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One Tough Customer Outspoken Niners assistant Bobb McKittrick is battling cancer and liver disease with the same fierce determination that made him one of the best coaches in the game

April 26, 1999
April 26, 1999

Table of Contents
April 26, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

One Tough Customer Outspoken Niners assistant Bobb McKittrick is battling cancer and liver disease with the same fierce determination that made him one of the best coaches in the game

They were embattled behemoths in big trouble, and they felt like
the smallest men on earth. Late in the third quarter of a game
against the Eagles on a chilly September afternoon in
Philadelphia 10 years ago, Harris Barton and his fellow San
Francisco 49ers offensive linemen trudged off the field with
their heads down and their ears pricked. Joe Montana, the
Niners' fine china, had been sacked eight times. The Eagles led
by 11 points, and censure was a certainty: Coach George
Seifert's face was convulsing like Mick Jagger's, offensive
coordinator Mike Holmgren was growling into his headset, and
offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick was preparing to vent his
frustrations. As the linemen took a seat on the bench,
McKittrick stared down at veterans Guy McIntyre, Bubba Paris and
Jesse Sapolu and said calmly, "You three might want to start
praying about now." Then he turned to Barton. "And Harris,"
McKittrick added, "if you know a Jewish prayer, you might want
to say it."

This is an article from the April 26, 1999 issue Original Layout

Without swearing, getting personal or raising his voice,
McKittrick, a former Marine who makes Chris Rock seem vague and
indirect, had delivered a sharp motivational message. The
linemen buckled down, Montana threw four touchdown passes in the
fourth quarter, and San Francisco won by 10. The next day
McKittrick called Montana into an offensive line meeting and
apologized for the breakdown in protection. Montana shrugged it
off, but word got around, giving players another reason to
respect a man who may be the most successful position coach of
his era.

In a business in which coaches get relocated, recycled and
removed as a matter of course, McKittrick, 63, has been the
Niners' offensive line coach for 20 seasons. During that time
San Francisco has won five Super Bowls and put together the most
successful two-decade run in NFL history, and the fact that
McKittrick has been entrenched in the same job throughout that
span, under three head coaches, is not accidental. In addition
to routinely milking exceptional production out of players
overlooked or cast off by other teams, McKittrick has been the
glue that has held together the Niners' vaunted West Coast
attack. Bill Walsh, recently rehired as San Francisco's general
manager, says McKittrick "has developed more offensive line
knowledge than anyone, ever. The continuity of the line, its
consistent ability to protect the quarterback and open running
lanes, has been the cornerstone of the 49ers' success over the
past 20 years, and without Bobb, I don't think it happens. His
men have played longer, with better technique, more production,
fewer injuries. In every possible category you can measure, he's
right at the top."

The Niners are so queasy about the notion of ever working
without McKittrick that they told him he'd have a job for life
when he was mulling an offer to become the St. Louis Rams'
offensive coordinator after the 1994 season. He recently signed
a two-year deal, and in the weeks leading up to the draft, he
was busy breaking down film on top line prospects--an endeavor
that in most years is about as fruitful for McKittrick as
Academy Award voters viewing Brian Bosworth movies. The San
Francisco brass concentrates on drafting talent at other
positions and relies on McKittrick to excel with lesser-regarded
linemen. Few coaches have done so much with so little, but no
one is taking McKittrick for granted anymore.

In January, four days after the 49ers were eliminated from the
NFC playoffs by the Atlanta Falcons, McKittrick received a
medical double whammy: Doctors told him that he had cancer and
that he needed a liver transplant. McKittrick, whose colon was
removed 17 years ago after precancerous cells were detected, has
a malignancy on his bile duct. He has begun undergoing radiation
and chemotherapy at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto. He needs a
liver transplant because he is suffering from
cholangiocarcinoma. He is on a waiting list for a new liver.

While his relatives, friends and colleagues are worried sick,
McKittrick, predictably, has been calm, even upbeat. Though down
20 pounds from his normal 200, he insists on keeping the bulk of
his coaching responsibilities, faithfully reporting to work with
the catheter used to administer chemotherapy treatments sticking
out of his left arm. "It's a difficult situation," he says, "but
I went through six weeks of boot camp, and it can't be any worse
than that. I think I can go through anything--and it sure beats
the alternative."

On a mild Monday afternoon in late March, McKittrick walks into
the three-bedroom house in San Mateo where he and his wife,
Teckla, have lived since 1979. "You've got this place freezing,"
he tells her before leaving the room to turn up the heat. "He's
cold," Teckla says to a visitor. "Now can you tell something's
wrong?"

