The San Francisco 49ers fired their head coach Mike Singletary yesterday.
I don’t know Singletary, but have followed his career since 1985 when I lived in Chicago for five years (comprising what I refer to as the longest decade of my life) and he played for the Chicago Bears.
Singletary was an undersized, underpowered linebacker who played with lots of smarts and heart, and it’s no coincidence that the Bears won a Super Bowl and were highly competitive with him on board. He played above, not at his talent and it led him to an early selection to the NFL Hall of Fame after an earlier selection to the US College Hall of Fame.
If you were to take the prototype of a player who would be a successful coach, a Singletary template would be a great place to start. Like some other professional coaches (Phil Jackson in the men’s NBA, recently retired Joe Torre in US men’s major league baseball), Singletary “overachieved” through hard work, grit, and playing smart.
The 49ers will finish with a losing record this season, and like their nominal geographic rivals the Oakland Raiders, the once proud and successful franchise has sunk into mediocrity and near-irrelevance. The 49ers won Super Bowl championships in 1981 (Super Bowl XVI), 1984 (XIX), 1988 (XXIII), 1989 (XXIV), 1994 (XXIX). The Raiders won Super Bowl championships in 1976 (XI), 1980 (XV), and 1983 (XVIII).
Professional sports are an interesting sector where frequently (but not always) well-to-do owners get to put their egos and fortunes on the line in pursuit of profits and championships. More often than not owners realize neither.
The most successful franchises have one pattern in common; patient ownership who hires smart, is a strong presence but interferes little, and lets the people they hire do their job. In US professional football that description fits the owners of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints – winners of seven of the last ten Super Bowls. Those successful owners tend to avoid churning coaching or general management ranks in part because that sort of churn not only bleeds on to the field, but is a short term action for more systemic problems in terms of talent assessment and acquisition.
Here’s the year-by-year record that shows wins, losses, and head coach(es) since an ownership change put Denise York in charge of the 49er franchise in 2000: