Ann Killion
Tuesday August 4th, 2009

Obviously, Mike Singletary didn't get the memo.

The one about today's athletes. About the need to protect and coddle their multi-million dollar bodies, their fragile mindsets, their short attention spans.

In his first training camp as the 49ers head coach, Singletary is running two-a-day practices -- in pads. He's adopted old-fashioned tackling drills, like the aptly named "nutcracker." He's giving fire and brimstone speeches -- and it's barely August. He's stopping practice whenever he doesn't like what he sees -- to deliver a tutorial.

Does Singletary think it's 1985? Clearly this is the wrong way to handle an NFL team in 2009. But Singletary's approach just might work.

Singletary is the latest in a series of designated saviors of the forlorn 49ers. The five-time Super Bowl champions haven't had a winning season since 2002. And, on the outside, Singletary is an unlikely candidate to turn things around.

A career as a Hall of Fame linebacker isn't exactly prime grooming ground for a head coach. Singletary has never even been a coordinator at any level. He's a defensive-minded rookie leader, just like the 49ers last unsuccessful coach: Singletary's predecessor Mike Nolan was fired mid-season, failing to make progress after almost four years.

Singletary has claimed he wants the franchise -- famous for revolutionizing the passing game -- to be "physical with an F." That would be a change. For the past six years, the 49ers have simply received an F. Not for "physical."

Back in the 1980s, Singletary was an undersized linebacker for the Chicago Bears who turned himself into one of the most fearsome defensive forces in the league. Now he says he wants to become the greatest NFL coach ever. Such comments are met with snickers. After all, how many great players become great coaches?

But Singletary has something in common with the man who turned the 49ers franchise around three decades ago. Despite coming from the other side of the ball Singletary, like the late Bill Walsh, has supreme self-confidence and certainty. There is no self-doubt involved.

That serves him well in a league in which frauds are sniffed out quickly and tuned out even faster.

After years of missteps under the York ownership -- the awkward firing of Steve Mariucci, the bumbling regime of Dennis Erickson and Terry Donahue, the shallow window dressing of the Nolan era -- an actual leader fell into the 49ers' laps.

Elevated to replace Nolan on an interim basis last October, Singletary changed the mindset and the rhythm of the 49ers in their last nine games. They finished 5-4 (one bungled final drive in Arizona away from 6-3), making Singletary the team's first winning coach since Mariucci.

So back in December, the Yorks didn't hesitate. Giddy with unaccustomed success, they hastily hired Singletary on a permanent basis.

Within weeks, the move was second-guessed. Proven coaches like Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden -- Super Bowl winners with close ties to the Walsh offense -- became available. The 49ers were wedded to a blue collar, smash mouth interloper while the royal bloodlines went unclaimed.

Yet, it was hard to downplay the transformation that had taken place. It went beyond more than simply trying hard for the new guy. The team was infused with a new energy and new belief.

Even Singletary's early missteps weren't fatal. When word leaked that he had dropped his pants in a halftime tirade to the team, he shrugged off the embarrassment. As his wife observed, Singletary simply said "Note to self: Don't do that again," and moved on.

When he banished tight end Vernon Davis from the field after a boneheaded penalty and then later called him out ("Cannot win with them, cannot coach with them, can't do it.") in what has become an instant-classic coach rant, the world wondered how long that approach would play with the players.

It played through the end of the season. And it's still playing. Davis may be Singletary's most devoted follower.

"Main thing I like about Singletary is that he gets on you," Davis said a few days ago. "He'll stay on you"

Veterans, like defensive end Justin Smith -- who claims to have never done a tackling drill in nine years in the NFL -- are on board with Singletary's physical approach.

Singletary's interesting tactics are still in play. He's allowing a quarterback competition between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, even though everyone, from the team bus driver to the guy at the local Starbucks, knows Hill -- 7-3 as a starter -- deserves to be the guy. When former No. 1 pick Smith was booed by fans at one of the team's first practices, Singletary was delighted, calling such trial by fire "outstanding."

The old-school coach doesn't even seem to mind that top draft pick Michael Crabtree is holding out. Crabtree, surprisingly available to the 49ers at No. 10, thinks he's worth more than 10th-pick money. On the surface, that sounds like something Singletary would abhor. But in 1981, Singletary was a training-camp holdout. He was drafted in the second round but thought he was better than a second-round pick.

Singletary might not have gotten the memo about modern athletes. But maybe he knows that things haven't really changed all that much.

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