Skip to main content

Singletary failing in trying to turn the 49ers into version of himself


Mike Singletary is proving once again why there are Hall of Fames players and there are Hall of Fame coaches.

And only in exceptional cases are they ever the same person.

You can count those exceptions on one hand. John Wooden. Lenny Wilkens. There's Larry Robinson and Jacques Lemaire, both NHL Hall of Fame players who coached their teams to Stanley Cups.

You can have a lively debate on the merits of good players turned head coaches/managers, like Don Nelson or Billy Cunningham, Felipe Alou or Mike Ditka. There is fodder out there for fascinating arguments.

But the truth is this: rarely do Hall of Fame players make even Hall of OK coaches.

It requires a different tool box, a different color palette. There are the talents that drive players to be the fiercest, most dominating, single-minded competitors in their arena. And then there are the skills required to pull together a group of divergent talents and varied personalities, to game plan, manage, prepare and then coach your group to outplay others.

Not only different skill sets, but almost diametrically opposed ones.

Right now, Singletary is learning the harsh lesson: that being arguably the greatest middle linebacker in football history, that having a mustard yellow coat hanging in a back closet -- those things are not enough to make someone a great or even competent coach.

Singletary's 49ers team is now 3-7. Unlike Brad Childress, Singletary likely will survive to coach his 11th game this season on Monday night in Arizona, but his future as the team's head coach is very much in doubt. His team's fan base is calling for his head. He is being mocked in a way that would be utterly unthinkable during his bulging-eyes-dominating-presence playing days.

Singletary, in his blustery start to his head-coaching career, announced that he planned to be the greatest head coach of all time. He apologized to fans after losses. He roared that he wanted "winners." That he would be "physical with an F." There were lightning storms of emotion, thunderclaps of intent.

But right now he's failing -- that's with an F -- in a stunning way. The latest 49ers' low was a 21-0 shutout against Tampa Bay on Sunday, the first time the 49ers had been held scoreless at home since 1977.

"I wouldn't even dare say I'm doing a good job," "Samurai" Mike said Monday. "But it's not over yet."

Singletary was an overachiever as a player, drafted in the second round, driven by a maniacal work ethic and desire to overcome the view that he was too small for his position.

As the head coach of the 49ers -- a position he stepped into after Mike Nolan was fired midway through 2008 -- Singletary took over a mediocre team. He became the face and voice of the woebegone franchise. The team is marketed as a celebration of Singletary's intensity.

He was put in charge of players who, for the most part, were not cut from his same cloth. A man of intense convictions but little technical coaching experience (he had never been a head coach or coordinator), Singletary has attempted to motivate the 49ers to greatness. It hasn't happened.

When things have gone wrong, he's fingered leadership as the problem, despite the evidence that the 49ers are ill-prepared and outcoached on a weekly basis. He's dumped his offensive coordinator, shuttled quarterbacks and generally looks lost.

Singletary's players are not Singletary. They are not -- with the exception of perhaps two, who likely need better things to happen in their career to get to Canton (Patrick Willis and Frank Gore) -- Hall of Fame caliber.

But he wants them to be him. Even worse, he wants them to play like he did: like the '85 Bears. In a pass-first league, Singletary wants to run, and run and run again. But he doesn't have the manpower to do it nor the innovation to switch up when it doesn't work -- as on Sunday when the league's 29th-ranked run defense held Gore to 23 rushing yards.

The horrendous NFC West, which prevents a 3-7 team from raising the white flag, is keeping the obvious at bay in San Francisco. But the reality can only be ignored for so long: for the third time in six seasons the 49ers are headed for a complete makeover.

Singletary was one of the greatest players of all time, enshrined in bronze in Canton for his work in the middle of the field. But it turns out that was meaningless preparation for his work on the sideline.