San Francisco 49ers: Ranking Every Head Coach in Franchise History
The San Francisco 49ers have entered a new era of quality in the Jim Harbaugh era. After suffering through subpar and disastrous teams from 2003 through 2010, the 49ers have reached three straight NFC Championship Games and are consistent Super Bowl threats.
The fact that Harbaugh took a team that was mired in mediocrity and turned it into a winner without a significant influx of talent is very impressive. He more than earned his 2011 NFL Coach of the Year award and has positioned the 49ers well for future success.
The question we’re asking today is where Harbaugh ranks among the list of 49ers coaches. San Francisco has had 18 different men prowling the sidelines dating back to the old All-American Football Conference days in the 1940s, and while some have had fantastic careers, others have seen their fortunes tank.
We’re taking into account success in the standings or sure, but this isn’t just a list of coaches ranked according to their win-loss record. We’re also gauging their abilities to turn teams around, to maintain from year to year a level of consistently winning football and to succeed in an area where their unsuccessful predecessors had obviously failed: to get the most out of their players.
We’re also looking at their intangible leadership characteristics. Are they the kind of coach that had players dying to come to San Francisco, or did they oversee a mass exodus of talent?
Of course, at the end of the day, everything boils down to championships, so a lack of rings won’t get you very far.
Let’s start at the bottom with number 18, with recent suffering.
18. Dennis Erickson, 2003-2004
Win-Loss Record: 9-23
Best season: 2003, 7-9
Worst season: 2004, 2-14
It’s probably wrong to say hopes were high when Erickson joined San Francisco, but there was no reason to think he would lead the team into disaster. He had put together a half-decent 31-33 record for the Seattle Seahawks in the late 1990s, and had tremendous success in the college ranks at Idaho, Washington State Miami and Oregon State.
Erickson doesn’t have the worst win-loss record of any coach in San Francisco, but he inherited a better team than some of his predecessors. Steve Mariucci had led the 49ers to the playoffs the previous two seasons, and Erickson inherited a team with six Pro Bowlers in the starting lineup.
Yet Erickson was never able to get talent to mesh in his offensive system. After struggling to a 7-9 year in his first season, Erickson lost players like Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst before the 2004 season. With a full offseason to transition the offense into his preferred scheme, the 49ers crumbled to a 2-14 record, and Erickson was fired with three years remaining on his contract.
17. Red Strader, 1955
Win-Loss Record: 4-8
Strader was the second coach in San Francisco history, hired to replace Buck Shaw. He didn’t exactly lead the 49ers to new heights.
Shaw was fired for failing to win a championship, but Strader’s squad was the worst since the 49ers moved to the NFL in 1950. With a point differential of -82, Strader simply couldn’t find a way to score, despite having Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny guiding his offense. Admittedly, McElhenny was gimpy for most of the year, but this was still the era of the Million Dollar Backfield—4-8 was simply an unacceptable record.
Strader was fired less than a year after he was hired.
16. Ken Meyer, 1977
Win-Loss Record: 5-9
Ken Meyer was brought in after the 49ers fired Monte Clark at the end of the 1976 season—more on that situation later. Suffice it for now to say that he was brought in so general manager Joe Thomas would have more control. Thomas only lasted two seasons as general manager, driving the 49ers into the ground before Bill Walsh took over.
Meyer was picked because he would essentially take orders; he didn’t want any power over player acquisition or things of that nature. He wasn’t a strong personality and had head coaching experience only at the high school level before joining the 49ers.
Meyer inherited a decently talented team that went 8-6 the year before, but his 1977 squad stumbled out of the gate to an 0-5 start and never really recovered. He was fired immediately after the season, and never again held a head coaching position in the NFL.
15. Pete McCulley, 1978
Win-Loss Record: 1-8
Pete McCulley was hired to replace Ken Meyer, with the hopes that he would be the one to turn Joe Thomas’ vision of how a football team should work into reality.
Instead, 1978 became at the time the worst season in San Francisco’s franchise history, a feat really only challenged by the team in the mid-2000s.
Like Meyer, McCulley was hired as something of a yes-man to Thomas’ decisions. He was given a roster with an aging O.J. Simpson and eight rookies and told to go win football games.
He did win one game, against the Cincinnati Bengals, but otherwise he was a flop. The team finished last in the league in points scored and in the bottom 10 in points allowed. McCulley was fired after a 38-20 loss to the Washington Redskins in October, becoming the first coach in franchise history to fail to complete even one full season as the head coach.
