Championship tradition began with Dick Nolan

Dick and Mike Nolan were named 49ers head coach on the same day 37 years apart. In the time it took for son to follow father, Dick Nolan made his mark on football's big-time stage, set a new championship standard in San Francisco, became one of the greatest player/coaches of his NFL era, then watched his boy follow in his footsteps to the same position where he earned his foremost coaching fame.

Dick Nolan died at age 75 on Sunday at a residential assisted-living facility in Grapevine, Texas, not far from his suburban Dallas home where he had lived with his wife of 53 years, Ann. His health had deteriorated in recent years as he battled both Alzheimer's disease and prostrate cancer.

Mike Nolan, Dick's second son and third of six children, had missed 49ers practice on Friday and Saturday to be with his father before his death.

Possibly the only man ever to win a national championship in college and NFL championship as a player and later coach in a NFC championship game, Dick Nolan was a defensive mastermind known for working hand-in-hand with Tom Landry to create the vaunted "Flex" defense with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s.

His success as defensive coordinator in Dallas landed him his first opportunity as a head coach, and he oversaw the greatest run in the 49ers' pre-Bill Walsh history during his eight seasons with the team.

Dick Nolan was well into retirement when his son, who also built his reputation as a defensive strategist, became the ninth man to succeed him as 49ers coach, making the Nolans just the fourth father-son coaching duo in NFL history.

The younger Nolan came to his father for football advice virtually all of Mike's life since boyhood, but by the time Nolan the younger had become the 15th head coach in franchise history, Dick Nolan said with a chuckle during a 2005 interview with SFI, "he's got enough now to handle it."

Dick Nolan accumulated volumes of football wisdom and advice during his four decades as a player, coach and scout. A star quarterback during his prep days at White Plains High School in New York, Nolan went on to play both offense and defense at the University of Maryland, where he became a heralded defensive halfback while helping lead that school to its only national championship in 1953.

Selected in the fourth round of the 1954 NFL draft, Nolan became an immediate starter and had a career-high six interceptions as a rookie. He also led the Giants in interceptions with five in 1959 and led the Chicago Cardinals with five interceptions in his one season with that team in 1958 before re-joining the Giants. Nolan won a NFL championship in his third season in New York and played in two other championship games with the Giants in 1959 and 1961.

In nine seasons, Nolan had 23 interceptions in 99 games and also began a relationship with Giants teammate Tom Landry, whom Nolan later would follow to Dallas when his playing days where over.

After playing his final season with the Cowboys in 1962, Nolan retired as a player and immediately joined Landry's staff. Landry, who retired as a defensive back with the Giants in 1955, began building one of the NFL's enduring dynasties when he took over as the first coach of the Cowboys in 1960.

As defensive coordinator, Nolan worked closely with Landry to devise the "Flex" defense that revolutionized defensive philosophies and introduced schemes that are widespread in the NFL today. After developing a reputation as a rising defensive mind, helping lead the Cowboys to the NFL championship game in 1966 and 1967, Nolan was offered the top job for a San Francisco team that had only one winning season in the six years before he arrived.

He immediately produced a winner in his debut season, then two years later guided the 49ers to their first NFC West championship, the beginning of a three-year string of divisional titles from 1970-72 that included appearances in back-to-back NFC Championship games.

As the game and culture around him changed – it was, remember, the Summer of Love in San Francisco when he arrived, and the team would move its home games from the Haight-Ashbury district Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park in the midst of Nolan's championship run – Nolan built a passing offense around aging quarterback John Brodie and developed a championship-level defense to go with it.

"Dick was a defensive strategist," said Dave Wilcox, who developed into a Hall of Fame linebacker while playing in Nolan's system each of the eight years Nolan was with the team. "He changed the attitude of the 49ers from what had been going on there for a while. He changed the whole (defensive) system. It was a lot more detailed than what we had done prior to him coming to the team. What we did before was pretty much draw plays up in the dirt.

"Dick would get into it and really know what he was talking about. If you did what he told you and what he said and believed in it, it worked."

Nolan took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in both 1970 and 1971, losing to Landry's Cowboys in defensive struggles each time. He was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1970 and guided San Francisco to the first two playoff victories in franchise history. The 49ers would not come near the playoffs or division titles again until after Walsh's arrival at the end of the decade.

Nolan's NFL days were far from over after Monte Clark replaced him as 49ers coach in 1976. Nolan resurfaced as head coach of the New Orleans Saints from 1978-1980, leading that upstart franchise to its two best records up to that point in his first two years.

After going 16-26 in his final three San Francisco seasons, Nolan finished with a 54-53-5 record with the 49ers and completed his head-coaching career at 69-82-5 after going 15-29 with the Saints.

Nolan moved on to become defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers in 1981 before returning the next year as an assistant to Landry in Dallas, where he remained until 1990. He also spent one year as the head coach of the AFL's San Antonio Force in 1992.

By that time, Nolan's middle son already had made a name for himself in the NFL and began his rise as a defensive coordinator with dad's former team – the New York Giants – in 1993. Mike Nolan was named head coach of the 49ers on January 19, 2005 – exactly 37 years to the day after his father experienced the same coronation.

Mike Nolan has worn a suit and tie on the sidelines during game days the past two seasons in honor of his father, and in his first game as 49ers coach in 2005 wore the championship ring his father had won with the Giants a half-century before.

In his 2005 interview with SFI, Dick Nolan said "he might be out there to raise some hell," at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, but he visited only a few times before his health went into decline. It's a place that was built more than a decade after he was with the team.

In a statement, 49ers team owners John and Denise York said, "The San Francisco 49ers organization is mourning the loss of one of our legends with the passing of Dick Nolan. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Nolan family and all those that loved and supported him. His influence was far-reaching. He was a major part of the pantheon of great men who helped create the 49ers outstanding winning tradition. Dick's love of football came second only to family, and those values persevere as his son Mike continues to carry on the legacy of his father both on the field and off the field. The greatest honor we can give Dick is to have Mike carry on the same tradition that his father established during his tenure with the 49ers."

And that's where the 49ers are today, with a Nolan in charge, and another Nolan forever there in spirit.

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