Seifert Has Background for 49ers : He Avoids the Limelight That Walsh Once Enjoyed, but the Success Is the Same
Fishing, as an avocation, doesn’t fit into the ego-driven lifestyle of an ordinary football coach.
But it suits George Seifert.
In his six-month off-season, Seifert, the serene, self-effacing coach of the San Francisco 49ers, spends every other weekend on his 25-foot fishing boat, which he ties up year-round at his summer home on Bodega Bay.
He prefers to fish alone. As a man of the ‘90s, though, he makes it a point to pack a telephone in his tackle box--but not to check up on his assistant coaches, or even Joe Montana.
“When the sun goes down in the bay, I always call my wife,” Seifert said the other day. “I remind her, ‘It’s time to put the barbecue on.’ ”
What if the fish aren’t biting?
“We’re ready for that, too,” he said. “I just tell her, ‘It’s time to go get the hot dogs.’ ”
It wouldn’t bother George Seifert too much if the NFL folded next week and he had to fish all year. He seems totally out of sync with the flamboyance of pro football--the circus atmosphere, the crowds, the color, the romance of the game.
Nor has he made much impression, personally, on the league. During a recent Sunday game at Candlestick Park, the referee, Howard Roe, speaking on the public address system, called him “Coach Syfert.”
The right pronunciation is SEE -fert, of course, but how would a referee know that? Nobody ever talks about Seifert, except for Seifert’s family, and a few friends.
A good friend, Paul Wiggin, the director of pro personnel for the Minnesota Vikings, said: “He isn’t a recluse, exactly, but he’s different--the quietest coach I’ve ever known. Seifert is the antithesis of (Atlanta Falcon Coach) Jerry Glanville.”
Yet, Glanville is struggling again this year, and Seifert is back on top.
In his fourth season as the leader of the 49ers, he is back doing the same old thing: extending a winning tradition. Since 1989, the 49ers under Seifert are 14-2, 14-2, 10-6 and 11-2, with three games left this season.
Having already won a Super Bowl game, Seifert has made by far the fastest four-year start in NFL history. His batting average, .803, is one of the highest in any sport for a coach’s first 66 regular-season and postseason games. His four-year record is 53-13. Last month, replacing longtime record-holder Paul Brown, he won his 50th faster than any NFL predecessor.
The improbably quiet football coach has been improbably successful, but that isn’t the most surprising thing. The surprise is that Seifert has succeeded as the successor to a legend, Bill Walsh, who led the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories in eight years.
It has been an immutable fact that those who succeed legends don’t win--as those who replaced Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant and so many others all proved.
What’s different about Seifert?
There is apparently a two-part explanation:
--Walsh, the man who built the machine for Seifert, isn’t any old legend. He is probably the greatest coach at least since Lombardi.
In his final years with the 49ers, Walsh, deliberately setting out to create a dynasty, consciously improved the reserve strength, as well as the starters, in most departments.
--Seifert, an X’s and O’s expert, seems to have, in addition, the leadership and personality attributes of a consistent winner. In those respects, he is a match for Walsh.
“I think Seifert is what an NFL coach should be: bright, energetic and low-key,” said a veteran Bay Area observer, Leonard Koppett of the New York Times and Contra Costa Times. “And the greatest of these is his self-effacing approach. As you know, we have a lot of (famous players) here--and Seifert doesn’t have the conflicts with the players that a coach with a big ego (might have).”
To the critic who covers the 49ers for the San Francisco Examiner, Walsh’s successor has been on track from Day 1.
Said Frank Cooney: “When Seifert took over, nothing was broke, nothing needed fixing, and most important, he didn’t try to fix it.”
SONOMA COAST HUNTER IMPROVES WALSH OFFENSE
One day a few years back, when he was Walsh’s defensive coordinator, Seifert uncharacteristically lost his temper during a halftime meeting in Chicago, and kicked a chalkboard, breaking a toe.
That, in the view of Bay Area historians, could never happen to Walsh.
Said San Francisco Chronicle writer Ira Miller: “If Walsh were going to kick a chalkboard at halftime, he would have practiced to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.”
Seifert, cautiously, agrees that Walsh is unbeatably ingenious.
“I’m more spontaneous,” he said. "(Walsh) is more calculating.”
In appearance, they don’t differ that much. Both are slender and gray, though Walsh is whiter on top, and Seifert projects more anger, probably unintentionally.
On the sideline, to one witness, Seifert resembles an angry bird of prey--more so than ever this season since he has been striding about without the earphones that Walsh, the inveterate play-caller, would never discard.
A San Francisco native, Seifert is 52. He was the oldest of three sons of a Mission District teamster. In his lifetime, he has only rarely left Northern California--and never with enthusiasm--once to play linebacker and study zoology at Utah, once to coach Cornell, briefly, and later to get away for a while on short 49er trips.
