York met only the top three NFL assistant coaches who Donahue declared to be the finalists. Donahue, who interviewed candidates at his home in Southern California, narrowed his field to three NFL assistant coaches: Greg Blache, Ted Cottrell and Jim Mora. Then, in an about face, the club settled on Erickson, who had brought Oregon State to national prominence after coaching the Seattle Seahawks to a 31-33 record in three seasons there from 1995-98. "(Romeo Crennel) was interviewed for that job the last time and yet he wasn't brought to me," York said. "It's unclear to me why Romeo Crennel was not brought in because he's clearly a winning coach and deserves an opportunity at being a head coach." Crennel was the first of the five NFL coordinators the 49ers interviewed this year after Erickson and Donahue were fired on Jan. 5. York and other 49ers officials were highly impressed with Crennel, New England's defensive coordinator, but the team did not want to wait until after the Patriots lost to hire their new coach. And, besides, Mike Nolan was the team's clear top choice after all five candidates were interviewed, anyway. Crennel never was brought to York for a second interview two years ago. Instead, after an initial interview round featuring several candidates, Donahue presented York with Mora (then the 49ers defensive coordinator), Cottrell (then the New York Jets' defensive coordinator) and Blache (then the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator) Of that trio, York was most impressed with Mora, but owner signed off on Donahue's decision to go a different direction in the 11-hour and hire Erickson, finally ending an often embarrassing one-month search to replace the fired Steve Mariucci. Mora - after continuing in his role as the 49ers defensive coordinator in 2003 - was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons after the season and has Atlanta in the NFC Championship game this year in his debut season as a head coach. Cottrell and Blache each were fired by the Jets and Bears, respectively, after the 2003 season. --- Some NFL executives last week questioned how York and his aides, Paraag Marathe and Terry Tumey, could conduct any kind of credible coaching search. But Nolan was impressed with what he saw. "I know there have been things said about the process, but I thought the process was one of the best that I've ever been associated with," Nolan said. "It was one of the most thorough. By all my discussions with coaches who have gone through these types of interview sessions, none of them came close to the process that was done here." York, who has come under intense criticism for the management of the team, may have begun the process of repairing his image, according to the well-respected agent who negotiated the deal. Nolan's agent, Bob LaMonte, has read and heard the horror stories about York being a skinflint. He was prepared for the worst when he began contract negotiations, but he wasn't prepared for this, he said. "For me, John York has been unbelievable," LaMonte said. "I'm absolutely unable to tell you it wasn't handled professionally. This coaching search was conducted with precision and class and dignity." --- Marathe was instrumental in the process to determine which candidates would be interviewed for the job. He said he looked at eight to 10 of the most successful coaches in the league and examined the most important traits. He found that those coaches -- Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick, to name a few -- had come from winning organizations, had success as coordinators and had been under the tutelage of successful head coaches. --- Former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who was Nolan's mentor for 10 seasons, said he would join the 49ers' staff "in a heartbeat," if asked. Nolan was noncommittal on the possibility Reeves could join him. "I know there has been talk, but that has not been discussed," Nolan said. "Obviously, that all begins after (the introductory news conference to announce his hiring)." --- Nolan always felt comfortable round NFL players, and it has carried over to his coaching career. The former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator is known for integrating the opinions of his players into his game plans. "He knows people and he knows how to handle people," said Dick Nolan, 72, who lives in suburban Dallas. Dick Nolan was head coach of the 49ers from 1968-75. "He knew how to handle people when he was just a kid. He knows the business side of the game, too." Niners Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox said Mike Nolan was around the team enough that the players all got to know him pretty well. "I wouldn't say Mike was mischievous, but he had a personality that enabled him to fit in with the guys," Wilcox said. "When I read in the paper that Mike Nolan was a candidate for the 49ers job, I thought, 'Holy cow, wouldn't that be something?' " --- Three early candidates for the team's top personnel position -- which might or might not hold the title "general manager" -- are Chicago director of college scouting Greg Gabriel, Atlanta vice president of player personnel Ron Hill and Seattle director of college scouting Scot McCloughan. Niners director of player personnel Bill Rees has not been let go from his contract, and the team recently denied Cleveland permission to hire him. But Rees is not a candidate for a promotion and does not figure to be with the 49ers for the long term. York said neither Marathe nor Tumey is ready to be general manager, but he was impressed with his two employees who helped in the coaching interviews. Marathe, assistant to the general manager, and Tumey, assistant director of football administration, were the subject of league-wide skepticism. York and his son Jed, who works in New York City but is destined to join the organization, met for dinner with each candidate the night before the interviews. The coaches then interviewed with 49ers officials for six to seven hours. Nolan met the Yorks on Jan. 12 and interviewed in St. Louis on Jan. 13. The other candidates interviewed were New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel; former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, now the Jets' coordinator; Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Lewis; and New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "In this interview process I say I learned the most about the coaches," York said. "No. 2, I learned about Terry Tumey; No. 3, I learned about my son, Jed; and No. 4, it only confirmed what I knew about Paraag." STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL Nolan has not had a lot of time to evaluate the talent -- or lack thereof -- that he inherits with the 49ers. All that will begin in earnest after he assembles his coaching staff. "All our players will be evaluated by the coaches coming in," Nolan said. "Our objective in evaluating players is to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. There won't be a coach and Mike Nolan is not a coach who says, 'We're going to run a 4-3 or 3-4 regardless of what we've got.' "We identify our players and personnel so we can (determine) what is the best situation that we can get our guys in. I look at it like we are playing cards. If you deal me a straight, I'm not going to try to get a flush." Nolan said he expects the 49ers to be a lot more aggressive this season in free agency. After all, the 49ers have $12.9 million in cap room with 54 players signed. Included in that total is an inflated $5 million salary for CB Jimmy Williams, whose deal voids. UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Tim Rattay. Backups -- Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett. RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Kevan Barlow, FB Fred Beasley. Backups -- RB Maurice Hicks, RB Terry Jackson, FB Steve Bush, FB Jasen Isom. TIGHT END: Starter -- Eric Johnson. Backups -- Aaron Walker, Steve Bush. WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Cedrick Wilson, SE Brandon Lloyd. Backups -- Curtis Conway, Rashaun Woods, Arnaz Battle, P.J. Fleck, Derrick Hamilton. OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Kwame Harris, LG Eric Heitmann, C Brock Gutierrez, RG Kyle Kosier, RT Scott Gragg. Backups -- G Justin Smiley, G Rob Murphy, G Scott Peters, T Jerome Davis. Returning injured starter -- C Jeremy Newberry. DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE John Engelberger, LT Anthony Adams, RT Bryant Young, RE Andrew Williams. Backups -- DE Tony Brown, DT Chris Cooper, DE Corey Smith, DT Daleroy Stewart. Returning injured starters -- DE Andre Carter, DE Brandon Whiting. LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Jeff Ulbrich, MLB Derek Smith, ROLB Jamie Winborn. Backups -- OLB Saleem Rasheed, OLB Ray Wells, MLB Richard Seigler. Returning injured starter -- ROLB Julian Peterson. DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Jimmy Williams, RCB Shawntae Spencer, SS Tony Parrish, FS Ronnie Heard. Backups -- CB Joselio Hanson, CB Mike Adams, S Keith Lewis, S Dwaine Carpenter. Returning injured starters -- CB Ahmed Plummer, CB Mike Rumph. SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Todd Peterson, P Andy Lee, KR Maurice Hicks, PR Arnaz Battle, LS Brian Jennings, H Andy Lee. Backups -- KR Battle, PR/KR Cedrick Wilson, PK Kirk Yliniemi, PK Chace Long.
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