Nolan's Niners doing it the Walshian way

As if to give his blessing to the 2007 49ers, Bill Walsh waited until the day after training camp began to finally succumb to his three-year battle with leukemia. Walsh's encompassing spirit lives on in the Niners, and as the team begins its preseason today against Denver, there are striking similarities between what Walsh did with the team a quarter-century ago and what Mike Nolan is doing now.

The death of Walsh, the pioneering 49ers patriarch, was the big news at the start of summer camp last month, temporarily shadowing the high hopes and big dreams of the fine young team assembled by his latest successor.

Bill Walsh and Mike Nolan.

Those are two football names that you tie together primarily - and perhaps only - because of their association with the 49ers, where Walsh built a dynasty during his 10 years as coach/operational chief from 1979-1988. Now, four coaches and almost two decades later, Nolan is the man attempting to resurrect the 49ers from the NFL ruins, running the show as coach/operational chief just as Walsh did when he got started a football era ago.

As pure X's and O's coaches, the two men aren't much alike. Walsh, the architect of the vaunted West Coast offense, was the preeminent offensive mind of his football generation - perhaps any football generation. Nolan is all about defense.

But as leaders of men and master builders of an organization, there are striking similarities between the two, and the parallels between what Walsh did with the 49ers a quarter-century ago and what Nolan is doing with them now are simply too conspicuous to overlook.

Walsh took over a down-at-below-bottom 2-14 team that was in disarray and void of talent after being poorly managed and coached before he arrived. Nolan took over a down-and-out 2-14 team that was in disarray and gutted of talent after being poorly managed and coached before he arrived.

Both men made the wise decision to start over, leveling the shaky framework that still existed and replacing it with a new foundation and structure. Both paid the price in their first season as their teams remained among the very worst in the league.

But their methods took root. Walsh went 6-10 his second season as his team improved and continued building around a second-year quarterback named Joe Montana. Nolan went 7-9 his second season last year as his team improved and continued building around second-year quarterback Alex Smith.

Everyone knows what happened in the third season of the Walsh program. With his system in place and upgraded personnel dotting his roster, Walsh won a Super Bowl, and things would never, ever, again be the same with the San Francisco 49ers.

It's now Year 3 of the Nolan regime, and while not many are talking Super Bowl, high expectations and playoff chatter are swarming the team. That's one thing Walsh didn't have to deal with way back when.

But that's where Nolan and the 49ers stand today, and with Walsh's recent passing at age 75, it's difficult not to notice that Nolan's 49ers are following a course that matches the path Walsh's 49ers followed on the way to greatness.

"I've thought about (the parallels)," Nolan said. "It's a little presumptuous, because of what happens in year three. You'd like to think that's it. But I'm certainly not going to bank on history repeating itself just out of the blue."

That's the essence of Nolan - a realist, a man that knows nothing comes easy in the NFL, a coach that knows you only get what you deserve and work hard for. So the similarities between the way Walsh did it with the 49ers and the way Nolan's doing it with the team now? Well, that only tells Nolan that he's doing something right.

But there's one big difference: Nolan has had Walsh in his ear the past few years telling him the same thing, and also suggesting that lightning in the form of football glory can indeed strike twice.

"It would be nice if it happens," Nolan said. "But, again, it is a different three years. I will say this: Bill, in our conversations, did refer to that a lot of times, in that the first year was alike, the second year went kind of similar. To be honest with you, I think he was just as hopeful as anyone that the third year looked the same.

"And I appreciated that, because he just as easily could say, ‘I don't want anybody to match what we've ever done.' Again, it's presumptuous to think that will happen."

But Nolan has built the base and structure. He doesn't necessarily have a Walshian mind running his offense - and that's significant - but going into a new season these 2007 Niners have to look just about as good as those Super Bowl-destined Niners looked entering Walsh's third season of 1981.

And what Nolan has working for him is what Walsh created - a proud, esteemed, storied franchise that has reached the highest standards ever in professional sports and has a national fan base that remembers and has waited patiently while Nolan points the team in that direction again.

"Although I didn't work for him directly, I always thought of Bill as a mentor," Nolan said. "When I took the job here, he was always very helpful and very positive, reflected often on his early days as a 49er head coach, and the struggles and difficult times he went through, but at the same time, what his focus was in trying to get the 49ers to where they ended up being, and that's Super Bowl champions.

"He was very helpful to me and very much into getting the 49ers back where they had been. Bill had a tremendous amount to do with building the 49ers and what they stand for today. Obviously, the trophies out front, he had a lot to do with all five. And, I'll be honest with you, when number six shows up, he'll have a lot to do with number six. He doesn't have to be here."

But Walsh's spirit will be here, ubiquitously watching over Nolan and the chase for No. 6, which begins in earnest this season.

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