On a day so clear that you can peer into the past, George
Seifert has the brisk Bay breeze at his back, a new rod in his
hand and a million-dollar view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's
the consummate setting for a fish story, and San Francisco's
most celebrated angler is talking about the one that got away.
Seifert's tale is full of suspense, irony and symbolism. What
makes it even more compelling is that it happens to be true.
The scene is an equally sunny day nearly nine years earlier,
before Seifert gained fame as coach of the San Francisco 49ers
and as a hip-swiveling, off-key-crooning credit-card pitchman.
On that June morning he was merely one of three men in a 20-foot
Grady White boat at the end of a wildly successful fishing
voyage. The boat was idling in the Pacific, just off the
southwestern edge of San Francisco, just beyond the Olympic
Club, where practice rounds for the 1987 U.S. Open were under
way. Seifert and his companions, Bruce Hulick and Ed Nessel,
could see the hang gliders from Fort Funston soaring and dipping
like cormorants. A few minutes earlier they had spotted the
wreckage of a Boston Whaler that after straying too close to
shore the previous weekend had been flipped by the surf, killing
three of its passengers. "Can you believe anybody could be that
careless?" Seifert wondered aloud.
Now Seifert and Hulick were reeling in the day's last fish, and
Nessel, at the helm, was watching them intently. Without
warning, a large wave crept up and slammed the boat, throwing
its stunned passengers into the chilly Pacific. The 4,000-pound
boat landed bottom-up above Seifert, and he was sucked toward
the ocean floor. He tumbled several times, lost his orientation
and relived memories of similar experiences from his teenage
years, when he had bodysurfed along the same coastline.
Seifert got to the surface and yelled for his companions, both
of whom had also escaped serious injury. The three men had begun
swimming for their lives--about 200 yards of rough surf
separated them from the beach--when Seifert collided with a
large striped bass that he believed had also been tossed from
the boat. At 25 pounds, it was one of the biggest fish Seifert
had pulled in that season, and he grabbed it in one hand. This
was his bizarre reasoning: Nessel's $35,000 boat may have been
totaled, but there's no way I'm losing dinner.
July 14, 1996
"So I start swimming in with the fish," Seifert recalls, "but
now the waves are pounding me, and I'm wearing these rain pants,
and they start sliding down over my knees. So now I can't swim.
It's the fish or me, and I'm sinking. Finally I had to let the
fish go so I could take my rain pants off and swim in. When we
got to the shore we looked like a pack of drowned rats."
On the beach the men saw a police vehicle stopped with its
lights blinking. They ran toward it, expecting a helping hand.
Instead they got a hostile interrogation, one they did not
understand until one of the patrolmen pointed to a lumpy figure
underneath a tarp. "There was a dead body lying on the beach, so
they thought he was a part of our deal," Seifert says. "It turns
out the guy had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and washed all
the way down there. They found him at the same time we had our
It was the scariest experience of Seifert's life, and it helped
drive home three points that would become tenets of his coaching
philosophy. First, you're never more than one unexpected jolt
away from upheaval, so you might as well enjoy the moment.
Second, even in the most trying of circumstances, there's always
someone who has been through worse. And third, while it's fine
to pursue the object of your obsession, there are times when you
have to let go of your catch--and, in extreme cases, your
"He tried to catch a fish on the way to shore. Can you believe
that?" says Eve Dunkle. "What a fanatic. He's crazy."
Dunkle, 27, should know. She's Seifert's daughter. Her brother,
Jason, 24, calls his father "a control freak." Linda Seifert,
George's wife of 31 years, depicts her husband as "rigid,
tyrannical, demanding--not a real easy person to live with."
These are the people who love Seifert the most, yet even they
can't resist poking fun at his intensely focused nature. They
tease him about the strange mouth movements he makes on the
sidelines; about the trancelike state he enters when tending to
a simple task, such as adjusting the rearview mirror; about his
desire to fix any of their real or imagined problems instantly;
and about his boundless array of superstitions.
Seifert can handle the flak. This is a man who spends his
driving hours tuned to sports-talk radio, partly to monitor
public opinion and partly, he swears, to comb for constructive
advice ("Hi, this is Dave from Burlingame. I think the 49ers
should trade Dexter Carter and a fourth-round draft choice to
the Steelers for Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd"). He reads the
daily assortment of Niners-related articles from local papers
before most sportswriters are out of bed.