His new home is in nearby Los Altos. He and his wife, Linda, are the parents of Eve and Jason.
It’s an outdoor family. At Bodega Bay, while George fishes, Linda hikes.
One day in Japan, when George was busy at a 49er exhibition game, Linda climbed Mt. Fuji.
They even spent their honeymoon outdoors. When he proposed, she agreed on one condition: a June week in Yosemite.
“The price was right,” he recalls. “We carried sleeping bags, and camped out under the stars and mosquitoes.”
She draws the line at one of Seifert’s pastimes, boar hunting, which is a mite like fox hunting, with the same animals: dogs and horses.
“It’s rigorous. I enjoy that part,” he said. “I go along with (old friends) for the horseback riding, the hiking, the exercise.”
Seifert was tracking a boar on the rugged Sonoma coast several months ago when he made up his mind to bring in, as the 49ers’ new offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, the former Raider coach.
The 49ers, as a continuously successful franchise, had lost about half their coaches--among them offensive assistant Mike Holmgren--to other NFL teams, and it’s a measure of Seifert that their replacements, particularly Shanahan, have changed the offense for the better.
It’s a new kind of offensive team, with a significantly different approach and a couple of new all-pros, quarterback Steve Young and halfback Ricky Watters.
Young, however, is also replacing a legend, Montana. And despite his fast start this year as the 49er starter--Young leads the league in both passing and yards gained rushing by a quarterback--most of the sentimentalists in the 49er fan clubs want Montana back in there.
Or so they keep saying, comprehending only dimly that what’s right in front of their eyes is the NFL’s best team.
How Seifert handles the undying Young-Montana controversy will be the real test of him as a diplomat as well as a coach.
In the 49ers’ parking lot, start looking for a bumper sticker that reads: “I’d rather be boar hunting.”
THEY’RE STILL WINNING WITH WALSH’S PLAYERS
It was the day of the 1979 draft. The third round was coming up, and although the 49ers had a new coach, Walsh, they still didn’t have a quarterback.
Studying the roster of remaining candidates, Walsh announced: “I think the kid at Notre Dame can help us.”
That was Montana, who came in and collected four Super Bowl trophies for the 49ers with his third-round talent. His third-round arm.
Walsh saw something more in him--and in so many others, from Dwight Clark to Jerry Rice.
Said veteran 49er assistant Norb Hecker: "(Walsh) was the greatest personnel scout of his time because he was interested in it, and worked at it.”
And had a feel for it.
The one thing that Walsh’s successor has yet to demonstrate is that he has a similar interest in and feel for talent scouting.
Although a four-year NFL tenure isn’t really long enough to tell about Seifert as a recruiter, the club’s history reveals that Walsh needed only three years to advance the 49ers from 2-14 to 13-3 and into their first Super Bowl, where they won.
Of the 47 players on the current roster, 31, or 60%, are Seifert’s, having signed up since Walsh left. But the truth is that most of the new ones, untested, are in backup positions.
Basically, the 49ers are still playing with Walsh’s players--with the same offensive and defensive linemen except for one offensive guard, with the same receivers, the same fullback, and two of the same linebackers.
It was also Walsh who brought in Young.
Seifert has overhauled only one department, the secondary, where only one of the four starters played for Walsh--and only time will tell how much significance there is in the fact that this has become the club’s weakest department.
The one spectacular draft pick of the Seifert era is Watters, the halfback from Notre Dame who has plugged the precise hole that had to be plugged to keep the 49ers from slipping out of Super Bowl contention.
As for their other recent high choices, halfbacks Dexter Carter and Amp Lee and first-string safety Dana Hall among them, most have yet to prove that they weren’t overrated.
The 49ers, a big winner this year, could in fact be drifting downward toward mediocrity.
For everything in football depends on personnel evaluation. The golden era at USC was based on John McKay’s gift for judging the college potential of high school players. The golden era of the 49ers still rests on Walsh’s ability to judge the NFL potential of college players.
The long story of football suggests, to be sure, that few great coaches are great talent scouts. In Miami, for example, the visitor hears that if Don Shula could scout as well as he coaches, the Dolphins would win most of the Super Bowls. If Chuck Noll were really a clever scout, wouldn’t the Pittsburgh Steelers have continued to dominate as they did in the ‘70s?
In San Francisco, Seifert doesn’t have to judge the talent himself, necessarily. But to keep the 49ers afloat as a Super Bowl contender in the ‘90s, someone will have to judge well.
It has been said that as a coach, Seifert has broken all the records for self-effacement, and by staying in the background has succeeded, for four long years, beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.
None of the men who replaced Rockne or Lombardi or Halas or Bryant or Paul Brown won 50 games in four years--or even eight years. Some of them haven’t won 50 yet. Thus, to grade Seifert now is to give him an A-plus. His problem is that in football, there is always next year.