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Mike Nolan discusses his 49ers interview, need for hiring GM ahead of head coach

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Former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan was on KNBR on Tuesday, and he brought an interesting perspective on the 49ers hiring process

Back in 2005, the San Francisco 49ers hired Mike Nolan to be their head coach and head of football operations. He turned around and hired Scot McCloughan to be his chief personnel executive. Things went south after a few years, and there was the much discussed “trigger” changing hands from Nolan to McCloughan.

Nolan is now making regular appearances on NFL Network and on the radio, and on Tuesday, he had a fascinating interview on KNBR. I’m breaking this into three separate articles because he brought up interesting points and three distinct topics. This first one includes a transcript of his comments about his own interview with the 49ers back in 2005. He then went into details about his relationship with Scot McCloughan and the importance of hiring a GM before hiring a coach. There is always going to be some revisionist history, but Nolan has a unique perspective into the 49ers that is worth considering.

On process in 2005:

I flew to St. Louis to do the interview, they had basically taken their interview to the middle of the United States, so they could bring everyone into a central location. So that’s where a lot of the interviews went on. So when I went in there, I sat down with John, with Jed, and Paraag at the time. So, two of the three are currently doing it, but John was part of the process at that time. And we interviewed the night before briefly. Then the next day we had a long eight hour interview to go through all the different scenarios of a lot of different things. But, that was the way we did it that time. Like I said, I think it’s very similar now. I would like to think that they’ve progressed and become better at it. That’s not something you necessarily want to be good at it because as you know and I know, that means you’re doing it a little more often than you’d like too. And since I was the head coach, I think this might even be the fourth time since then that’yre doing it. Harbaugh, I don’t know that you could say they did it with Mike, but they did it with Tomsula, then they did it with Chip Kelly. So, about 4, 4.5 guys since. But that’s, again, the process in which they did it, the set up was very similar. But John was involved then. I don’t know that John’s involved currently.

On what they talk about in interview:

You know it’s a great question because this reason. I think a lot of teams miss the mark on what it takes to do the job. And so therefore, there’s a lot of questions involved in it that I don’t think personally have a whole lot to do with whether you’ll be good at the job and whether you’ll fit the situations there, although they are questions you have to answer. And believe me, if they’re concerns of the person asking the question, obviously it’s important to them, so you need to ask it. But the disappointment sometimes is that you kind of think, you know, if you guys were hitting the mark, I’d be more excited about this job. But you’re asking questions about things that really won’t pertain to me being successful or not.

So, yea, they’ll hit everything — look, when you start every interview, it’s typically about family, and what you do as hobbies, blah blah blah, kinda the small stuff. But then you get into the job, and those are the kinds of questions I’m talking about. When you get into the job, you know, you need to talk about staffs, you need to talk about your relationship with the personnel guy. All kinds of things, and many more things than that.

You know, one of the biggest things, the most eye-opening things, you go from a coordinator to coach, you go from a big brother to a Dad. And any of us who have children know that’s a huge change. To have no responsibility, basically just walk around the house and do what you want and maybe scream at your brothers and sisters. As opposed to going around the house and lay down the law. It’s just entirely different. Some guys are great big brothers but they’re not very good Dads.

And that really is the best way I can give kind of a visual picture to the every day fan that looks at it, on what kind of a difference it is. Just because you’re a coordinator, and you might have been the greatest coordinator who ever set foot on this earth. You may be the worst head coach to set your foot on the earth, too, because the jobs are entirely differently. So when there’s a lot of coordinator questions in the process, sometimes I was actually disappointed in the few processes I went through, because I’m thinking, you know guys, this is not a coordinator’s job I’m interviewing for. We need to ask head coaching questions, and I would think, my confidence would lay in that they are asking the right questions, it just, then it gets down to, do you have the ability to pick the right guy.

On who he thinks are the best options:

You know, I’m not doing any of the interviewing, so it’s hard for me to say. It’s really funny, I would say someone I think would make a great head coach, and he’s never interviewed anymore, and that’s Brian Billick. I mean Brian Billick did as good a job as anybody in putting a staff together, working well with Ozzie Newsome, and letting Ozzie do his job, while he did the head coaching job. I mean look, Brian’s got what, like nine coaches I think that are currently or were former head coaches in the National Football League. And he was only a head coach for about ten years. So, Brian’s the kind of guy who really knows what it takes to do that job. He’s not on the docket right now.