14. Mike Nolan, 2005-2008
Win-Loss Record: 18-37
Best season: 2006, 7-9
Worst season: 2005, 4-12
What’s the worst season in 49ers history? There are a couple seasons that could qualify, depending on your point of view.
The worst win-loss record in 49er history is 2-14, which they’ve achieved three times. There was the 1978 season mentioned above, where the team crashed and burned, as well as the 1979 season, when rookie head coach Bill Walsh tried to pick up the pieces. They also finished 2-14 in 2004, which led to the Alex Smith draft.
But for my money, the worst season the team has ever seen is 2005. Yes, their 4-12 record was a couple games better than the previous season, but they were getting pasted on a regular basis. Their DVOA rating of -55.5 percent is still the worst ever recorded, going back to the 1989 season.
The leader of that squad? Mike Nolan, son of former 49ers coach Dick Nolan. In retrospect, the first sign that Nolan wasn’t going to work out was picking Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers with the first pick in the 2005 draft. Allegedly, Nolan didn’t like Rodgers’ attitude, and wanted a player who was not going to challenge his leadership. Hence, Smith over Rodgers.
The 2006 season actually wasn’t so bad, as Smith developed quite nicely under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The next season, however, was a disaster. The 49ers went on an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season, as they trotted out Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill and even Chris Weinke to start games.
His teams didn’t fight enough for wins, however, and after seven games in 2008, Nolan was replaced by Mike Singletary.
13. Jack Christiansen, 1963-1967
Win-Loss Record: 26-38-3
Best season: 1965, 7-6-1
Worst season: 1963, 2-9
Jack Christiansen is in the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. As a safety for the Detroit Lions and a weapon in the return game, Christiansen won multiple NFL championships and later was named to the 1950s All-Decade Team.
After his playing days, Christiansen became an assistant for San Francisco, leaving him in place to take over the team midway through the 1963 season.
Christiansen couldn’t do anything with the ’63 team, as they sputtered, unable to put together anything in the way of an offense. The team continued to struggle in 1964 as well, sputtering to a 4-10 record.
There were signs of life the next couple seasons, however, as Christiansen’s 49ers flirted with the.500 mark. The 1967 season started off very promisingly, with Christiansen leading the team to a 5-1 record in the first half of the campaign. From there, however, the bottom fell out, and the 49ers suffered a six-game losing streak.
They recovered to win their last two games, but it was too late—they missed the playoffs, and Christiansen was shown the door.
12. Fred O’Connor, 1978
Win-Loss Record: 1-6
The first of two interim coaches on the list, Fred O’Connor took over halfway through the 1978 season when Pete McCulley was shown the door.
O’Connor had arrived in San Francisco with McCulley as the offensive coordinator and was left to pick up the pieces of the 1-8 team.
O’Connor didn’t do much better. His only win came in Week 15 in a 6-3 slog against the similarly awful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When it came to hiring a permanent coach after the season, O’Connor was never seriously considered, and he left to become a backfield coach in Washington. He was never a head coach in the NFL again.
The 49ers instead hired someone from Stanford to come in and coach the team, and that decision turned out alright. This was the darkest point before the team was rejuvenated by Bill Walsh.
11. Mike Singletary, 2008-2010
Win-Loss Record: 18-22
Best season: 2009, 8-8
Worst season: 2010, 5-10
When Mike Nolan flamed out, the 49ers didn’t look very far to find their replacement coach. Mike Singletary was their assistant head coach and linebacking coach and was the logical replacement candidate.
As a linebackers coach, you couldn’t ask for much more than Singletary, a Hall of Famer at the position. As a head coach, he left something to be desired.
He certainly found ways to grab the headlines, sending Vernon Davis to the locker room mid-game and dropping his pants as a halftime motivational tactic. Some of it might have even worked, as well: Davis gives Singletary credit for setting his career on the right track.
There were moments of hope in Singletary’s reign, which is why he ranks this high, despite failing to get the most out of his players. The 8-8 season in 2009 was the first time San Francisco had avoided a losing record since 2002, two head-coaches prior. There was every reason to expect the 49ers to keep taking steps forward and reach the playoffs the next year.
Instead, the 49ers started out 0-5 in 2010, their worst start since Bill Walsh’s first year in 1979. The season saw the first time they had been shut out at home since 1977, as well. As a result, Singletary was fired after 15 games. The return to the playoffs had to wait a season.
10. Red Hickey, 1959-1963
Win-Loss Record: 27-27-1
Best season: 1959, 7-5
Worst season: 1963, 0-3
Red Hickey brings with him our first non-losing record, although we’ll have to wait one more slot until we actually get to a coach who finished in the plus column.
