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the NFL
Peter King
December 20, 1993
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December 20, 1993

The Nfl

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George Seifert has had a better first five years in coaching than all but two other head men in NFL history—Guy Chamberlin, who took the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs to three straight league titles from 1922 to '24, and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. Here are the coaches who have had the best five-year starts.





1. Guy Chamberlin Bulldogs 1922-26





2. Paul Brown Browns 1950-54





3. George Seifert 49ers 1989-93





4. George Halas Bears 1920-24





5. Vince Lombardi Packers 1959-63






The memory remains vivid in George Seifert's mind. It was the day he was fired—from Cornell. In the Ivy League, for crying out loud. The year was 1976, Seifert's second at the helm of the Big Red, and it had ended as miserably as the first. Seifert's two Cornell teams were a combined 3-15. They lost to Columbia twice, and by the end of year two, the alumni had just about abandoned the program. So athletic director Dick Schultz—yes, that Dick Schultz, the one leaving his job as executive director of the NCAA under fire next month—called Seifert into his office and fired him. He then said something that stunned Seifert. "Some day," Schultz said, "you'll thank me for this."

As he slunk out of Ithaca, N.Y., Seifert was thinking, I never want to be a head coach again. Just give me a nice assistant's job, and I'll grow old and happy.

If Seifert had gotten his wish, we never would have seen what a good coach he is. In January 1989, when 49er coach Bill Walsh bequeathed his job to Seifert, his studious defensive coordinator, the Niners were supposed to settle into the pack of the parity-stricken NFL. After all, in Walsh's last five seasons San Francisco had rolled to a mark of 64-23-1, and who could possibly surpass the record of a football genius? In Seifert's first five seasons at the 49er helm (chart), the Niners are 66-18, including an NFC West-leading 9-4 this year after last Saturday's 27-24 loss to the Falcons.

"People take him for granted," says Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner. "To keep the thing going with different personnel and to rebuild the defense, that's a great job of coaching."

Seifert has brought to San Francisco what Phil Bengtson couldn't bring to Green Bay after Vince Lombardi left, what Jim Dooley couldn't bring to Chicago after George Halas retired, and what Richie Petitbon hasn't brought to Washington in the first year after the retirement of Joe Gibbs. Seifert inherited a state-of-the-art offense, and he let it click. At the same time he retooled a defense that now has only two starters remaining from his first team. The defense is one of the youngest and most promising in the league. It is led by the monstrous front four of Dana Stubblefield, Ted Washington, Dennis Brown and Artie Smith, whose average age is 24.

Seifert, who will be 54 in January, is wise enough not to overreact when a player's agenda conflicts with his own—when, for example, Jerry Rice whines about not getting the ball enough. Seifert knows that unless a player becomes a major distraction, as defensive end Charles Haley did before he was traded to Dallas in August '92, things will usually work themselves out. No, Seifert is not a players' coach, a guy who wanders through the locker room at 8:30 in the morning to take the pulse of his team. He is a calculating man who prepares his players to win, who doesn't stay with veterans past the point of their effectiveness, who is not afraid of playing kids and who lets his assistants coach.

The successful coaches of the '90s will not be the dictators. With free agency and freer spirits, coaches have to be willing to change on the fly, let players play and fit systems to players. This is where Seifert's strength lies.

"What I try to do," he says, "is create an environment in which it's possible to succeed. Football is a constant education. I present ideas, not mandates, and try to take advantage of the good people we have. A coach has to constantly adjust."

And how do you rebound, what do you tell your players, after a crushing loss such as the one San Francisco suffered on Saturday, when the 49ers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead? Seifert knows that words don't get it done. "You just get into the next game," he says. "You don't spend a lot of time philosophizing. You just get back into football. Period."

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