And actually, the names like Josh McDaniels and McVay in Washington, and there’s others. I know Shanahan’s one of the names, McDermott. You guys have heard all the names. The thing is, they’re all coordinators, and they’re all successful coordinators. But I will say this, body of work would be the first thing that I would look at any of them. Prior experience of head coaching as Josh has, that’s certainly something that gives him some credibility. Now naturally, he wasn’t very successful, but the fact that he had that experience, what he learned from it will be critical to know. Like I said, it’s hard to say who’d be the best, because in my case, I’d like to sit down and say, “look, what did you learn from your first experience? Here’s what you did wrong, in my opinion, how do you answer that question?” And if it’s not a good answer in my mind, then I’d say, “you’re going to do that again, sounds like to me.”

On why he hired Scot McCloughan:

We went through the process — I hired Scot, I was looking for somebody that I felt was the best at picking players. Because that is ultimately the job of the general manager. I don’t care what else he can do. I mean, he might have the worst people skills in the world; if the guy knows a player and can pick the right guy, that’s what we were looking for and that’s what I was looking for.

So, at the time when they interviewed me, yes I became the head coach before we got the general manager, and that’s why I really wanted the say at that time. The first three years or four years at the 49ers, I had the trigger, as you guys will recall, probably, and I had the final say on everything. And Scot was more of the personnel director, and didn’t really have the final say. But I just wanted to make sure because, when you take a job, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a guy put on me to be the GM, that I felt wasn’t competent at picking players. So I wanted to secure myself the ability to at least be able to trump him.

Now, Scot and I worked together really well for the first three years. The last year it became a little bit, it was different, it wasn’t the same as the first three. And so, that happened. But that was the reason we did it that way at that time. I thought it worked really effectively for three years. I mean, most of the players that were on those Super Bowl teams, or championship-run teams were all players that we brought in those first few years when I was at the Niners. So I thought that we did a pretty good job in that regard.

On if Jed and Paraag should get out of the way in football operations:

After they pick a guy? Definitely. But in the process, they’re the ones making the decision. I will say this, like I said, they’ve done this a few times. Everyone is very hopeful that they get it right, but obviously, they’ve failed a few times. So what’s everyone saying? You’ve screwed this thing up a few times, so please get out of the way.

I’ll say this, I believe they’re asking the right questions. This is very much like a personnel guy. A lot of the personnel guys will accumulate all of the information in the world on players. They’ll have notebooks on guys. But, they have a hard time seeing through all the information and saying, “This guy’s the guy. This guy’s better than that guy.” That’s what they are in the process right now of doing. They need to make the best decision based on all the information. They’re gonna get all of the information, believe me, I have all the trust in the world.

Look, I think Paraag, personally, I think he’s one of the best at the job he does. I’m not talking about this job right now [jumbled audio], but as far as the cap and contracts and really putting together all the information, I’m just telling you, the son of a gun is good. I have absolutely zero questions in my mind how good he is.

But the two of ‘em have to put their heads together, obviously, and pick the right guy. They’re gonna ask the right questions in my opinion, and they’re going to likely have a guy in the room that can do the job. It’s just going to come down to when they’re sitting there looking at him, “This guy’s the guy we want.” And for what reasons is the thing I’ll be curious about.

And again, I’m not in the room, so I don’t know what they’re saying is the most important thing. It sounds like what’s really important is that the two guys get along. You know, personally, that’s good, but Scot and I didn’t even know each other when we first got together. And they’re looking so much for that. I just think if you’ve got somebody that you determine can work well with other people, and they’ve proven that they’ve got people skills and will do that, as opposed to them walking in saying, “Hey, I’m great working with people.” Oh that’s that’s super, that’s really nice. Everybody in the world says you’re a jerk, and you can’t be worked with. How come? “Well, I’ve learned a lot.” Well, that’s good, prove it to me. What would you do different?

And so they don’t need to be joined at the hip. Now they will grow together, like any marriage, if they’ll do that, they can be successful. Look, I thought Scot and I, for three years was a great marriage. I thought we added a lot of players, the proof is in the pudding, we did. But as you already said, it got a little weird, to use your word, and then it fell apart. But it was unfortunate. I think they’re headed in the right direction, they’re just gonna have to pull the trigger on the right guy. And that’s where the decision-making comes in. That’s where GMs who decide on players are either good or bad. And then, you know, do you pick the right guy, or do you not?