Firing, chorus lines all in family for Nolan

January 09, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Any sense of satisfaction will have to wait for Mike Nolan. The playoffs arrive at The Meadowlands today, and that means the New York Giants' first-year defensive coordinator is too occupied with the present to even consider the past.

The NFL season, Nolan was saying last week, is like a marathon.

"When it's over, you look at the 26 miles you ran," he said. "But no time during the 26 miles do you want to stop and kick your feet up."

Nolan, football-wise beyond his 34 years, could be excused if he wanted to kick up his feet after help- ing transform the Giants from a 6-10 misfit to an 11-5 wild-card team. Under his direction, the Giants' defense reinvented itself this year, restoring much of its lost Super Bowl clout.

But he won't. He's got the Minnesota Vikings to contend with in an NFC wild-card game today, and who knows after that. He's got a tempered perspective that comes with the territory of having a successful NFL coach as your father.

Dick Nolan taught Mike Nolan a lot about winning and losing in the NFL. Much of it came when the elder Nolan coached the San Francisco 49ers through three consecutive playoff seasons and then three straight losing seasons before he was fired in 1975.

"My father went through the highs and lows, being fired and having great championship teams," Mike Nolan said. "It influenced me in a way that I always favored the good side of what did happen. I never have forgotten the bad side. It keeps it in perspective. After seeing my father fired, I realized something good comes out of it."

The younger Nolan went from the firing line in Denver a year ago to the chorus line in New York, where everyone is singing his praises. Dumped along with Dan Reeves after the Denver Broncos failed to make the playoffs last season, Nolan surfaced briefly at Southern Cal before joining Reeves with the Giants.

A linebacker coach with the Broncos, Nolan has made the most of his first job as a coordinator in the NFL. With this year's success, he's even being projected as head coaching material.

"He learned from being around football with his father," said Giants general manager George Young. "I think he's got native intelligence himself. He's got a maturity to him. I hope everybody lets him be until he's 40 years old. When he's 40, he'll be an outstanding coach."

Like Young, Nolan was born in Baltimore. The year was 1959, and even though Dick Nolan played for the New York Giants, the family lived in Reisterstown. Three years later, after the elder Nolan wound up with the Dallas Cowboys, the family moved to Texas. But because there were a lot of relatives in Maryland, the Nolans would return to visit.

"When I was a kid, I used to call it home," Nolan said of his Baltimore roots. "I loved my grandfather so much, to go to Maryland was the greatest thing. He'd take me fishing all the time."

It was more than a fishing expedition that brought Nolan to The Meadowlands this season. His challenge was reviving a defense that mutinied against the defensive staff a year ago under head coach Ray Handley, fired at season's end.

Nolan installed an aggressive scheme, inserted free-agent linebackers Carlton Bailey and Michael Brooks and the turnaround was under way. The Giants go into the playoffs with the second-ranked defense in the league -- second only to the Vikings.

"I think the players wanted to grab on to something new," Nolan said. "They wanted to get something that was a little more aggressive. But we aren't aggressive in the sense of a blitzing, all-out chaos scheme that some do in the NFL. Everybody would love to be doing what Buddy Ryan is doing [with the Houston Oilers]. I don't believe we could do that."

Nolan relates well to his players. Even when he had to bench linebacker Lawrence Taylor for extended periods down the stretch, Nolan maintained control of the situation. Taylor, a certain Hall of Famer, did not make waves.

"Some things you do you're not pleased about doing," Nolan said. "I have tremendous respect for him [Taylor]. He's still a very good player. I'd rest him in the middle of the third quarter, or in the second quarter, because he was tiring. I wanted him to be fresh once we got to the playoffs. I knew he wouldn't be in favor of it. [But] the team does come first."

Nolan has become an overnight sensation in the Big Apple, where he routinely is described as "one of the brightest young minds in the game." For all of the recent accolades, he is well-grounded.

"I hear those things and it's flattering," Nolan said. "I've got a good support group. I've also got a good check system, people who bring me back to earth. My father is the No. 1 guy. When I talk to him on the phone, he'll say things like, 'Where were you guys the first half against Dallas? What were you doing blitzing on that play? Don't you realize . . .' "

"I try to be realistic. We are where we are not just because of Mike Nolan."

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