No need for Nolan to distance himself from dad

Like Don Corleone watching from above as his son Michael presides over the domain he once commanded, Dick Nolan sat in an easy chair on a second-story balcony at 49ers headquarters last weekend, observing the first full-squad minicamp of the Mike Nolan regime. While it has been 30 years since Dick Nolan ruled the roost, it was obvious Nolan Jr. would rather not have anybody focusing on his father or his previous association with the team.

Nolan appeared almost uncomfortable when writers asked about his father peering from above. The 49ers new coach doesn't want anybody thinking his father's era as head coach from 1968-1975 has much to do with the fact he now owns that same job.

Nobody really believes that, of course, because the younger Nolan got the job strictly on his own merit and because of what he has accomplished in his 19 years coaching in the NFL.

But Nolan definitely wants to be his own man here in San Francisco, and he wants everybody to know it. The visit of Dick Nolan last weekend, in fact, was the first time Mike Nolan had seen his father since November.

In an interview with SFI in February, Dick Nolan was asked if his son calls on him now for advice.

"He's got enough now to handle it," the elder Nolan responded.

Dick Nolan, who turned 73 on March 26, did not mingle or speak with reporters during the minicamp, and the fact that his father was drawing some attention in his first visit to 49erland since his son became coach did not seem to fit into Mike's structured plan for the weekend.

"We all have fathers," Mike Nolan said when his father's presence was first mentioned last Friday. "It's a neat thing. Especially when you're dad has already had ties here before. It's neat. I don't know what to say. Whatever."

Since Mike Nolan wasn't around the 49ers during his coaching climb with five other NFL teams, he might not realize that his father does not exactly loom large as a central figure in team lore, even though the Niners experienced unprecedented prosperity during Dick Nolan's eight seasons with the team. Nolan Sr. guided the 49ers to consecutive NFC West championships in 1970-1972, taking them to the NFC title game after the 1970 and 1971 seasons.

The franchise never had a run of success like that before in its history, but Nolan was gone three seasons later after his 1975 team slipped to a 5-9 finish. That left Nolan with a 56-56-5 record to show for his eight seasons in San Francisco.

In the eyes of many observers, the franchise's modern standards were established four years later when Bill Walsh took over and led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl title three years later.

The Dick Nolan era certainly is nothing to be forgotten, but it does not cast a shadow over his son as he attempts to rebuild a proud franchise that has hit rock bottom.

When asked near the end of minicamp practices if he had received a passing grade from his dad, Nolan almost seemed chagrined, waving to his father as he said, "Yeah, there's dad," under his breath.

"He's doing well," Nolan said. "He chewed me out when I got home."

Then, Nolan quickly continued, "No, he didn't chew me out. He has his comments, though. He's good. He's really good, guys. He just enjoys watching and all, and he puts in his two cents. I've got a whole crew who puts in their two cents."

Nolan Sr. had great influence on his son during his formative years in football, when Mike as a youth often was as much a part of 49ers practices and meetings as some of the team's players.

Former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who gave Mike Nolan his first NFL job as an assistant with the Denver Broncos in 1987, said, "They are father and son. You can't help but be influenced a great deal by his dad. Mike has been around football all his life and his dad had a tremendous influence on him. I think they are very much alike in a lot of ways."

But Reeves understands Mike's need to strike out on his own, per se, and be judged strictly on his 49ers structure and system, his 49er Way, without even any peripheral allusions to the past.

After following Reeves to the New York Giants after six years together in Denver, Reeves wanted Nolan to follow him to Atlanta as defensive coordinator after the pair had spent four more together in New York. But Nolan instead broke off from Reeves and went to the Washington Redskins, a move that temporarily derailed his rise toward head-coaching opportunities.

Reeves said it was because Nolan didn't want people to believe he had made his way up the coaching ranks because of his father, who had a close association with Reeves when both were in Dallas in the 1960s. According to Reeves, Mike Nolan felt that the good-old-boy NFL network would think he'd always gotten his break in the league because of Reeves' friendship with his father, whether that was accurate or not.

"I really wanted him to go to Atlanta with me (in 1997)," Reeves said. "He'd always been with me, so he felt he needed to – quote – go out on his own to see what he could do."

That worked out pretty well, and now that Nolan is in San Francisco, it's clear that this is his ship, his mission, his project. Everyone else has a part in it to varying integral degrees, but it's crystal clear who is the leader of this operation.

I visit from dear old dad only enhances the 49ers' Nolan legacy, both young and old.

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