Long before Mike Solari, years prior to George Warhop and Chris Foerster, there was a football dynasty in San Francisco. Much attention was given its skill positions. Outstanding backs and receivers, stingy defenses and the cutting edge West Coast Offense became household names.
And then there was the offensive line.
For 21 years, as coaches came and went, Bobb McKittrick organized the 49ers' offensive line into a lean, mean blocking machine, and a model of consistency. Bobb saw a run of 16 strait seasons with ten or more wins. He was on board for 13 NFC West Championships, and all five Super Bowl victories.
Bobb, who served three years in the United States Marines after graduating from Oregon State, brought a toughness and hard edged mentality to the line that many of the NFL's best still attempt to emulate to this day.
McKittrick stressed form and physicality over size, and devastating cuts were a solid part of the o-line repertoire. Defensive linemen hated it, and former Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long, once tried to attack McKittrick following a game.
McKittrick used to say, “We believe a defender is less likely to make a tackle if he’s on the ground.”
He let his theory out in one 1998 interview: "I like smart, athletic people who can do schemes and can understand them, instead of just blacksmiths who try to hit it harder the next time," he said. "We do a certain amount of what people in the past have called finessing, and it's very subtle, but the better the athlete, the better they can execute it."
Jon Gruden, once a 49ers assistant for a year, said he learned more from McKittrick than any other coach in the league, calling him "the smartest coach in football."
And communication was never an issue. "In staff meetings, I try to say what needs to be said," McKittrick explained. "If everybody just wants to say what they think somebody wants to hear, after awhile, you get in a pretty sad groove, I believe. Some people have mixed feelings about me opening my mouth."
Relevant now, in early April 2010, is this fact: During McKittrick's tenure, the team produced 19 Pro Bowl selections among offensive linemen; only one of them was drafted in the first round.
New coach Mike Solari doesn't need to be told what kind of shoes have been left to fill. Solari, who had the privilege of working with McKittrick in the mid-90's, fondly remembers: "The key thing about Bobb, he was a great line coach. It was great to work with him. I learned quite a bit from Bobb. The thing about Bobb was the details and how no stone was unturned. It was the little things and the blueprint of building a championship and the blueprint of building an offensive line unit in the sense of technique, fundamentals, crowd their sled, development of offensive linemen into very good football players. I learned a lot from Bobb and I still use those fundamentals today, in working with the offensive line, no matter where I've been, whether it be Kansas City or my time in Seattle, Bobb was a tremendous coach and person."
A decade ago this last March, Bobb McKittrick passed away after a brave fight with cholangiocarcinoma, or cancer of the bile duct. He continued working for the 49ers throughout his illness.
The 49ers established the Bobb McKittrick award in 1999 under the direction of Bill Walsh. The award honors offensive linemen who have best represented the courage, intensity and sacrifice displayed by the late Coach during his 21 years of service with the 49ers.
“Bobb gave distinguished service to the organization since our renaissance in 1979. He was a vital factor in five Super Bowl Championships, the evolution of a dynasty and in the production of some of the finest offensive linemen in football. Offensive linemen don’t receive the recognition they so richly deserve. This gives us a venue to honor their sacrifices and achievements,” said Walsh.
A bronze plaque of McKittrick hangs in the 49ers locker room surrounded by the photographs of the winners.
Recipients to have received the honor include, Randy Cross, Bubba Paris, Steve Wallace, Harris Barton, Guy McIntyre, Jesse Sapolu, Ray Brown, Jeremy Newberry, and Eric Heitmann (among others.)
After his death on March 15, 2000, the San Francisco 49ers made the play-offs one more time, mounting a 24-point comeback against the New York Giants in an NFC Wild Card game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, Tampa Bay.
They have not been to the playoffs since.
If the 49ers, the favorite to win the NFC West in 2010 do manage a berth in the playoffs, the Faithful should remember the man who was the backbone of the dynasty from decades past.