Ranking the 5 Greatest Head Coaches in San Francisco 49ers History

Tom SmeatonContributor IIIAugust 1, 2013

Ranking the 5 Greatest Head Coaches in San Francisco 49ers History

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    Before Jim Harbaugh came to town, the San Francisco 49ers had been plagued by poor coaching for the better part of a decade. Especially on the offensive end, the team found itself behind the curve as compared to much of the league, and the on-field results played out accordingly.

    With so many short-lived head coaching stints (and even more upheaval at offensive coordinator), it's easy to forget how many successful coaches have led the franchise over the years. The history of 49ers head coaches is actually fairly complicated, with a few successful runs separated by some extraordinarily brief flops.

    Including interim stints, there have been 18 head coaches in the history of the organization, all of whom can be seen in this year-by-year breakdown on Pro Football Reference. But current 49ers fans have seen enough terrible coaching, so we won't relive any more of that historical pain here.

    This space is reserved for the best to ever command a 49ers sideline, so let's get started on the top five head coaches in 49ers history. 

No. 5: Dick Nolan (1968-75)

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    The Facts (via Pro Football Reference):

    Record: 54-53-5 (.505)
    Playoff Record: 2-3 (.400)
    Notable Accomplishments:

     

    Why he's No. 5:

    I almost put Steve Mariucci in this spot, but a look beyond Mooch's superior winning percentage will show why Dick Nolan deserves this rank. Mariucci's up-and-down tenure was sort of the end of a two-decade string of dominance in the Bay Area, while Nolan ushered in a winning tradition in San Francisco. 

    Prior to hiring Nolan, the 49ers had yet to win an NFL playoff game and had only appeared in one. Nolan changed that with three division titles in his eight years as coach, and he is credited with changing the culture of a previously downtrodden franchise.

    A few mediocre seasons led to his departure in 1975, which kicked off a stretch of four different coaches in the three years between Nolan and Bill Walsh. After a solid run of success, the 49ers again fell to the bottom of the league, but that shouldn't undermine what Nolan was able to accomplish. 

    Unfortunately, however, Dick's son Mike wasn't able to repeat his father's success in the Bay Area. 

No. 4: Jim Harbaugh (2011-Present)

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    The Facts...so far (via Pro Football Reference):

    Record: 24-7-1 (.774)
    Playoff Record: 3-2 (.600)
    Notable Accomplishments:

     

    Why he's No. 4:

    Make no mistake, Jim Harbaugh has performed nothing short of a miracle in his two years at the helm in San Francisco. Even the legendary John Madden called Harbaugh's first season, in which he took a 6-10 team to 13-3 and the NFC title game, "the best coaching job in the history of the NFL" (via the Los Angeles Times).

    In just two short years, he's taken a prior laughingstock of a team all the way to the Super Bowl with much of the same core roster. He saved Alex Smith's career and made the 49ers offense watchable again. An organization that hadn't seen the playoffs since 2002 is suddenly a Super Bowl favorite.

    So why is Harbaugh only ranked fourth?

    The answer is simply seen in sample size. Harbaugh's short tenure has been remarkable, but it has also been just that: short. I believe that Harbaugh can climb a few spots by the time he's done, but for now I won't jump the gun.

    We're in the midst of great success, yes. But it's sustained success that truly defines greatness.

No. 3: Lawrence "Buck" Shaw (1946-54)

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    The Facts (via Pro Football Reference):

    Record: 71-39-4 (.645)
    Playoff Record: 1-1 (.500)
    Notable Accomplishments:

    • 1 Division Championship

     

    Why he's No. 3:

    Buck Shaw was the first coach in 49ers history, including four years in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) before the team was brought into the NFL in 1950. Overall, he was in charge of the franchise for nine seasons, recording a winning record in all but one. 

    The playoff appearances aren't there to show for the success, but playoff structure in the NFL was very different before expansion in 1967. The team finished second in the AAFC in all four years of its existence and continued that success in the NFL. Despite a 7-4-1 record in his final season, Shaw was fired in 1954.

    Shaw went on to lead a quick turnaround of the Philadelphia Eagles, winning the NFL Championship in 1960, his third season with the team. He retired from coaching after that season. 

    In comparison, the 49ers made the playoffs just once between 1955 and 1969. Shaw's greatest success may have come elsewhere, but his work in San Francisco got the organization off to a great start. It's not his fault that they failed to run with it after his departure. 

No. 2: George Seifert (1989-96)

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    The Facts (via Pro Football Reference):

    Record: 98-30 (.766)
    Playoff Record: 10-5 (.667)
    Notable Accomplishments:

    • 7 Division Championships
    • 2 NFC Championships
    • 2 Super Bowl Championships

     

    Why he's No. 2:

    George Seifert spent nearly his entire NFL coaching career in San Francisco, serving as a defensive assistant and coordinator from 1980-88. If not for a dreadful stint as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in the years after his two Super Bowl wins with the 49ers, his legacy would be nearly unblemished. 

    Sure, Seifert inherited the keys to the dynasty that Bill Walsh built (and rebuilt) over the 1980s, including a Super Bowl title in 1988 before he took over. But Seifert didn't crash the car, instead he guided the team to more titles and continued success. 

    In fact, the 49ers only missed the playoffs once under Seifert, despite a 10-6 record in that season. His resignation after the 1996 season is a little cloudy, but he said afterwards that it was in the best interests of both parties to move forward. 

    Overall, Seifert's championships earn this spot on the list, and his defensive prowess certainly helped Walsh in building the 49ers dynasty. But Seifert wasn't the true engineer of the 49ers' long run of success. And that's why he's not No. 1. 

No. 1: Bill Walsh (1979-88)

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     The Facts (via Pro Football Reference):

    Record: 92-59-1 (.609)
    Playoff Record: 10-4 (.714)
    Notable Accomplishments:

     

    Why he's No. 1:

    Yes, the true engineer of the 49ers' run of dominance was none other than Bill Walsh, arguably the greatest offensive tactician in NFL history. One of only four coaches to win three or more Super Bowls, Walsh did it by taking the worst team in the league and building it from the ground uphis way. 

    Walsh was hired as both head coach and general manager before the 1979 season, taking over an organization that had won only 31 of its last 86 games. By building through solid drafts and savvy trades, Walsh established a strong core for his system and rode it to a Super Bowl in just his third season. 

    After a player's strike shortened the 1982 season, Walsh's own mental stress began to build, eventually wearing him down. He retired after capturing the title in 1988, leaving a lot of wonder as to just how much more he could have won with the team he had constructed.

    However, wins and losses alone don't define Walsh's legacy as much as his "West Coast" system and lengthy coaching tree. This is also the man credited with developing the careers of several great quarterbacks, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Dan Fouts and Ken Anderson. 

    All in all, this was a no-brainer at No. 1. Not many did more to shape the future of the NFL than Walsh, the architect of the modern passing game. He saved the 49ers from the doldrums and eventually put together one of the greatest strings of success in pro football history.

    I mean, you don't earn a nickname like "The Genius" for nothing.