Now comes the hard part for Mike Nolan

Undaunted by the lingering forces that swiftly brought down one of the greatest organizations in the history of professional sports, Mike Nolan has stabilized the 49ers in the space of seven months with his unwavering focus, determined leadership, structural skill and attention to detail. But now comes the hard part.

Despite everything he already has done to repair the franchise since taking over as head coach in January – from revising the management structure, to overhauling the roster, to cleansing the team's tarnished image left from last year's 2-14 stain – the true test still lies ahead for the confident 46-year-old who never met a challenge he didn't like.

The new foundation has been assembled amid the rubble of a dynasty in ruins. Now all Nolan has to do is turn the 49ers into a winner again on the field.

There is no easy way to go about doing so, as most first-year NFL coaches know – or soon realize once they start working from the sideline come September. Nolan will get his first taste of that as a head coach Sunday when the 49ers host the St. Louis Rams in a season opener at Monster Park that will begin the Nolan era in San Francisco.

But, despite his relative youth, this will be Nolan's 19th season on a NFL sideline, 11 of them as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins and both New York teams. He also has coached both offense and special teams at the NFL level.

Nolan has been around. That experience has taught him well. He has seen what works and what doesn't. Better yet, he knows – or, at least, thinks he knows – the dynamics of what leads to NFL success and failure.

He will lead the 49ers forward in 2005 his way, with his methods and his ideas, characterized by his style and that of the men Nolan has hand-picked to surround himself with in the organization. But as he attempts one of the great turnarounds in NFL history, trying to transform the league's worst team into a playoff contender in his first year on the job, Nolan is wise enough to learn and borrow from precedents created recently by other teams.

"The first thing that comes to mind that I respect and admire and who I think does a great job is Philadelphia," Nolan said. "Six years ago, when (coach Andy Reid) took that job, it was a very similar job to this one, I would say, with respects to the organization and how it was perceived, from owner all the way down."

Just look where the Eagles are now – standing on their perch as defending NFC champions, and still eager to soar higher.

During the task of cleaning house and then refurbishing it again, Nolan also has attempted to emulate another NFL franchise that currently is setting the standard.

"The way it's being run, New England is another one I respect and admire, and even five or six years ago when (Patriots coach Bill Belichick) took over it was very similar," Nolan said. "I was with the Jets back then and I remember that they had a ways to go. They built a good foundation. As a matter of fact, I think the first year that they went to the Super Bowl they started out 0-3 (actually, 1-3 in 2001). I'm just saying that they built it. They started some place and they kept building, and that's exactly what we want to do."

While Nolan stands firm on the goal he set for the team back in April – to reclaim the NFC West, a division San Francisco has won just once in the past seven years – history suggests fate has not been kind to first-year coaches attempting to orchestrate an immediate resurrection.

Only 16 of the 203 coaches hired since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger have led a losing team to the playoffs in their first full season on the job.

Just as ominously, since 1984, only three teams have rebounded with a winning record in the season after drafting with the No. 1 overall selection, as the 49ers did this year when they picked quarterback Alex Smith in April.

Those are some of the odds stacked against Nolan in his debut season. But instead of focusing on the five first-year coaches who finished 6-10 or worse last year – Oakland's Norv Turner, New York's Tom Coughlin, Washington's Joe Gibbs, Arizona's Dennis Green and Chicago's Lovie Smith – Nolan is the type that would rather point to Jim Mora's first season in Atlanta last year.

The former 49ers defensive coordinator took a last-place team that finished 5-11 in 2003 and turned it into an 11-5 NFC South champion that advanced to the NFC championship game last season.

It can be done.

PART II: Nolan has handled the disconcerting dance of a first-year coach/organizational chief well while expertly juggling the manifold responsibilities and demands of his position. Now, Nolan must put his primary focus on the burden of managing a game on Sundays while continuing to institute his approach and philosophy. But don't tell Nolan it can't be done – that the 49ers can't make the leap back to respectability in 2005 – because he has been part of massive rebuilding projects before.


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