Raised in Baker, a northeast Oregon farm town where the winters
are frigid, McKittrick developed a stubborn resistance to cold
at an early age. He unfailingly wears shorts and a T-shirt to
even the most bone-chilling practice sessions, and when the
49ers travel to colder climes, McKittrick packs lightly. During
a Monday-night game played in freezing rain at Chicago's Soldier
Field in October 1988, McKittrick wore a short-sleeve shirt but
no jacket. At one point his teeth were chattering so much that
he was unable to enunciate a running play to Walsh, who
subsequently decreed that all coaches must cover their arms
during harsh weather. When the Niners returned to Chicago the
following January for the NFC Championship Game, McKittrick
complied with the new policy by donning a windbreaker--on a day
in which the windchill factor reached -47[degrees]. At such
moments McKittrick, with his shaved head and stocky frame, seems
to be as much caricature as character. "Everybody notices the
physical part, but when it comes to emotional strength, he's
probably the toughest person I know," says Seifert, who now
coaches the Carolina Panthers. "He has an ability to deal with
things that would shatter most people."

After having his colon removed, McKittrick wore a colostomy bag
for a year before a second operation allowed him to discard it.
"He had this device strapped to his hip," Seifert says, "and
I'll never forget the sight of him running onto the practice
field holding that bag so it wouldn't fall. How devastating and
emotionally trying that must have been. Had it been me, I don't
know that I could have coached again."

McKittrick's toughness is rivaled only by his bluntness. "He's
brutally honest with me, too," says Teckla, who married Bobb in
1958. "It's one thing when he tells me my hair looks funny, but
I'm constantly worried he's going to get fired [for speaking his
mind]." Barton says he and other linemen used to write down some
of McKittrick's more eye-opening statements. "One of the
classics was when we drafted this 6'7" guy named Larry Clarkson
[in '88]," Barton says. "Every day in training camp [defensive
end] Charles Haley would run around him, then so would the
second-teamer, and Larry would end up on the ground. Finally
we're in a meeting one night, and Bobb says, 'Jeez, Larry, I
don't think you have the coordination to take the fork from the
plate to your mouth.'"

As harsh as he sometimes sounds, McKittrick gets away with it,
partly because he can take criticism as unemotionally as he
dishes it out. He regularly challenges his bosses in meetings,
but, says Seifert, "after a while, that becomes part of the
charm of the man." McKittrick says one reason he has not sought
jobs with bigger titles is the political correctness he
associates with such roles. "I'd rather teach than be an
administrator," he says. "I don't like a lot of the things that
administrators have to do."

While some head coaches might view vocal dissent as a threat, at
least one of McKittrick's friends--a man who had some pretty
decent success as UCLA's basketball coach from 1949 to
'75--believes it's invaluable. "An assistant coach who's afraid
to speak his mind isn't very helpful," says John Wooden, who
grew close to McKittrick during the latter's stint as a Bruins
football assistant from 1965 to '70. "A head coach should never
want a yes-man: He'll just inflate your ego, and your ego's
probably big enough as it is. An assistant as bright as Bobb
could only be an asset."

Honest as he is, McKittrick could not bring himself to tell
Teckla about his cancer. He found out shortly before they
embarked upon a nine-day trip to visit their two sons, in Oregon
and California and, not wanting to spoil the vacation, stayed mum.

For all of Bobb's sensible stoicism, Teckla is his polar
opposite, an emotional worry-wart who sheds tears as readily as
some people clear their throats. They met as Oregon State
undergrads at a study table, conversing for 20 minutes in a
group setting. "The next day," Teckla says, "he told someone he
had met the woman he was going to marry." Together they've had
more of a life together than most coaching couples, sharing a
passion for history that has inspired vacations to places like
Normandy and Russia as well as cruises on the Danube and the
Baltic Sea.

In late January, McKittrick returned from his vacation and went
back to work, figuring he'd break the news to Teckla that
evening. Before he could, however, he received a frantic call
from her: An oncologist's assistant had phoned the McKittrick
house to confirm an appointment. "My wife was in tears for the
next two weeks," Bobb says. "She hears cancer and immediately
thinks, You're going to die. That's not the way I'm approaching
it."

McKittrick's approach to life has never been orthodox. In
seventh grade he added a third b to his first name because, he
says, "I just wanted to be different." A high school
valedictorian who was also a decorated student at Oregon State,
McKittrick was persuaded by Tommy Prothro, his coach when he
walked on as an offensive lineman for the Beavers, to return to
his alma mater as an assistant after his three years of service
in the Marines. McKittrick followed Prothro to UCLA, the Los
Angeles Rams and then to the San Diego Chargers, where he and
fellow assistant Walsh became friends. When Walsh was hired as
49ers coach in 1979, he asked McKittrick to come along.

