Can this relationship work?
The union of Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson was doomed from the start. Donahue undercut Erickson with dubious roster decisions, then back-stabbed him when things didn't go as planned on the field. By the end of their two-year working relationship, the 49ers were in shambles, and both the general manager and head coach were shoved out the door, linked forever in team infamy. Though McCloughan doesn't hold the title or responsibilities that Donahue did, he will be tied hand-in-hand with Nolan – the confident, central-figure head coach – on some of the most consequential decisions the 49ers will face in the months and years to come. And that's deciding what players to add to and subtract from the roster. Donahue failed miserably in that duty in recent seasons, leaving Erickson very little to work with between the white lines during last year's 2-14 season, though Erickson had at least a token voice in what players the team drafted. Nolan's voice in those decisions won't be token by any means. In fact, his will be the final voice, as owner John York made clear during Wednesday's news conference to introduce McCloughan as the 49ers' vice president of player personnel. When asked who would have the final say on selecting players in the draft, typically a duty reserved for a team's top personnel guy, York replied, as has been an organization-wide mantra since Nolan was hired two weeks ago, "Well, I think that is a process where it will be discussed as a 49ers decision." But if push comes to shove? It will be Nolan's call. "I don't think there will be things where there are disagreements the way these two will work together," York said. "If there is in the analysis, Mike will be the trigger person with regards to the final say on any of the personnel decisions with regards to affecting the roster." McCloughan realizes this coming in, and – at age 33 – he certainly has no problem acquiescing to Nolan's desires and demands. He wouldn't have been hired otherwise. But that's where things can get a little dicey. What if McCloughan – through his years of scouting experience and wisdom and his proven track record in quality draft selections – decides deep in his heart that he is right about a certain player and Nolan is wrong? And that the future of the organization at that certain player's position hinges on that selection? To be sure, the relationship between the two will have to be handled delicately and given time and room to grow and develop as the Niners attempt to make their new start with a new organizational structure that, in essence, has Nolan at the top. Not all marriages, of course, are created equal. "The most important thing to me in being successful in this job is the people part of this business, which is personnel," Nolan said. "Since that is the foundation of what I believe and the things I do, it was important for me to identify the person that I felt not only was the best qualified as far as doing his job, but also the one that I felt that I could work with the very best." So Nolan selected an obvious subordinate – and the youngest of the eight men who interviewed for the job. In many NFL organizations, the personnel chief will rank above or equal to the head coach in personnel decisions. "I've got the utmost respect for Scot and the job he does, which is the very first step in us having the ability to work together," Nolan continued. "If there wasn't that respect, then it would be difficult to make that marriage work. I'll take good care of him and I hope he'll take good care of me." The potential problem is that this is practically a shotgun marriage. Nolan and McCloughan hadn't even met for the first time until McCloughan was brought into 49ers headquarters last week for his interview. While Nolan is surrounding himself with assistant coaches that he knows well and/or has worked with in the past, that's not the case with perhaps the organization's most significant hire other than Nolan. But they do have plenty of similarities, if that's at all applicable here. Nolan and McCloughan both grew up around football with fathers who lived the game. They both have been in the NFL most of their professional lives. And, as Nolan indicated, they share common goals and philosophies that are built on trust and respect. "Face to face, we don't know each other well," McCloughan said. "But I've got enough connections throughout the league that know him well, and it's all been very, very high praise. He's a class act from the standpoint of being a good person, being a family man, and also being a heck of a coach." McCloughan failed to mention anything about Nolan's prowess in the area of personnel. That, of course, is supposed to be McCloughan's specialty. How well these two men work together in that crucial area will be what ultimately determines if this relatively unorthodox football relationship can last and, more significantly, make the 49ers successful again. "The structure that we have put together, such that both of these gentlemen are reporting to me, and as Mike says, ‘marrying each other,' gives a different structure than what we have had in the past which I think is going to be more compatible to working together," York said. "I think there already is chemistry there. I can see the chemistry there between Mike and Scot, but I also see the chemistry between Scott (and other management types), and that is going to be necessary throughout the building. So, when you put those things together, this looks to me like it is a winning combination." That certainly wasn't what the 49ers had in this case with their previous marriage, which ended in embarrassment and a bitter divorce.
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