Time not on 49ers coach's side

Nolan enters his fourth season on hot seat, with Martz in wings

September 1, 2008 

Chargers 49ers Football

San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan shouts from the sidelines in the third quarter of their preseason NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)


SANTA CLARA -- New Year's Day for Mike Nolan ended with a half dozen reporters surrounding his car and the light from a television camera illuminating the nattily dressed coach and his wife, Kathy, inside.

Nolan was exiting team headquarters following the second day of a marathon interview with 49ers owners John and Jed York. The next day John York would reveal Nolan's fate: The coach would be retained for another year, but following his third consecutive losing season Nolan would loose his power over personnel decisions.

The Paparazzi-like image from the night before is an appropriate one for 2008. Heading into his fourth season, Nolan has exhausted the good will he had when he was hired three and a half years ago. His every move will be scrutinized, his every word parsed. As the new season kicks off, Nolan is the hunted.

The coach's response: Bring it on.

"Conflict does not bother me a lick," he says. "I like conflict."

Indeed, it's the very thing that makes him tick. Nolan's philosophy is that a person's best emerges when he is under duress, and that survival-of-the-fittest mentality pervades his 49ers.

It explains the team's drawn-out quarterback competition this offseason. And it explains Nolan's most dramatic offseason move, hiring Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The former Rams head coach obviously was brought in to work his wizardry on a 49ers offense that ranked dead last in the league last season. But Nolan insists he was also attracted to Martz for the very reason many observers thought he would be an awkward fit in San Francisco -- because Martz is a big personality who exudes authority.

"This is not a 'Bash Jim' thing," Nolan said of outgoing coordinator Jim Hostler. "But Jim was just not ready. And that was a poor decision on my part. ... Last year with the offense was really tough. It was tough on everybody. And I think I knew exactly what was needed. And I wanted to find that. And I think Mike is what we needed."

Those who attended the press conference Jan. 2 noted that Nolan looked nothing like a man who had nearly lost his job. He was animated and cocksure, and he dominated the room that day even though the man who had just been given Nolan's former authority, newly minted general manager Scot McCloughan, was standing a few a feet away.

But there is also evidence of humility from the man whom frustrated 49ers fans derisively call "Coach Suit." Gone this season is the large "Win the West" banner in front of the team's locker room, a symbol of Nolan's bravado but one that began to look absurd after three losing seasons.

These days, he preaches a modest "one game at a time" approach. He also allowed Martz to steer the crucial quarterback competition this summer, a notable concession for a man who has held a tight grip over every facet of the 49ers since 2005.

"I know Mike. I've known him for about 10 years," Nolan said. "And ego doesn't scare me. I'm not intimidated by good players or good coaches. As a matter of fact, I want them on my team. I would hope in the long haul -- not just this year but down the road -- that Mike and I have a very good working relationship."

But while obeying the laws of Darwinism, Nolan also is running into the law of unintended consequences.

The idea behind the months-long quarterback battle was that a head-to-head competition between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill would accelerate their learning curve in Martz's challenging new offense and squeeze the best performance from both men.

In the end, Hill and Smith were beaten by a third candidate, J.T. O'Sullivan, who will be the team's starting quarterback Sunday.

There's also a sense that the decision to hire Martz might hurt Nolan no matter what occurs this season. If the 49ers have another losing season, Nolan likely wouldn't be back for a fifth try. But if the 49ers win, Martz, who has made no secret of his desire to be a head coach again, is sure to get a lot of the credit.

Would a team that has had six different offensive coordinators in as many seasons allow the seventh to depart? Will Nolan end up competing for his job with the man he brought in to save his job? Nolan shakes his head at that kind of speculation. He won't entertain the notion, and besides, it flies against his new slogan of taking things one Sunday at a time.

After a pause, he settles for this: "I'd like for us to do well. I like Mike. All of us have goals. We'll deal with that when we get there."

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