McKittrick compares Walsh's recent return to the 49ers, who had
been reeling from front-office turmoil, to Churchill's reign as
Britain's prime minister during World War II. "He had been out
of favor," McKittrick says, "but when the Nazis were threatening
to overrun Europe, they turned to him for his dynamic
leadership, and he held them together."

McKittrick is not only a voracious reader of nonfiction but also
a genealogy freak who serves as an unofficial historian for his
hometown. He also keeps a meticulous journal designed to "give
my [two] grandkids an idea of what my life was like." According
to his good friend, Loring De Martini, McKittrick's life is easy
to describe: "Bobb is almost a saint. He's a guy who has never
willfully done a wrong thing."

Not everyone would nominate him for sainthood. Drawing on some
of the blocking methods he learned from Prothro, McKittrick
recruited relatively small, agile linemen and taught them
techniques--the cut block, the reverse-shoulder block, the
chop--most of which were legal, at least when executed
perfectly, but which infuriated opponents. After a 1985 game,
Los Angeles Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long charged after
McKittrick in a tunnel at the L.A. Coliseum and vented; the two
haven't spoken since. In his book Dark Side of the Game, former
Falcons defensive lineman Tim Green referred to McKittrick as
Dr. Mean. McKittrick notes that in recent years, at least a
third of the teams in the NFL have adopted his controversial
techniques. "Those big, tough guys on defense want to play our
strength against their strength," he says. "I'd rather play our
strength against their weakness."

McKittrick's supporters far outnumber his detractors. Holmgren,
49ers coach Steve Mariucci and Denver Broncos coach Mike
Shanahan credit him with helping them assimilate Walsh's
concepts, and Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who began his NFL career
breaking down film for McKittrick in 1990, refers to McKittrick
as "my idol, the best coach I've ever been around." Shanahan
says McKittrick, with whom he worked for three seasons as a San
Francisco assistant, "has forgotten more football than I know,
but what really stands out is his incredible work ethic. He
leaves no stone unturned, and that's why everybody considers him
the best in the business."

Alas, McKittrick's prowess as a coach is not at the forefront of
his friends' minds. Call someone looking for a quote, and
instead of answers you get questions: How's Bobb? Is he going to
get his liver? The answers are unclear, but things could be
better. The chemotherapy has sapped McKittrick, and last weekend
he was hospitalized with a 104[degree] temperature. He has
another worry. In mid-March, Teckla was rushed to Stanford's
emergency room with what doctors feared was a heart attack. It
turned out to be a problem with her gallbladder, which is
scheduled to be removed in early May. The doctors would like
Bobb to finish fighting the cancer before replacing his liver,
but he's one of many on a waiting list, and the timing is
largely out of their control.

Recently McKittrick was at Stanford shuttling between
appointments when a team of physicians tracked him down. They
ushered him and Teckla into a room and informed them that a
liver had become available. The chief transplant surgeon, Carlos
Esquivel, then explained the various risks, including the
possibility that Bobb could die on the operating table. The
doctors said they needed a decision within two hours. Teckla
broke into tears. Bobb stroked her hand, calmly questioned the
doctors and finally said, "Let's do it."

He was told to return to the hospital later that afternoon for
surgery. Teckla worried that he had rushed his decision, but
Bobb said, "I made a life-altering decision 40 years ago in 20
minutes, and I haven't regretted it." He was sitting in the
living room of his house when the phone rang. A nurse told him
the doctors had found the liver to be unsuitable. When he
repeated the news, Teckla's knees buckled and she fainted. Bobb
took the news in stride.

"He has incredibly tough skin," Barton says of his coach. "It's
a crisis situation, but he won't show a weakness."

Barton lets his thought hang for a moment; it occurs that he
might want to say a Jewish prayer right about now. "Believe me,"
Barton says, "I will." He won't be alone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Battle tested A catheter serves as a reminder of his illness, but McKittrick seems unfazed. "I think I can go through anything," he says.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Life and death After doctors explained the risks of a transplant, Bobb (with Teckla) hardly hesitated. "Let's do it," he said.COLOR PHOTO Semper fi Bobb needed only a 20-minute meeting in college to know that Teckla was the woman for him.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA Busy man Throughout his ordeal, McKittrick has kept up with most of his duties, including breaking down film for the draft.
"When it comes to emotional strength, he's probably the toughest
person I know," Seifert says of his former assistant.
"Teckla was in tears for two weeks," says Bobb. "She hears
cancer and immediately thinks, You're going to die. That's not
the way I'm approaching it."
McKittrick "has forgotten more football than I know," Shanahan
says, "but what really stands out is his incredible work ethic."