Mike Singletary Q&A: Re-Educating Himself for a Head Coaching Comeback

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 19, 2015

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 26: Head coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sideline at the Edward Jones Dome on December 26, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Rams beat the 49ers 25-17. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Mike Singletary was the field general for one of history's greatest defenses, earning two Defensive Player of the Year awards and seven All-Pro selections as middle linebacker for the 1980s Bears.

The Hall of Famer's coaching career, however, was not nearly as glorious. His tenure as 49ers head coach was marred by quarterback juggling, indecision about the offensive system and occasional bursts of sideline and postgame rage. The 49ers fired Singletary late in the 2010 season after he amassed an 18-22 record in two-and-a-half seasons. After three uneventful years on the Vikings defensive staff, Singletary quietly vanished from the NFL.

Singletary, now 57, has spent the last two seasons on a kind of "walkabout," traveling around the country to meet fellow former coaches and other experts to hone elements of the coaching craft he never mastered on the job. He spoke with Bleacher Report recently, explaining that the two years of re-education taught him much about offense, the rulebook and the best way to manage 21st-century athletes—and that he is ready for a head coaching comeback, armed with a rebuilt, modernized arsenal of coaching skills.

Bleacher Report: Describe what you have been doing since you left the NFL after the 2013 season.

Mike Singletary: For the last season-and-a-half, I've just been working my tail off just trying to learn all the things that I know I needed to know as a head coach. I've been traveling, visiting different coaches that I really respected: former head coaches, coordinators and position coaches who really knew the game. They helped me really get to know and understand the things I needed to know.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

B/R: What made you decide to devote two years to learning more about coaching?

Singletary: As a coach, I thought coming into the league that I knew everything that I needed to know. All I needed to do was get the right coaches around me.

But I began to look around the NFL, as well as college, and I saw a lot of coaches who were where I was: sometimes frustrated, yelling on the sideline. I began thinking: 'I know there's a better way.'

I didn't come back to the game just to be another coach. I came back to the game to really change the way we do things, to make things better. I was not getting that done. I realized that I can't get there from being within an organization and coaching. I needed to get outside of the organizations so I could look at things differently.

That's what I did. It's been valuable. I think I obtained all the tools I need and am ready to go.

B/R: Who were some of the coaches you worked with?

Singletary: I spent a lot of time with Howard Mudd. [Mudd coached offensive lines in the NFL for nearly 40 years, most notably for the 2000s Colts]. That was a great opportunity to really look at the offensive line and the quarterback's relationship with the offensive line.

I visited with [former Lions offensive coordinator and offensive pioneer] Mouse Davis out in Portland, Oregon. He's the father of the run-'n'-shoot, and I really wanted to get to the root of what the run-'n'-shoot is all about and if it could be successful in the NFL.

I met with Bill Parcells. I met with Dan Reeves. I met a lot of coaches I really respected and had an awesome time doing that.

B/R: You mentioned Mudd and Davis first. Were you specifically focusing on offensive coaches?

Singletary: Yes, indeed. When I first started coaching, everybody said, 'Mike, you know one side of the ball. Hire somebody on the other side of the ball that you trust to run the offense.' But it's hard telling somebody what you need and want when you can't really describe to them things about the offensive line, the protection, how you want receivers to interact with the quarterback and the quarterback to make the calls.

I wanted to gain a working knowledge of every position so I can not just interact with the defense, but go on the offensive side of the ball and say, 'I think I can help you in this way. Why don't we work together?'

Courtesy of Mike Singletary

B/R: Pretend we are handing you the keys to a new franchise, and you can choose three players to build around. Who do you want?

Singletary: Are they past or present? Can I at least go back a year or two?

B/R: Don't go too far back.

Singletary: Ray Lewis would be my No. 1 choice. So if I have Ray, now I have some breathing room. Then I'm gonna go with Tom Brady and a guy I got to know in Minnesota, Adrian Peterson.

B/R: You know what? No Ray Lewis. You have to pick a current player.

Singletary: Luke Kuechly. On the defensive side of the ball, I've got to have a voice. I need somebody who can communicate what I want, the way I want it communicated. Only a middle linebacker can do that. Kuechly's the guy that shows the commitment to the game, the hustle. It's a matter of him putting everybody in the right place, and let's go.