Hickey was an innovator as a coach. He is credited with being the first man to implement the shotgun formation, designed so his quarterbacks would have a couple extra seconds to survive the terrific pass rush of the Baltimore Colts. He abandoned the formation the next year when teams adjusted to it, but it set the stage for a lot of what we now consider standard offensive practice.
The 49ers seemed in a good position to challenge the Colts for control of the NFC West, but two things derailed Hickey’s team from ascending. The first was the rise of someone named Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers, the team that would dominate most of the 1960s. That was perhaps unavoidable.
The second, however, was Hickey’s decision to get rid of quarterback Y.A. Tittle. While John Brodie was a very good player in his own right, Tittle’s a Hall of Famer. The 49ers never really capitalized on the promise of the 10-game stretch of the shotgun offense.
When the 49ers started 0-3 in 1963, Hickey resigned, and things continued to go downhill from there.
9. Jim Tomsula, 2010
Win-Loss Record: 1-0
On a per-game basis, Jim Tomsula is undoubtedly the greatest head coach in 49ers history. With Mike Singletary kicked to the curb at the end of the 2010 season, the 49ers still had to have someone take the reins for one final game.
Tomsula, the defensive line coach, was asked to step in. He had previously been a head coach of the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe, meaning he was the only one on the staff with head coaching experience. He was the logical choice.
In his one, and so far only, game as an NFL head coach, Tomsula’s 49ers whipped the Arizona Cardinals 38-7. In retrospect, it was a preview of what was to come under Jim Harbaugh, but it was also the team responding to a beloved positional coach getting his first shot at NFL glory.
Tomsula was never really considered for the open head coaching position, but Harbaugh kept him on the staff when he took over. Tomsula’s defensive lines have always been one of the strengths of the team, and it will be interesting to see if he ever gets another chance as a coordinator or head coach elsewhere.
Until that time, however, he is one of only six coaches to go undefeated in the NFL.
8. Monte Clark, 1976
Win-Loss Record: 8-6
Here’s one of those moments that could have changed the shape of the NFL.
Monte Clark was a well-respected player and positional coach. He helped build the offensive line that led the Miami Dolphins to multiple Super Bowls in the early 1970s, and he was considered for multiple head coaching positions before ending up in San Francisco.
Clark also served as de-facto general manager, bringing in Jim Plunkett to play quarterback and receiver Willie McGee to catch passes. He also helped put together a strong defensive line, which unofficially recorded 30 sacks in the first six games of the year. The 49ers roared out to a 6-1 start, but things got rocky from there. They recovered for their first winning season since 1972 but just missed out on the playoffs.
It was still a promising start, and it looked like the first step in a successful rebuilding project.
However, in the offseason, the 49ers were sold to Eddie DeBartolo, who brought with him general manager Joe Thomas, whom we met in the profiles of some of the coaches below Clark on this list.
Thomas’ arrival meant that Clark would have to give up his general manager duties, something he refused to do. Clark knew Thomas, as the latter was fired as director of player personnel in Miami when Clark was a position coach there, and he refused to work with him. Therefore, Clark was fired.
They should have fired Thomas—the 49ers stumbled to a 7-24 record and went through three head coaches over the next two seasons.
Here’s the kicker, however. Clark was, at best, a solid, average coach. He went to coach the Lions afterwards and finished with a 43-61-1 record in Detroit. If the 49ers had kept Clark around, maybe he does a little better, but he’s not going to have been the one who took the 49ers to multiple championships.
Instead, forced to clean house from the disastrous tenure of Thomas, DeBartolo brought in Bill Walsh in 1979, leading to the glory years of the ‘80s. If they keep Clark around, maybe the head coaching position’s not open in 1979. Maybe Walsh ends up with the Oakland Raiders or New York Giants, both of whom filled head coaching vacancies that year. Maybe one of those teams end up with Joe Montana and Dwight Clark instead of San Francisco.
Or maybe Monte Clark flames out in three years and Walsh comes over anyway. We’ll never know.
7. Dick Nolan, 1968-1975
Win-Loss Record: 54-53-5
Playoff record: 2-3
Best season: 1970, 10-3-1 (Lost in NFC Championship)
Worst season: 1969, 4-8-2
Dick Nolan’s eight-year tenure can be separated into two halves.
