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 tides 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."