Often Seifert hears and sees himself getting ripped, a puzzling
phenomenon considering his performance. In seven seasons as the
49ers' coach he has won two Super Bowls, appeared in five NFC
Championship Games and has a 95-30 record. His .760 winning
percentage is the best in modern NFL history, just ahead of the
.740 of a fellow named Vince Lombardi. In Seifert's worst
season, 1991, he went 10-6. Perhaps the most amazing testament
to his coaching ability is that 21 of his defeats have been by
seven points or less, and only three have been by 11 or more
Yet the 56-year-old Seifert, a native San Franciscan, has been
berated as much as he has been celebrated by Niners fans. This
is partly because Seifert has rarely displayed his personality
to the public but mostly because he succeeded Bill Walsh, a man
who took a lousy team that had never won an NFL title and
created one of the most consistently successful franchises in
Now, in the wake of the 49ers' playoff loss to the Green Bay
Packers last January, Walsh has been hired by 49ers owner Eddie
DeBartolo as an offensive assistant, a move Seifert's critics
have seized upon as a sign of weakness. Just as Seifert is
finally growing on the public and his players, displaying a
looseness to which few outside his inner circle have been privy,
the pressure has been turned up another notch. In 1994 Seifert
knew he probably had to win the Super Bowl to avoid being fired.
He won the Super Bowl. "I think this year will probably be like
'94, another live-or-die season," Seifert says. Can he survive a
9-7 record? "Probably not," he says. DeBartolo insists he does
not share that opinion, and Walsh says, "That's just George's
way of keeping himself primed."
This much is certain: If the 49ers win a record sixth Super Bowl
this season, Walsh will get some of the credit. If they don't
win it, Seifert will get all the blame.
During an interview in late February, Seifert asks a reporter to
leave his office so he can take a call. The caller is cornerback
Eric Davis, and the news is not good for Seifert. Davis has
received a free-agent offer from the Carolina Panthers, who have
outbid the 49ers by several million dollars for Davis's
services. After the conversation ends, Seifert is noticeably
disturbed. In 1990, Seifert's first year in charge of the
Niners' draft, San Francisco used a second-round pick on Davis,
a small-college star out of Jacksonville (Ala.) State. Seifert
rode Davis mercilessly for years, regularly threatened to cut
him and wanted to bench him when Deion Sanders joined the 49ers
in '94. Davis persevered and blossomed into a Pro Bowl player
last season. Now he is on the verge of leaving for reasons
beyond Seifert's control. That Davis chose to consult his coach
before signing has less to do with Davis's progress than it does
"When I first joined the team, I was like everyone else," Davis
says. "When I looked at George, I'd see the stone-faced guy on
TV who never smiled and never talked to anyone. He seemingly had
no relationship with any of the players. He would ride me so
hard it made me wonder if I'd stolen money from him. I didn't
like him at first, but eventually he brought out in me what he
was trying to bring out, and I earned my stripes."
Seifert's personality was an issue when Walsh stepped down in
January 1989, a few days after guiding the 49ers to a win over
the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Walsh had been
grooming Seifert as his successor and had confided to him a year
earlier that the 1988-89 season would most likely be his last.
But when it came time to replace Walsh, DeBartolo wondered
whether Seifert was the right choice. As brilliant as he had
been as Walsh's defensive backs coach from 1980 to '82 and as
his defensive coordinator for the six seasons thereafter,
Seifert had mostly holed up inside his office and devised
meticulous game plans. He had zero schmoozing ability. "I
thought George was the most serious guy I had ever met," says
49ers wideout Jerry Rice. DeBartolo's closest adviser and now
team president Carmen Policy was among those who doubted that
Seifert could handle the interpersonal portion of the job. So
did Seifert's wife. "I love my husband," Linda says, "but when
he first took the job, even I thought, This is gonna be tough."
In his first few seasons Seifert motivated his players without
inspiring intense displays of loyalty from them. He was
painfully blunt and, at least in his eyes, sincere. "I used to
tease him about his people skills," Policy says. "George would
think he was getting through to a player, and the player would
come out of the meeting with an entirely different view of what
was said and would be in a worse frame of mind."
Some players still hold grudges for Seifert's failure to
acknowledge their anguish during family illnesses or other
difficult times. "Twice my wife had babies during the season,
and once I had to take her to the emergency room because she had
meningitis," says Mike Walter, a 49ers linebacker from 1984 to
'93. "Every coach asked me the next day how she was--every coach
except George. Either he didn't have the time or he didn't care.
Neither is very flattering."
Says Seifert, "Those things are private. There were times when I
thought about saying something in those situations, but those
are things we deal with privately."
