January 19, 2012

1968: Dick Nolan Becomes Head Coach of 49ers

On January 19, 1968 the San Francisco 49ers announced the hiring of 35-year-old Dick Nolan as head coach, succeeding Jack Christiansen. The 49ers had posted one winning record in the preceding six seasons and had most recently gone 7-7 in 1967.

Nolan, who had no prior head coaching experience, was most recently defensive coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He had been a defensive back on the University of Maryland team that won the national championship in 1953 and played professionally for the Giants, who drafted him in the fourth round, from 1954 thru ’61, with the exception of 1958 when he was with the Chicago Cardinals. Nolan started out as a defensive halfback (cornerback) and was converted to safety later in his career. He joined the Cowboys as a player-coach in 1962 and became a full-time coach in ’63, recognized as an architect of the “flex” defense along with Head Coach Tom Landry.

Said club president Lou Spadia, “Dick was a winner when he played for Maryland and the New York Giants. He also helped coach a winner at Dallas. We believe he can do the same thing for the 49ers."

There was talent on the 49ers, but as the record indicated, they had been an inconsistent team and unable to compete with division rivals like the Colts and Rams. QB John Brodie was an outstanding passer who reflected the team’s inconsistency. Smallish backup George Mira, a former University of Miami All-American, was a scrambler who could be exciting but was even more erratic, although he led the team to wins in the last two contests of the ’67 season. The team also had their 1967 first draft choice, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback out of Florida, Steve Spurrier, but it was not anticipated that he would be ready to challenge for the starting job. In the end, Nolan stuck with Brodie and was rewarded when the 33-year-old veteran led the NFL in pass attempts (404), completions (234), yards (3020), and completion percentage (57.9) while tossing 22 touchdown passes along with 21 interceptions.

The receiving corps was diminished by the loss of end Dave Parks, who played out his option and signed with New Orleans. However, flanker Clifton McNeil was acquired from the Browns prior to the season and had a career-year, leading the league in pass receptions with 71 for 994 yards and seven TDs. Veteran HB John David Crow was converted to tight end and pulled in 31 passes for 531 yards and five scores. The running game was centered around two 230-pound backs, FB Ken Willard and HB Gary Lewis, and Willard placed second among the league’s rushers with 967 yards. The line had talent, in particular in the form of All-Pro G Howard Mudd, as well as twelth-year C Bruce Bosley and OT Len Rohde.

Two members of the defense made the Pro Bowl – OLB Dave Wilcox and CB Kermit Alexander. There were solid veterans in tackle Charlie Krueger, LB Matt Hazeltine, and outstanding CB Jimmy Johnson as well.

Overall, the Niners went 7-6-1 and were third in the league in total offense. The defense set a club record for fewest yards allowed in a 14-game season

For 1969, the 49ers drafted TE Ted Kwalick from Penn State and Stanford flanker Gene Washington and seemed poised to possibly challenge in the tough Coastal Division. Instead, the team regressed to 4-8-2 and finished at the bottom. Injuries played a major role in the decline as Brodie missed time and Spurrier was forced into action (Mira had been traded to Philadelphia). Three starters on defense went down with knee injuries – LB Ed Beard, DE Stan Hindman, and FS Johnny Fuller. It was not all bad – Washington caught 51 passes in his rookie season and went to the Pro Bowl. Willard was still a solid runner who gained Pro Bowl recognition and TE Bob Windsor, fighting off the challenge of the highly-regarded Kwalick, caught 49 passes for 597 yards. Second-year pro Forrest Blue took over for Bosley at center and another second-year player, Woody Peoples, stepped into the lineup at guard. The team also added FS Roosevelt Taylor during the season, who had been discarded by the Bears. LB Frank Nunley played well in place of Beard and rookie DE Earl Edwards gained valuable experience.

