Coach-for-a-day Singletary takes practice run

If Mike Nolan ever can't make it to an opening kickoff this season, the 49ers will be in good hands with his second in command. The forceful presence of Mike Singletary was running the show at practice Thursday morning while Nolan was away from the team, and while it was only a temporary situation, there's little doubt "Samurai Mike" will soon be in that position permanently with another NFL team.

For the first time since he entered coaching in 2003, Singletary was in charge of the entire operation during San Francisco's morning practice while Nolan was attending a memorial service for former 49ers coach Bill Walsh.

Needless to say, the defense was a little bit ahead of the offense during most of the session.

"It was a little bit biased, you know, defensive-oriented here," Singletary said with a grin.

There's no doubt Singletary knows defense. A Hall of Fame linebacker with the Chicago Bears, he played in 10 Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro eight times during a stellar career from 1981-1992. After spending two years guiding the Baltimore Ravens' linebackers, he's now in his third season with the 49ers as the team's assistant head coach/defense.

Not many expect Singletary will still be around for a fourth season with San Francisco in 2008. Singletary now is a hot coaching commodity who appears destined to be guiding his own NFL team in the near future.

It doesn't take one practice as a stand-in head coach for Singletary's players to know that.

"He's a natural," said 49ers' defensive lineman Marques Douglas, who has played under Singletary with both the Ravens and 49ers. "He's a little mixture of fire and ice out there. I mean, he's only going to speak when he thinks he needs to. But then again, he'll get fired up when he needs to also. He can definitely set the tone, but he also can definitely be a calming force out there because he has been there as a player.

Douglas went on: "He listens and he's an excellent communicator. He's not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of coach. He's going to listen to you, and he's going to think before he speaks. He's not going to rush to judgment. I won't label him as a players' coach, but I will label him as a coach that's going to do what's best for the team. It's only a matter of time before he takes that next step and some team gives him a chance to run the show."

Singletary came close to getting that opportunity this season. He had interviews for the vacant head-coaching positions in Atlanta, Dallas and San Diego, and he nearly got the Atlanta job that instead went to Bobby Petrino because of his offensive background.

A commanding presence on and off the field, Singletary says he has been grooming himself to be a head coach since he entered coaching as a Ravens assistant four years ago. He spent two seasons with Baltimore before following Nolan – the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 2002-2004 – to San Francisco in 2005.

"When the time comes, I will be ready," Singletary said after the morning practice. "I knew when I came into the league I wanted to be a head coach, but it's not something I focus on. The most important thing for me right now, day in and day out, is to make sure that I am the best assistant head coach/defense that I can be. The other thing is at the Lord's will, in some point in time, that it happens sooner or later, but I'm working towards being the best that I can be today."

The "other thing" is likely to happen sooner rather than later, even though Singletary has relatively little coaching experience. But he's a unique individual who transcends the game. After retiring as a player, when he was known for his wide-eyed intensity with Chicago's Monsters of the Midway, Singletary spent time as a motivational speaker and authored three books.

Upon returning to the football arena, Singletary won the Walter Camp's "Man of the Year Award" in 2001 based on his integrity, leadership and contributions within the profession.

Singletary also had a head-coaching interview with the Detroit Lions in 2006 after just his third season of NFL coaching, but in retrospect, he feels fortunate he's still with the 49ers today instead of leading the operation with some other team.

"I am very thankful that I have not got a head coaching job," Singletary said. "That was for my protection. There are so many things that a head coach has to think about. For me, when I first got back into coaching, I was thinking about the things that were right in front of me. But to be a great coach, you have to have peripheral vision. He would have to surround himself with great people and let them do their job.

Sort of like Nolan has done with Singletary?

For his part, Nolan doesn't expect it to be long before Singletary takes the next step in his coaching climb.

"I love Mike Singletary," said Nolan, who returned to the team for Thursday's afternoon practice. "He's a great man who really has a lot to offer. Someone at some point that's looking for what Mike has to offer – which I believe is a great leader, a great parent to a football team and a winner as well – will give him that opportunity."

And why wouldn't they? As the 49ers got a glimpse of Thursday, Singletary has all the tools, something the team isn't likely to see up-close-and-personal beyond this season.

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