Another explanation for Seifert's apparent lack of sensitivity
is his legendary focus, or, more precisely, his inability to
focus on more than one thing at a time. Though his life can be
broken down into the three F's--family, football and
fishing--they rarely overlap. Linda and the kids say they
essentially consider George a missing person from late July to
late January. His fishing buddies also feel the distance. "When
football season starts he flips a switch," Hulick says. "He's in
another world, and we basically don't see him. I might stop by
and tell him a few fishing stories. He could care less."
Says Rick Marchetti, another fishing companion, "During the
season, you try to stay out of his way. A lot of his friends
aren't going to be heartbroken when he's not coaching anymore."
Everyone who knows Seifert speaks of his occasionally trancelike
behavior, which seems to occur regardless of whether he's
captaining his boat, fixing an appliance or devising a game
plan. "He has a greater ability to focus on a specific thing
than any coach I've ever seen," says Green Bay coach Mike
Holmgren, Seifert's offensive coordinator from 1989 to '91.
"There were times when we'd pass each other in the hallway, and
he'd just whisk right by as if I didn't exist. Who knows where
his mind was. If you didn't know him, you'd think he was a
Seifert is also a very superstitious man. We will never know
exactly how many superstitions he has, because he is
superstitious about discussing his superstitions. These are
merely some of the highlights.
Seifert will not walk across the 49ers helmet that is
spray-painted on the turf on one of the team's practice fields,
though players often try to lead him there. Each time he puts a
Certs into his mouth during practice--and he consumes a lot of
them--he blows on it three times. He does strange things at
meals involving specific napkin folding and the positioning of
silverware, and his pregame routine is legendary. He makes a
shirtless lap around the locker room with exaggerated strides
and turns that drives his players nuts. Last year tight end
Brent Jones and tackle Harris Barton began placing helmets,
chairs, shoulder pads and other barriers in Seifert's path; he
dodged the obstacles and kept jogging through. "I didn't even
notice," he says laughing. "This is the first I've heard of it."
Some players, however, aren't amused by Seifert's
idiosyncrasies. Two years ago a former Niner said, "That stuff
was just a distraction. We're supposed to take him seriously?
Imagine going into battle with George Patton and he's blowing on
Seifert's superstitiousness originated at a dinner table nearly
40 years ago. On Thanksgiving Day 1957, he played linebacker and
on the offensive line for Polytechnic High against Balboa High
in the San Francisco city championship game at Kezar Stadium,
then home of the 49ers. Before the game Seifert ate a grapefruit
for breakfast. His team lost, and on the winning score, a Balboa
High ballcarrier bulled into the end zone with Seifert on his
shoulders. At a team party that night Seifert had a few beers to
drown his sorrows. Among the food served at dinner was a
grapefruit with a cherry on top. Something clicked in Seifert's
mind: The loss was the grapefruit's fault! He went berserk,
hacking the grapefruit to shreds with his knife, and most of his
teammates joined in.
Now Seifert is a prisoner of ritual. "But he's really trying to
work on these things," Dunkle says. "That's one of the coolest
things about him. How many people work to improve themselves at
Seifert's superstitious nature makes sense when you consider the
way fate has smiled upon him. The scholarship offer he received
to play football at Utah, for instance, was not extended until
August 1958, three days before Seifert was scheduled to begin
classes at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Had fate not intervened,
Seifert might well have been on the team flight two years later
that crashed after takeoff, killing 22 people in the Cal Poly
traveling party, including 16 football players.
Then there was the way George met Linda. While home on a break
from Utah, he attended a sporting event at Polytechnic High and
pointed out a particularly attractive cheerleader to his younger
brother, Bob, who was the school's senior-class president.
George wanted to meet her, and Bob introduced George to Linda,
who was an attractive cheerleader--but not the attractive
cheerleader. No matter. George forged a relationship with
perhaps the one woman both strong and good-natured enough to put
up with his idiosyncrasies.
They got married in 1965, after George had completed an
undistinguished football career as a guard and linebacker at
Utah and a season as a graduate assistant there. Linda thought
she was marrying a future zoology teacher. But George
resurrected a dormant football program as coach at Westminster
College in Salt Lake City and then served for one season as a
graduate assistant at Iowa. Destiny came through again in '67
when the Seiferts were driving from Iowa City to the Bay Area.
George, without any coaching options after completing his work
at Iowa, had accepted a sales position. Trailer in tow, they
pulled over in Salt Lake City and, aware of an opening at
Oregon, George called coach Jerry Frei. The ensuing interview
resulted in a five-year detour.