The first five years composed the most successful run for the franchise since it joined the NFL. Nolan led the team to three consecutive NFC West titles from 1970 to 1972, the first consecutive playoff seasons in franchise history. They were stopped by the Dallas Cowboys in each of those three postseasons, but the run was still a notable achievement for the club, and Nolan earned the AP Coach of the Year award in 1970.
Nolan built a strong team. His offense was focused around John Brodie, Gene Washington and Ken Willard lining up behind a very stout offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Hall of Famers Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wilcox led a formidable defense.
In Nolan's last three years (1973-75), however, the 49ers regressed, finishing with losing records each season, and that caused some significant backlash among fans of the team. Nolan left in less-than-glorious circumstances, but that shouldn’t negate his accomplishments in leading San Francisco to the playoffs.
6. Frankie Albert, 1956-1958
Win-Loss Record: 19-16-1
Playoff Record: 0-1
Best season: 1957, 8-4 (Lost in the Western Conference playoff game)
Worst season: 1956, 5-6-1
Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and found out that Steve Young was taking over the head coaching duties for the 49ers.
That’s roughly what happened in 1956 when Frankie Albert stepped in. The analogy is fairly solid—a left-handed, bootleg-loving quarterback, who had led the team for more than half a decade as a quarterback, returned to the team as a head coach. He was the first coach to lead the 49ers to an NFL playoff berth, as well.
As perhaps to be expected from an offensive star, the strength of Albert’s teams was on offense. Behind Y.A. Tittle and the Million Dollar Backfield, the 49ers became one of the top offensive teams. The defenses lagged behind somewhat, meaning the 49ers were often involved in what passed as shootouts in the 1950s.
They made the playoffs in 1957, and took a 27-7 lead over the Detroit Lions, before crumbling in one of the most heartbreaking losses in San Francisco history, as Albert and the team got too conservative, sitting on their lead.
The year after, Albert flipped between Tittle and John Brodie repeatedly, and the 49ers finished a 6-6 record. He got out of coaching after that, citing the pressure his family was facing due to the team’s lack of success.
5. Steve Mariucci, 1997-2002
Win-Loss Record: 57-39
Playoff Record: 3-4
Best Season: 1997, 13-3 (Lost in NFC Championship Game)
Worst Season: 1999, 4-12
With his energy on the sideline and rah-rah attitude, I always thought Steve Mariucci might have been better suited pumping up college players on Saturdays—he did hold the head coaching position at Cal in 1996—than handling multimillionaires on Sundays. He presided quite well over the slow decline of the 49ers from Super Bowl favorites. He led the team to the playoffs four times in six seasons, an admirable record that would have him higher than fifth on most clubs’ coaching lists.
Mariucci had been Mike Holmgren’s quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, so it made sense that he continued to get the best out of both Steve Young and later Jeff Garcia. Yes, he inherited a great roster when taking over the position, but he also got a lot out of it. His 11 consecutive wins to open up his rookie season was a record that stood until 2009.
Mooch even bounced the team back from salary-cap hell, when poor management of the cap caused the team to shed talent in 1999 and 2000. Mariucci helped rebuild the team, bringing them back to the playoffs in his last two years in San Francisco. He was the last coach to lead the 49ers to the playoffs before Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011.
Mariucci could have been a better manager of talent, however. He had a contentious relationship with receiver Terrell Owens that boiled over and ended up with the team eventually trading the temperamental receiver after the 2003 season, one year after it dismissed Mariucci following a Divisional Round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And thus began the dark times for the 49ers franchise.
4. Buck Shaw, 1946-1954
Win-Loss Record: 71-39-4
Playoff Record: 1-1
Best Season: 1948, 12-2
Worst season: 1950, 3-9
Buck Shaw was the first coach in franchise history, and for a long, long time, he was the best.
Under Shaw’s leadership, the 49ers were pretty clearly the second-best team in the old All-American Football Conference, behind only the mighty Cleveland Browns. Shaw’s only losing season with the team came in 1950, during San Francisco's transition from the AAFC to the NFL, but after a one-year period, the team bounced right back into contention.
In no small part due to Shaw’s leadership, the 49ers were one of only three AAFC teams that were absorbed into the NFL when the leagues merged in 1950.
Shaw’s 1948 team was his finest. Led by Frankie Albert, Johnny Strzykalski and Joe Perry, the 49ers rushed for 3,663 yards, the most ever for a professional football team. That record has a bit of an asterisk, as it came in the AAFC rather than the NFL, but it’s still an impressive feat.
