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."
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°. 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.' "