The Seiferts made it back to the Bay Area in 1972 when he joined
Stanford as secondary coach. They left only once more, for
George's disastrous stint as Cornell's coach in '75 and '76. He
was fired after winning three games in two years and learning
some hard lessons. "I remember going in, not really knowing what
I was doing and it showing in a big hurry," says Seifert, who
upon his firing returned to Stanford as an assistant under
Walsh. "I was concerned about the uniforms and the forming of
the booster club and the budget, everything other than the most
important thing, which was winning games. I also tried to do
everybody's job. I'd interrupt my assistants during practice and
show them how to run a drill. I was a better head coach the next
time I got the chance."
That Seifert's next chance would come with San Francisco was
astounding, especially given his lifelong love for the 49ers. As
a high school senior in 1957 he had worked as an usher at Kezar
and watched San Francisco suffer one of its most crushing
playoff disappointments, a 31-27 loss to the Detroit Lions.
Seifert thinks about that game often; five Super Bowl rings
later, it still hurts. "It's damn near a love affair George has
with the 49ers," says Kansas City Chiefs personnel director Lynn
Stiles, a former Niners assistant who roomed with Seifert at
Utah. "It goes way beyond working for a living."
In his first few years as San Francisco's coach, Seifert seemed
to be miserable. One Bay Area columnist referred to him as
having a "beige personality," a depiction that stung Seifert
more than any other. He always seemed to be genial enough away
from the game, but at work the pressure of following Walsh
seemed to rule him. Even his jokes fell flat. Once in 1992
Seifert told a security official to order San Francisco Examiner
writer John Crumpacker to stop taking notes on the practice
field. Seifert, who had been the recipient of playful barbs from
Crumpacker, was kidding, but Crumpacker took him seriously and
stopped writing. "When I found out he was joking," Crumpacker
says, "I took it as a sign he was coming around."
Seifert had to loosen up, if only to keep from contradicting the
principle he had preached to his children: You're only here
once, so you'd better not shy away from new experiences. "I
can't be afraid of life," Seifert says. "Also, I looked at the
pressure of coaching and figured I've got two ways to handle
this energy: one, let it destroy me, or two, have fun with it."
Amid the wreckage of the Niners' second consecutive NFC
Championship Game loss to the Dallas Cowboys, a 38-21 thrashing
in January 1994, Seifert began to unwind. "From that next
training camp on, he was a different man," says quarterback
Steve Young. "After we lost to Dallas the second time in the
conference championship, everyone in the organization began
reevaluating. George decided that this intensity, this
tightness, wasn't going to cut it. So he let go and started
laughing a little more. The whole team loosened up, but George
For Seifert the change extended beyond football. "As a younger
guy, George wasn't really capable of sharing people's feelings,
because football is a win/lose sport, and expressing feelings is
not what you get kudos for," says his half-brother Paul Milo.
"He has more confidence now, and he's comfortable giving or
accepting a hug."
The public did not begin noticing Seifert's transformation until
the level of stress reached its zenith. Following the only truly
embarrassing defeat of his 49ers coaching tenure, a 40-8
spanking by the Philadelphia Eagles at Candlestick Park in
October 1994, Seifert was the subject of an unscientific call-in
poll by the Niners' flagship radio station. At issue: Should
Seifert be replaced by Jimmy Johnson? Eighty-five percent of the
respondents said yes. After practice the next day Seifert was
asked for his reaction. Reporters braced themselves, but the man
who once was so paranoid that he closed practices during the
playoffs after allegedly sighting a man perched atop a nearby
eucalyptus tree, went against form this time. "I'd like to thank
the 15 percent who voted for me," he said.
George and Linda figured San Francisco had to win the Super Bowl
after the 1994 season for him to keep his job, and that meant
defeating the Cowboys. As concerned as Seifert was about
becoming "the Buffalo of the championship game," an inexplicable
sense of security came over him the week before that game
against Dallas. He bounced around the house almost giddily. "It
was the most excited I've ever been for a game," he says. "I had
a sense we were going to kick their ass." San Francisco won 38-28.
Seifert's friends and family members talk about his dry sense of
humor and his penchant for wacky behavior, though examples are
hard to extract. He cracks jokes, they say, sings by the
campfire, consumes his share of wine and beer and has a
lampshade-on-the-head streak. During the 1994 season, while
Linda was in Africa hiking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro,
George and some friends went out for drinks at a nearly empty
bar in the North Beach section of San Francisco. One woman was
dubious of Seifert's friends' claim that Seifert was the 49ers'
coach, and she dared him to dance with her atop the bar.