B/R: So you have Brady and Peterson on offense. What kind of offense do you run? Who is the focal point?

Singletary: Wow. It depends on my offensive line. It depends on my offensive coordinator. I have to argue with him about who gets the ball the most. I might have to have a co-coordinator system where one guy focuses on the pass and one guy focuses on the run. Then, let's get 50-50 and let's go.

One other guy that I would put on that list—I absolutely don't know how I didn't put him on there, and maybe I would have to take somebody off—is Cam Newton. Newton is an up-and-coming player. I think he is a tremendous leader. The great thing about him is that he's still maturing. I am very excited about him.

B/R: Newton seems like the kind of quarterback who would have frustrated you when you were a head coach.

Singletary: You take any player...you take Ray Lewis at the beginning of his career. You take me at the beginning of my career. Sometimes it takes two or three years for a player to work through some of his "stuff." I think every player has to work through the stuff. If he can work through that, then you can begin to see what he can really be.

A lot of guys fail out of the gate at dealing with their own stuff. They're not mature enough. That's why I am excited about Cam: He has dealt with his stuff. You can see it. He's working. He's growing. He's calling out protections. He's leading.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

B/R: Will you manage your players differently now than you did in the past?

Singletary: You have to. You have to be able to sit down and really help a player. Not just look at where he is, but help that player get to the next level.

The only tools I had prior to what I've learned was to deal with things as a player. When you are dealing with players as another player in that locker room with them, they don't suspect anything. You're a leader. You're trying to help them. They're going to listen.

As a coach, it's different. They are looking at you in a different way. A lot of times, depending on your body language, they feel that you're talking down to them. Or you are handling them like a kid. You have to be able to know who you are dealing with and get it done the right way.

B/R: Who would you now say are your greatest coaching influences?

Singletary: I would have the same answer six years ago that I have right now. Tom Landry. Bill Walsh. Bill Parcells. Paul Brown. Joe Gibbs. Vince Lombardi. I think all of them made a difference in the game.

As I studied the coaches, I saw that not only did they make the game better, but they made the players better after they left the game. Those guys became lawyers, doctors and teachers. They made a difference in society.

That's when you know the success of a coach. What do these players do after they are done playing?

B/R: It sounds like you have a philosophy for dealing with players who have off-field issues.

Singletary: There are long-term and short-term answers to players with issues. It's so easy to deal with things at face value, on the surface. You can say, 'He's all better now. He can go out there and play.' But to me: Can he go home and be a father? Can he go home and be a husband? Can he handle stress?

Those are things that coaches have to be more concerned with, helping players get those tools.

Now, understand that every team is not responsible to babysit each guy. But I think it is a responsibility, since a player is giving you so much of their life and their time, to help them and give them those tools off the field. That's a total win. That's what you want.

B/R: Did you meet with other experts, besides former coaches?

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 15:  Referee Gene Steratore #114 consults with his squad, field judge Bob Waggoner #25, back judge Dino Paganelli #105 and line judge Gary Arthur #108, as the over see the action between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Singletary: I spent a lot of time with officials. I've been able to sit down and take a fine comb to the rules, the clock and all of those intricate things that I really didn't know very well before. There are some things that even the officials don't know because they aren't that common!

All of those little things can be a feather in your hat when you are trying to win a game. You may just need it one time, but it can help you win an important game at a really tough time.

B/R: Concussion issues have become a greater point of emphasis since your time as a head coach. Has your approach to player health and safety evolved?

Singletary: I've been able to work with a hospital and really study the whole concussion issue. We've looked at the players who are struggling right now and the players who played the game in a physical way but seem to be doing fine.

It's an early-stage thing, trying to get coaches, players and trainers to understand the importance of protocol when it comes to concussions. The hospital wanted to talk to me about how in the world I came out of this thing healthy!

The biggest thing I see today is players not using the proper tackling technique. I made a video for USA Football a few months ago about the technique of tackling, being able to hold your head up, seeing what you're hitting, bowing your neck. There's a way to play the game safely, but in today's game, the time constraints don't allow for proper practice. As a coach, you have to make it important enough that every day, we go through the proper techniques of tackling.

Tackling is just like playing golf. It's all about the consistency and discipline of doing it over and over.

B/R: What kind of coach is Mike Singletary in 2016?

Singletary: He's a winner. Short and concise: He's a winner.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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