Drop Knowledge, Not Pants

November 17, 2008

EVEN NOW, AT 50, Mike Singletary gives the impression that at any moment he might submit to the urge to make one more tackle, that he might put on a helmet and drive his face mask into your chest with such force that your sternum would meet your spine. It's not that there is any malevolence about him, just an unyielding intensity that hasn't dissipated in the 16 years since he retired as the Chicago Bears' middle linebacker. While the rest of the world is on simmer, Singletary is on permanent boil.

That's why he hardly seems to be the sort of coach who would become a punch line. Not only is Singletary the kind of man you do not laugh at, but he is also the kind you might even hesitate to laugh with, unless you were sure of his permission. But there is something inescapably comical about a coach giving his team a motivational speech with his pants around his ankles, as Singletary did at halftime of his first game as the San Francisco 49ers' interim coach, a 34--13 loss to Seattle on Oct. 26, and it brought the jokesters out to play. Was Singletary angling to join Michael Jordan in the next Hanes underwear commercial? Did he think that turning his boxer-clad backside to his team was the only way they would get to see an end zone? Was he demonstrating the proper way to give the Seahawks a second-half wedgie?

The dropping of the pants, which was intended to illustrate how the Niners were getting their tails whipped and how humiliating that should feel, raised a more serious issue—whether Singletary is the passionate, no-nonsense coach needed to turn around a lousy team or a loose cannon who's too intense to realize when he's embarrassing himself. He isn't particularly concerned with the public's verdict, but the opinion of team owners John and Denise DeBartolo York will determine whether he returns next season. "I'm not going to change anything about my nature," he says. "One thing I learned is that nothing is sacred in the locker room anymore. Anything you say or do might end up out there on someone's blog or radio show. But that won't keep me from doing what I need to do to get my message across to my players."

But the truly laughable thing about Singletary's situation is the idea that he's too unpredictable to run the 49ers long-term, when nearly everything else about him screams stability and success. He spent his entire 12-year career with one team, which he helped lead to a Super Bowl championship, and has spent his entire adult life with one woman, his wife, Kim, the college sweetheart with whom he has seven children. Singletary is loyal, passionate and intelligent, which his players seem to realize. Even Vernon Davis, the mercurial tight end whom Singletary banished to the locker room for drawing a foolish penalty against Seattle, accepted his punishment without dispute.

And linebacker Takeo Spikes appreciates where Singletary is coming from. "He'll make you do a drill three, four, five times if you don't get it right, and at first you get mad," Spikes says. "But then he says, 'You know why? Because I love you too much to let you slide.' You want to give your best effort for a coach like that."

The only important error Singletary made was buying into the outdated idea that professional athletes can be spurred to better performances by locker-room oratory or other motivational mind games. By the time a player reaches the NFL he has built up an immunity to psychological stunts, and all of his buttons have long since been pushed. Unless a coach can promise a date with Jessica Alba as a reward for a win, he is usually wasting his time by getting creative with his motivational techniques.

Singletary needs a bag of tricks even less than most. The sheer heat of his personality provides all the inspiration his players need, and perhaps he is beginning to realize that. It didn't take long for him to promise that in the future his speeches, both to his players and to the press, would be less volatile. "Maybe I'll drink a little more water," he said, in reference to channeling his intensity. "Maybe I'll breathe a little bit."

The 49ers, meanwhile, would be wise to take a good look at what they have—an African-American man who came to prominence in Chicago and is intent on proving that he is more than a compelling speaker, that he's not too risky a candidate to be put in charge during hard times. It wouldn't be the worst move for the Niners to put their faith in such a man. There is, after all, some precedent for that kind of thing.

TALK BACK
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Singletary needs a bag of tricks less than most. The sheer heat of his personality provides all the inspiration his players need, and perhaps he is beginning to realize that.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

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