The stage was set for the 49ers to make a move in 1970 in the newly-restructured NFL (and without the Colts in the same division). They went 10-3-1, the franchise’s best record since 1948 when San Francisco was in the AAFC, and won the NFC West for their first division title ever in their 25th season. Brodie had an MVP year, leading the league in passing and only being sacked eight times thanks to the performance of the offensive line. Gene Washington was also a consensus first-team All-Pro with his 53 catches for a league-leading 1100 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The defense came together in brilliant fashion. With an abundance of talent on the line, helped by the arrival of brash first draft pick DE Cedrick Hardman, Nolan rotated players in and out effectively. Wilcox and Nunley continued to star at linebacker, along with Skip Vanderbundt, and the backfield was bolstered by the addition of rookie CB Bruce Taylor, who provided the added bonus of leading the league in punt returns (12.0 average on 43 returns). Roosevelt Taylor provided veteran leadership along with the eventual Hall of Famer Johnson and SS Mel Phillips. The 49ers topped the NFL with a +17 turnover differential.

The turnaround on special teams helped – Taylor drastically improved what had been a major problem area in 1969 with his punt returning, and veteran PK Bruce Gossett, obtained from the Rams, increased San Francisco’s field goal production from a measly six in ’69 to 21.

After defeating the Vikings at Minnesota in the Divisional playoff round, the 49ers lost to Dallas at home in the NFC Championship game.

The Niners moved from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park in ’71 and again made it to the NFC title game. The division-winning record dropped to 9-5 and Brodie was more erratic, tossing 14 more interceptions (24) and six fewer TD passes (18) than in ’70. The line still protected him well, as he was sacked just 11 times. Gene Washington continued to be a top-rate deep threat and Kwalick emerged at tight end to rank second in the NFC with 52 receptions. HB Vic Washington provided much-needed outside speed, and both he and Willard rushed for over 800 yards apiece (811 and 855, respectively). The defense continued to be solid, ranking fourth overall, although the backfield starters Johnson and Taylor were nicked up by injuries. Once again, the 49ers won in the Divisional round, defeating the resurgent Redskins, and once more they lost to Dallas for the NFC title.

San Francisco won a third straight division title in 1972, this time with an 8-5-1 tally. Brodie went down with a broken ankle five games into the schedule, but the unproven Spurrier led the club to five wins and, when he faltered in the finale, Brodie returned to rally the 49ers into the playoffs. While still capable, both the offensive line and defense experienced injury problems. But it seemed as though they had finally solved the Cowboys when they led their postseason nemesis at home in the Divisional game by a score of 28-13 in the fourth quarter. Dallas QB Roger Staubach came off the bench to rally his team to a stunning 30-28 triumph, and with that, the postseason run of the Nolan coaching era came to an end.

The 49ers dropped to 5-9 in 1973. Both Brodie and Willard were benched after the team started slowly, the running game never improved, and Gene Washington and Jimmy Johnson suffered from knee injuries that robbed them of their effectiveness. The defense was afflicted by age and injuries.

It did not get better in 1974 and ’75 as the Niners went 6-8 and 5-9, respectively. Brodie retired after the ’73 season and Spurrier was injured in ’74, leading to instability at quarterback. The receiving corps remained strong, even after Kwalick jumped to the World Football League, and the running game benefited from the addition of backs Wilbur Jackson in 1974 and Delvin Williams in ‘75. The defense began to develop holes that proved difficult to fill. But the hole at quarterback ultimately became a chronic issue, especially as Spurrier failed to live up to expectations.

Nolan was fired following the 1975 season, the early promise of his tenure having not brought a championship nor continued success. The low-key coach’s overall record was 54-53-5, not including 2-3 in the postseason.

Nolan made a return to coaching in New Orleans, serving as an assistant in 1977 and then being elevated to head coach in ’78. As in San Francisco, he enjoyed some initial success as the Saints put together their two best records up to that time at 7-9 in 1978 and 8-8 in ’79. But when the club started off at 0-12 in 1980, he was fired once more. He returned to assistant coaching, most notably going back to Landry and the Cowboys for several seasons. His son Mike later served as head coach of the 49ers (and was named to the job 37 years to the day after his father was).