The only unfortunate bit of the 1948 season was that it was when the Cleveland Browns were peaking as a dominant football organization. The 49ers went 12-2, only losing to the Browns, who went 14-0. Hence, Shaw never won a championship. That led to his being fired after the 1954 season, but the 49ers would have to wait nearly 30 more years before they could finally be called world champs.
3. Jim Harbaugh, 2011-Present
Win-Loss Record: 36-11-1
Playoff Record: 5-3
Best Season: 2012, 11-4-1 (Lost Super Bowl XLVII)
Worst Season: 2013, 12-4 (Lost NFC Championship)
As one of only three coaches to reach the Super Bowl, Harbaugh has established himself pretty firmly in the third slot all time among 49ers coaches.
It’s not necessarily his permanent resting spot, however—as an active coach, he could find himself moving up or down on this list, depending on how the rest of his career goes.
A bad enough season in 2014 might see him slide back under Buck Shaw. If the 49ers, say, stumbled to a 5-11 record, with Colin Kaepernick floundering and sputtering under the weight of his new contract, that might be enough for Shaw’s AAFC record to push him above Harbaugh. After all, just like Shaw never managed to get past the Browns, maybe Harbaugh will never get past the Seattle Seahawks.
A truly disastrous season, up there with the worst in 49ers history, could see him slide down below even Mariucci. That would take a 2-14 year, or something equally dramatic, to see him fall down that far. It’s unlikely, to say the least.
On the other hand, it will be very difficult for Harbaugh to move up on this list, considering the quality of the two remaining coaches. Even an undefeated, 19-0 season that finishes with the sixth Super Bowl win in franchise history probably isn’t enough to bump him over either George Seifert or Bill Walsh, both of whom have multiple rings to boast about.
Harbaugh is likely going to have to bring home multiple championships to climb any higher.
2. George Seifert, 1989-1996
Win-Loss Record: 98-30
Playoff Record: 10-5, two Super Bowls
Best season: 1989 (Won Super Bowl XXIV)
Worst season: 1991, 10-6
Just based on the sheer numbers, George Seifert’s the best coach in 49ers history. His 98 wins are the most in team history, and he never had a season with single-digit wins. The one year he missed the playoffs (1991), he fielded arguably the greatest team ever to miss the playoffs since the NFL went to a 12-team format.
When Seifert, the long-time defensive coordinator, took over in 1989 for the retired Bill Walsh, he was seen as something of a caretaker. As long as he didn’t muck up Walsh’s offense, the theory ran, anyone could run the team. And, indeed, the 1989 Super Bowl victory probably owes more to Walsh than to Seifert, all things considered.
If that had been the only thing Seifert did in his career, then he would be up there with the Barry Switzers of the world—a man in the right place at the right time.
Instead, however, Seifert managed the transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young and won a Super Bowl that was entirely his own doing. No one can argue that the 1994 squad didn’t have Seifert’s fingers all over it. Yes, Young and Jerry Rice were holdovers from the Bill Walsh era, but Seifert was the one in charge when players like Ricky Watters, Derrick Deese, Deion Sanders, Merton Hanks and Dana Stubblefield came along.
Yes, Seifert’s time as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers perhaps indicates that he was elevated by his talent in San Francisco more than the other way around. At the same time, there have been plenty of talented teams that haven’t managed to win one Super Bowl, much less two. Someone had to coach that talent, and someone had to help restock the team when players left. Seifert wasn’t just a caretaker, he was an extremely talented coach in his own right.
After all, who knows how good Walsh’s defenses would have been without Seifert there to run the show?
1. Bill Walsh, 1979-1988
Win-Loss Record: 92-59-1
Playoff Record: 10-4, three Super Bowls
Best season: 1984, 15-1 (Won Super Bowl XIX)
Worst Season: 1979, 2-14
Where would the 49ers be without Bill Walsh?
He’s the one who came in and fixed the mess caused by Joe Thomas’ reign as general manager. He’s the genius behind the West Coast offense, which revolutionized the NFL. His coaching tree is a thing to behold, as you could fill up the entire league with coaches who learned from Walsh and his disciples.
He’s the one who drafted Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley and Jerry Rice. He’s the one who traded for Steve Young. He’s the one who turned a 2-14 team into world champions in only two seasons. He’s the only one of these men on this list to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame for his contributions as a coach.
The "Team of the 80s" wouldn’t have been so without his coach. Was there really any doubt at all that Walsh would top this list?
Unless someone comes along and absolutely destroys the NFL, winning ring after ring after ring while ushering in a new style of play that becomes the accepted standard for years to come, Walsh won’t ever fall off the top of this list.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.