|Former 49ers coach Mike Singletary helped build the present roster before being fired two seasons ago. (US Presswire)|
On Jan. 20, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens won their respective conference championships, earning the right to play in Super Bowl XLVII. Through years of hard work, roster building and solid game planning, head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh have led their teams to the doorstep of glory.
On the same day, former Ravens assistant and 49ers head coach Mike Singletary was wedged into seat 16A on a cramped MD-88 plane from Atlanta to Mobile, Ala., flat cap on his head and his trademark cross hanging from his neck. While the teams he once worked for and had a hand in building and leading, were on their way to the Super Bowl, Singletary was on his way to a few days of Senior Bowl practices as the special assistant to the head coach/linebackers coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
No one predicted the Hall of Fame linebacker would stumble as a head coach as badly as he did. Singletary had more credibility than most of those who coached before him, including a bust in Canton and a Super Bowl ring from one of the most dominant defenses of all time. But instead of being among the most respected coaches, he became one of the most mocked. Given the chance to run the 49ers, he dropped his pants during a halftime speech, sent tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room during a game after a personal-foul penalty and delivered several sound bites during press conferences, none bigger than the "I want winners!" rant that still draws an occasional response from people when he walks in public.
Most troublesome was Singletary's record as a head coach, interim or otherwise: 18-22, including an 0-5 start to the 2010 season when the 49ers had playoff aspirations. His inability to build a winner in a short period of time got him fired and opened the door for Jim Harbaugh to take the team to levels Singletary never could. The 49ers lost in the NFC title game last year and are a win from being called champions this year.
"Have I learned anything? That's an understatement," a modest, humble Singletary said last week. "I learned a lot, but all good stuff."
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Make no mistake: Singletary's fingerprints are all over the 49ers' roster. As an assistant from 2005 to 2008 he was part of the coaching staff that drafted Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Parys Haralson, Delanie Walker, Joe Staley, Alex Smith, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown and most notably linebacker Patrick Willis, who Singletary was in charge of for that time. Singletary also was on the team when they signed Justin Smith as a free agent and claimed Ahmad Brooks off waivers -- both from the Bengals in 2008. Then when Singletary took over as head coach, he was part of the group that reeled in Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Anthony Dixon, Ricky Jean Francois, Alex Boone (as an undrafted free agent) and another great linebacker, NaVorro Bowman.
Granted, Singletary didn't make the call on every single one of these players, but he was at the very least in the room when the Niners selected or signed 14 of their 22 starters on Sunday, including four-fifths of the offensive line and both inside linebackers.
"Singletary was a hard-nosed coach," Bowman said this week. "He was a guy who coached football the way a lot of people say it should be played and coached. That's the playmakers who are on this team -- hard-nosed football guys. … When it came to linebacker, of course, he knew the ins and outs about it. It was a good situation for me."
"We had discipline on our team," Goldson said. "He was a good, solid coach. He made sure we got the right plays at the right time. He made his presence felt, let's put it that way."
His impact with the Ravens wasn't as far reaching but still significant. When the Ravens picked Terrell Suggs in the 2003 NFL Draft, it was Singletary who coached his position for two years. Suggs had a sack in each of his first four games and had 12 sacks as a rookie and 10½ in '04 with a Pro Bowl accolade. Those were significant years not just for Suggs but for Ray Lewis. In 2003 Lewis had a career-best six interceptions and tied a career high in total tackles with 161 and had a third-best 146 tackles in 2004. Lewis made the Pro Bowl both years.
Singletary looks back fondly on his years in San Francisco, but when asked what it would be like to see players he helped develop play in the Super Bowl, his mind was in Baltimore.
"It's exciting to see guys mature. I'm really excited for Ray, a great opportunity to go out that way and have a chance to play after being hurt and overcoming so much," Singletary said. "So this is a great signature for him and Ed Reed. I'm very excited for them."
Singletary didn't let on who he thought would win in Super Bowl XLVII, only saying it was "great" that two of his former teams were meeting. But despite his setback in San Francisco, despite the cat calls from fans who think of him more as a punchline and less as a coach, he still has designs on being a head coach again.
"Number one, I love football, so it's really a tremendous honor to be able to coach in this game and help kids and help coaches," he said. "And to grow as a person and as a coach [is also important]. So it's absolutely fantastic. I look forward to it every day."
Singletary had a chance to interview for the head coaching gig in Chicago, a job that ultimately went to decorated Canadian Football League coach and long-time NFL assistant Marc Trestman. The opportunity seemed more like a token interview based solely on Singletary's legendary standing as a player within the Bears organization than anything else ("If I'm going to talk to somebody about Chicago Bear football, I'm going to talk to Mike Singletary," was the quote from Bears general manager Phil Emery to the Chicago Sun-Times.) But Singletary praised the experience and hopes it's the first of many interviews to come his way over the next few offseasons.
Until then, Singletary will bide his time with Super Bowl XX teammate and Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier in Minnesota. While Singletary's two former teams will meet to win the prize everyone in the NFL covets, Singletary will continue to work with an outstanding linebacker corps in Minnesota while aiding Frazier as his assistant. For now, it's work. A rung on the ladder he'll climb as long as he has to in order to become a head coach again.
How long of a climb might that be?
"Who knows?" Singletary said. "God got me in it and He's gonna take me out of it, so we'll know when we get there."