49ers coach Seifert weathers rough season

October 13, 1991|By C.W. Nevius | C.W. Nevius,San Francisco Chronicle

You've already heard the stories. Coach George Seifert of the 49ers is so tight he squeaks when he walks. He hasn't smiled since August. He's gone into the bunker and isn't taking calls. He's changed.

That may be, but he's hiding it well. In his daily news briefing, a reporter started to ask a question, then stopped. "I've forgotten what I was going to say," she said.

"Let's make something up," Seifert said eagerly. "How about, 'Does Steve [Young] feel he has let the country down by not running the option?' "

This was an inside joke, and it played to big laughs. In a reflection of just how crazy the whole Joe Montana situation became, during a Thursday news conference with Dr. Michael Dillingham, one reporter asked -- twice -- if Dillingham thought Montana felt he had "let down his teammates and the Bay Area." It has become the buzz phrase of those who cover the team.

But it was also an acknowledgment of one of the lousiest weeks in Seifert's three-year career as 49ers coach. He knows he's lost some ground with the media.

"I can almost sense in their eyes they see me as changed," he says.

And he has had some rough sledding. He's lost his quarterback and been kicked around on the radio talk shows for playing it too close to the vest on offense and defense. He's 2-3, the team's worst start since the first term of the Reagan administration. And Ronnie Lott, his former prize pupil, has released a book in which he says he "hated" Seifert.

But the capper, everyone seems to agree, was Monday's news conference. At that session he was peppered with questions about the condition of Montana's elbow and the quarterback's future, but would only stonewall and decline comment.

When it was announced the next day that Montana would have surgery, everyone was exasperated with Seifert -- even Seifert.

"It was embarrassing," he says. "When it was over I felt like a buffoon because I didn't say anything."

That disarming honesty has been Seifert's saving grace. Usually, when asked a direct question, he answers. It was unlike him to go to the old tap dance.

Seifert has a series of explanations. He didn't know the news conference was going to be held because the team had an off week. He wasn't aware the Montana watch had become a media feeding frenzy. He wanted to let Joe make the announcement.

But now he admits that he knew. "When Joe said he couldn't throw 30 yards, I had a pretty good idea. And I guess I could have said that I thought there was a pretty good chance of surgery."

It was an educational afternoon for Seifert. There is a school of thought that says Seifert has always been secretive and conservative, but no one noticed it until now. That may be. Every football coach has a little CIA agent in him. But until now, I don't think Seifert realized what a powerful reaction such stalling tactics can unleash. He's been called everything from "evasive" to "a jerk."

"Let's go with 'evasive,' it sounds better than jerk," he says.

He is mending a few fences now, but he's not kidding himself. The miracle cure is winning. Get back up above .500 and back in the playoff picture and he's Good Old George again.

But how? Is the offense really so predictable? So many people have suggested an end around to Jerry Rice that we won't know who to credit when it finally happens today. It's been said that Seifert would rather run out the clock than run down the field.

"On the contrary," he says. "I want an offense that is every bit as dynamic and exciting as people remember. You hear people say, 'Why not run Jerry Rice on the reverse?' Well, for one thing, the way we've run it, the quarterback is the lead blocker. Last time we tried it, against the Giants, Joe got dinged pretty good."

Seifert knows that what he's really up against is the specter of Bill Walsh.

"That's the whole issue," he said. "Bill was unique. We're all unique in our own ways. I'm not threatened by that. Working with Bill were some of the greatest years of my life."

Of course, that's what he used to say about his time with Lott, who was a personal favorite. Didn't it sting to hear Lott say he "hated" him?

"I think he was probably telling the truth," said Seifert with a big grin. "Eric Wright has told me that to my face, and he works for us. I was pretty hard on that group [as rookies]. There was a lot of pressure on them to be players.

"But I'll tell you, I've got their picture on my wall, whether they hated me or not. When I am through with coaching that group will still be very special for me."

At that point, like everyone else in the country, Seifert and I drifted into in a discussion of the Clarence Thomas hearings. I mentioned the old line that "Politics is like football, you have to be smart enough to understand the plays and dumb enough to think it's important."

"Isn't that the truth?" I said.

"Oh, I don't know," Seifert said, dead serious. "Politics is pretty important." He hasn't lost all perspective yet.

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