Nolan, Niners get head start at Senior Bowl

With his team headed toward the abyss in mid December, Mike Nolan planted a seed among NFL administrators that his 49ers staff would like to be considered for coaching duties in the 2006 Senior Bowl. "I wanted to be out there and say that we would love to coach it, whatever our record," Nolan said. With other NFL bottom-feeders currently in coaching transition, the 49ers were awarded Nolan's wish Thursday, giving San Francisco's staff a huge head start in its evaluation of college talent.

Not to mention other things Nolan might be doing to tinker with his team's structure during a busy week in Alabama later this month.

Nolan and his staff will coach the South squad in the 57th annual version of the college all-star game in Mobile on Jan. 28. But it's the week leading to the game that made Nolan so eager to volunteer his staff for extra duty when most coaches who'd just experienced such a tumultuously draining season as the Niners would probably rather be taking a rest.

Nolan, however, informed his San Francisco coaches weeks before the season ended – while the Niners still were in the throes of a seven-game losing streak – that he had "thrown our name into the hat (to) be the team that gets it." So now, beginning January 22nd, Nolan and his staff will spend a week in Mobile getting to know some of the finer college talent in the land.

"Coaching the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity and a blessing for the entire San Francisco 49ers organization," Nolan said. "It's the best way to evaluate players that I've come to know. It's an exciting game, and it's an exciting bunch of players. Ninety-five or 100 percent of the players make a team in the NFL, so that's huge. For us to actually have an opportunity to coach those guys and evaluate them first-hand in meetings, get to know them, eat with them and do all those things for an entire week puts us one up in the evaluation process."

It wasn't long ago that the 49ers, after finishing 4-12 despite a two-game winning streak to end the season, wouldn't have had that kind of opportunity. Coaching staffs for the Senior Bowl used to come from middling NFL teams that barely missed the playoffs. That rule was changed to give teams at the bottom an opportunity to get up close and personal with the top college personnel a month before the NFL Combine commences.

Only the Houston Texans (2-14) and New Orleans Saints (3-13) finished with a worse record than the 49ers this season. Both of those teams fired their head coaches the day after the season ended, pulling them out of consideration to coach one of the Senior Bowl squads.

The 49ers share the same record as Green Bay, Oakland, Tennessee and the New York Jets. The Packers and Raiders also fired their head coaches, while New York coach Herman Edwards reportedly might leave the Jets by his own volition. That made the 49ers and Titans the most favorable candidates, and Jeff Fisher's Tennessee staff will be on the opposite sideline coaching the North squad Jan. 28 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

"I don't look at this as a curse at all," Nolan said of the extra work that just fell into the lap of he and his assistants. "Some coaches do, but I already informed our staff many weeks ago that if we ever have an opportunity to coach that game, we're coaching it. I'll pay them back with some time in the offseason where they don't have to travel as much when it becomes time to evaluate guys."

In his previous 18 seasons as a NFL assistant, Nolan never was part of a team that finished with as poor a record as the 49ers did this season. Because of that, he was part of several staffs that coached the Senior Bowl when the criteria for selecting coaching staffs was different. Nolan said he found huge benefits from the process.

"My first 10 years in the league, I coached it four times," Nolan said.

Nolan also was a regular at the Senior Bowl in the years he wasn't part of a staff coaching in the game. The Senior Bowl has become a regular convention for NFL coaches who spend the week preceding the game in Mobile to evaluate talent during practices. Nolan was there a few years back even when he wasn't part of a NFL coaching staff – after he'd been fired following the 1999 season as defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins.

So the Senior Bowl may hold a twofold purpose for the 49ers this year. With so many coaches swarming to the event – some of them with jobs, some of them without – it will give Nolan an opportunity to meet with coaches he may consider for jobs with the 49ers. Nolan suggested earlier this week that he may make some changes on the staff San Francisco will carry into 2006.

"Right now, I'd refrain from making any comment on that," Nolan said. "I'll just wait and see."

Two of Nolan's top lieutenants – assistant coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy – already have been given permission by the 49ers to interview for head coaching positions with other teams. Singletary will interview with the Detroit Lions and McCarthy with the Green Bay Packers, where he was quarterbacks coach in 1999.

After being named 49ers coach last January, Nolan interviewed several coaches for potential jobs on San Francisco's staff during Senior Bowl week in 2005. Nolan conducted a five-hour interview with McCarthy at the Senior Bowl last year before offering him a three-year deal to join the team.

So Nolan, always one to cover his bases, knows that this week will be more than just about coaching and evaluating college players.

When asked if the Senior Bowl will be a place where he's collecting business cards later this month, Nolan broke into a grin before replying.

"It might," he said. "That's a busy place. It's a gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of coaches there and anybody that's out of work. I've been there before when I was out of work and it's a difficult time. Hearing about the firings (this week) of different guys, it's tough because it's a small group of people that coach in the NFL. So when they get let go, I've been there and done that. I sympathize with them where they're at but, yeah, when you get to the Senior Bowl a lot of those guys there are looking for work. "Hopefully, we'll be coaching and too busy to talk shop. But we'll wait and see."

Which means Nolan's week in Alabama probably will be a business trip as much as it's a coaching trip.

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