games just a few blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and the cultural dissonance could have been overwhelming.

Not only did Dick Nolan handle it, but he built a contender. The 49ers reached the playoffs three straight times from 1970-72, winning two games and reaching the NFC title game twice -- but losing all three seasons to Landry's Dallas Cowboys.

Though his own head coaching career finally fizzled in San Francisco and New Orleans, Dick Nolan happily returned to a job as Landry's assistant in the 1980s. A decade after he retired, the father still was strong enough to enjoy it when Mike Nolan was hired to take over the 49ers after wowing York in a series of interviews with the straightforward style he inherited.

"He understands players and can handle situations on the field," Dick Nolan said then, his voice only slightly halted by the early stages of his condition. "He can handle players and can help them with any problems that they have, on or off the field. He knows his stuff and is very organized."

In his first game on the 49ers' sideline, Mike Nolan wore the championship ring won by his father in 1956 as a defensive back for the New York Giants. With the ring facedown and cupped in his palm for most of the day, Nolan's 49ers upset the Rams 28-25.

And a few months earlier, while Mike settled into his new job, he exchanged roles with his father. Just as Mike once was a wide-eyed kid glued to the 49ers' practices, Dick watched San Francisco's first minicamp of his son's tenure from the balcony off his son's new office.

"He told me a few things that went well, and a few things we needed to work on," Mike Nolan said with a smile.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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