Dick Nolan passed on quite a legacy 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."

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.

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.