For 49ers, year of transition leaves need to prove themselves

March 15, 1992|By Ann Killion | Ann Killion,Knight-Ridder News Service

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- These winter days between the end of play and the first blush of minicamp are hibernation time in the NFL.

Not so for the San Francisco 49ers.

They have capped a year of constant turmoil with a flurry of activity. In the past two months, the 49ers have flirted with rehiring Bill Walsh, lost four assistant coaches, hired four more, saw their head of scouting resign in a huff, read that their team was all but sold and that their owner was under investigation until Thursday for a possible assault charge.

Once the masters of the tightly controlled, spotless public image, the 49ers have been making news, and most of it hasn't been good.

"It has been a difficult year," said team president Carmen Policy, who has been putting out fires non-stop since moving to the Bay area from Youngstown, Ohio, last summer.

"By far, these are the biggest changes I've seen," said quarterback Joe Montana, who has seen the team undergo several transformations in his 13 years.

Policy believes the worst of the uproar is in the past and that the result will be a rejuvenated organization. Others believe that unless a healthy Montana returns next season, the 49ers' period of transition will continue.

Whatever the future holds, the 49ers clearly have made a break with the past. Finally -- and ironically at the same time they were contemplating welcoming him back -- the 49ers are completing their post-Walsh transition. Though Walsh, who not only coached the team but oversaw the operation, left in 1989, the real transformation of the 49ers began in 1991.

"Eddie knew the changes were coming," Policy said. "That's why he insisted that I come out here. He wanted me to come in 1989. He felt that the minute Bill left that everybody in the organization was operating kind of on separate islands."

Without Walsh keeping tight control, transition has seemed chaotic at times.

"When Bill took over, he was always able to control things," Montana said. "But some of it, you can't control. When you start having success, changes happen."

Many changes were postponed because of the team's run at a third straight Super Bowl. The 49ers held onto older players longer than they might have. They kept the staff intact for that push toward NFL history. They even drafted, coach George Seifert conceded, specifically for the following season rather than for the long term.

But since the NFC championship game loss to the New York Giants on Jan. 20, 1991, change has come fast and furious.

"I look at why they're going through these things, and I think it's because they're bringing in outside people and it takes away the focus," said Los Angeles Raiders safety Ronnie Lott, one of the victims of the 49ers' year of transition. "They had always built from within. When you do that everyone understands what the problems are and how to do things.

"Now they have to get back to where they were before, and it's going to be a hell of a task. They've let go players that understood the philosophy. They've lost coaches who knew the system."

The 49ers also have lost some of the aura of invincibility. They've faced such touchy situations as the DeBartolo investigation, Tim Harris' arrest on suspicion of drunken driving and last year's misguided logo unveiling.

"I think all that is something that a lot of organizations are going through," NFL television analyst John Madden said. "I think a lot of it is economics and scrutiny. . . . And you can't stay up all the time. Something always happens and that something is happening to the 49ers now."

Some problems have been outside the 49ers control, such as Montana's injury and the story about the team's possible sale. But the team can only blame itself for some of the uproar. Policy regrets the way Lott's departure, which he views as the harbinger of change, was handled.

"The Ronnie Lott situation and the whole concept of transition -- it was all part of the storm clouds," Policy said.

The clouds have not yet parted. The latest jolt has been the decimation of the coaching staff. In particular, the departure of assistant coaches Ray Rhodes and Sherman Lewis, who followed Mike Holmgren to Green Bay, have left some players upset. Both were well-liked, well-respected assistants and both were black, a fact that can't be overlooked in the unprogressive ranks of the NFL. Even Holmgren was startled that he was able to hire both coaches.

The 49ers made attempts to keep both, but the offers were either too little or too late.

Wide receiver Jerry Rice was surprised by the loss of Lewis, whom he described as ideal for the job. Another 49er said some black players perceived that Lewis was passed over and resented it.

Lott, no longer within the fold, didn't hide his views.

"I was shocked and depressed they let Sherman Lewis go," Lott said. "When a black person is qualified to take over a job, you have to wonder why he didn't get it. Both he and Ray Rhodes represented an enormous amount of experience."

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