Seifert, whose musical tastes include Queen (classic rock),
Ottmar Liebert (flamenco guitar), Nirvana (grunge), Ministry
(speed metal) and Don MacLean (sap), stood up and boogied down.
Last fall the world got to see Seifert wiggle and sing in a Visa
commercial in which he pays musical (sort of) tribute to "the
bossa nova, the dance of love." He says he was motivated to
appear in the ad to pay for Eve's wedding last October, but a
few years earlier Seifert could have been on welfare and not
consented to such a public display of folly. Blame it on the
bossa nova. Seifert now gets stopped on the streets, in airports
and on his daily jogs by fans who know him as the Bossa Nova
Guy. "It's a shame, really," Seifert says. "I was hoping I'd be
remembered for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing."
Says Policy, "Until the Visa commercial, people couldn't see a
side of him that would even suggest he'd be capable of having
fun. But what you saw in that commercial is a significant part
of his personality."
Personality quirks aside, Seifert is as sharp as anyone in
football. "He's unbelievably bright," says 49ers safety Tim
McDonald. "You blow a play in practice, and even though he's on
the other side of the field, the next thing you know he's
talking to your coach. He didn't even have to hear the call or
see the formation and he knew what happened."
It was Seifert who, as secondary coach, molded a unit that
included rookies Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright
in 1981. The 49ers won their first Super Bowl that season, and
Lott and veteran Dwight Hicks went to the Pro Bowl. Wright and
Williamson joined them three years later. As defensive
coordinator Seifert helped popularize the massive substitution
patterns now standard across the NFL--and waged strategic wars
with Walsh in practice. "You had a genius and a perfectionist,
two guys who didn't want the other to see his weaknesses," Lott
says. "It brought out the best in all of us."
Yet Seifert's greatest gift has been his ability to adapt to a
changing landscape, one that has seen him and many other NFL
coaches stripped of certain powers because of salary-cap
concerns and free agency. For someone who values control as much
as Seifert does, this has not been an easy adjustment. Many
49ers officials and players believe Seifert no longer has any
say in hiring and firing assistants, a perception stoked
recently by Walsh's return and the dismissal of a key Seifert
confidant, coaching administrator Neil Dahlen.
Policy and Seifert insist no move is made without Seifert's
consent. The reality of the situation probably lies somewhere
between the two extremes. Seifert, who successfully fought off
Walsh's proposed return as general manager after the 1991
season, says he was a key proponent of Walsh's hiring this time,
though he knew it would be viewed as yet another sign of his
eroded power. He has become more of an administrator, anyway,
having surrendered most of the play-calling chores to the
offensive coordinator as far back as '92 and, in a more
significant gesture, having turned over the bulk of the
defensive responsibilities to defensive coordinator Pete Carroll
last season. "It's hard for people to give up control," Policy
says, "but it's a reality that he's been able to adjust to and
One of these years he and Linda will retire and move into their
2,500-square-foot weekend house in Bodega Bay, a coastal town 50
miles north of San Francisco, and settle into a life of fishing
trips and long hikes and good novels and barbecues. Seifert can
envision that life now as he sits in his 23-foot Grady White,
which is docked in a yacht club in San Francisco's Marina
District. He turns away from the Bay and Alcatraz and the
majestic Golden Gate, and stares at the ornate houses along
Marina Boulevard. Suddenly he peers into the past again. "My
uncle owned a company that washed windows," Seifert says, "and
when I was in high school and college I'd work for him to make
my extra money. I used to wash some of these windows right here
on this street. It's really funny because I'm afraid of heights,
and the work scared the crap out of me. I remember times when
I'd freeze on the platform."
A few weeks after the 1995 season had ended, Seifert confronted
that fear in an even more conspicuous manner. Jason, who has his
pilot's license and is in the Navy training to be a nuclear
engineer after graduating from Santa Clara, arranged for George
to ride shotgun in an F/A-18 Hornet during a Blue Angels flying
exhibition in Southern California. To get there, George flew in
a private plane piloted by Jason. "It was hard for him to be in
that situation, with his son at the controls," Jason says. "He
was very quiet, and he was the same way with the Blue Angels."
George was barely on the ground before he began scolding himself
for not enjoying the experience more thoroughly. George's ride
had been recorded by an in-cockpit video camera, and when the
family watched the tape the room was filled with laughter.
Linda, Eve and Jason saw George flashing the same sour
expressions he displays on the sidelines, complete with body
twitches and mouth movements and that steely glare. He looked
miserable, but Linda and the kids saw it differently. They knew
that in his own bizarre way, Seifert was having the ride of his