Four years ago I sat across a desk from Mike Singletary, thankful I was wearing a media credential and not a Minnesota Vikings jersey.
Singletary was the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens. I was writing about fear and intimidation in the National Football League.
"Some players are selling wolf tickets," said Singletary, using slang to describe athletes who speak loudly and play softly. "They get on the field, the game starts, and they find out there are players even better than they thought. When that happens, you start to forget your skills and your technique, and you are just trying to survive out there. That's when the intimidation comes. You are just hanging on."
For 12 seasons, Singletary brought intimidation to the middle of the Chicago Bears defense. Today, as the interim head coach replacing Mike Nolan in San Francisco, he will try to restore that quality to a 49ers franchise that once commanded the highest respect. Singletary played during the best days of the 49ers, chasing Jerry Rice and Roger Craig around Soldier Field and Candlestick. He used to watch so much film that he understood the role of every player on the Bears defense cold. He knew where the gaps would develop and the quickest routes to the ball carrier. He stayed late after practice, trying to better his teammates and himself.
But how will fond memories translate for a team sitting at 2-5 for the fourth straight season? Can Singletary thrive in San Francisco?
"I know that there is a fire that burns in my heart for this team to be successful," Singletary said Tuesday at his press conference, five days before his Niners were to take the field against woeful Seattle. "And that fire is unconquerable, and it will not die until it comes to pass. I'm not a sugar-coater. I don't scratch my head when it doesn't itch, and I don't blink when there's nothing in my eye. I just know this: whatever it is, we will find it together."
It won't be easy. The 49ers, once marked by the longevity of their coaches and the accountability in their locker room, have become a typical NFL way station. Players and philosophies come and go. Impatience lives where stability once did.
At several points in the last 3½ years, Nolan seemed to have the 49ers on the verge of a breakout, only to watch the team tumble down the standings. Management didn't wait.
"We have not gotten the results on the field that we need," said 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan. "We have to strive and do everything in our power to get to that point."
McCloughan added, "Going over to Coach Singletary, I've been very impressed for 3½ years watching him on the field coach the linebacker position. It's been a position, year in and year out, that we've gotten the most out of our guys from a talent level. The players respond to him in good times and bad times."
While some will question his lack of head coaching experience, Singletary brings a similar biography to his own former head coach, Mike Ditka, who was an assistant under Tom Landry in Dallas for nine seasons before the Bears hired him. (Singletary spent two seasons in Baltimore and is in his fourth in San Francisco).
Singletary has always thrived as a focal point, whether on the field as a player or off the field as a motivational speaker. His focus and intensity come straight from the soul of the game.
Though self-described as a man of few words, those words carry the weight of an anvil.
At various times under Nolan, Singletary addressed the 49ers as a whole, giving the players a glimpse of the man who rode 10 Pro Bowl appearances right into the Hall of Fame. Now the front of the room will be his and his alone.
How Singletary fares and how patient 49ers brass is will determine whether this is the beginning of an era or another stopover for a listing franchise.
Two things are clear. Singletary brings immediate Hall of Fame credentials to the locker room.
And he won't settle for players who sell wolf tickets.