Mike Nolan has spent a lot of time the past two days on the phone, speaking with friends and family and many of his former players.
Nolan was fired Monday after going 18-37 in 3 1/2 seasons as head coach. Today, he was gracious enough to return my phone call. We spoke for about 15 minutes, and covered such topics as what went right and what went wrong.
Ultimately, he said he did not disagree with the decision to fire him because he understands his job was to win football games. He said he will be rooting hard for Mike Singletary to “make up the difference and do the things we couldn’t do and win some games.”
Here is the complete transcript of Mike Nolan’s exit interview.
Q: How was the firing handled?
Nolan: It was uneventful. It just went down, and that was it. There was no drama.
Q: Did you sense it was coming?
Nolan: I have for a couple weeks.
Q: Why did you sense it?
Nolan: I don’t know. Maybe I have ESP. (Laughs.)
Q: What could you have done so that it didn’t turn out this way?
Nolan: Won more games. That’s basically where it was. I don’t disagree. It was frustrating. Last year was explainable to me. It was easy. There were a couple issues that had to get corrected. But this year . . . We didn’t have an established quarterback, but at the same time he gave us a pretty good chance to win. And it was evident for most of the games, he did. And then we’d turn it over or the defense would go into a funk or something like that. More than anything else, it comes down to winning. And our window of opportunity ran out because of last year. If we looked last year like we do right now, I think it would be a whole different story. I think there’d be a lot more optimism in the air because it just looks better than it did.
Q: A lot of people thought when you hired Mike Martz you doomed yourself because if you lost you’d be out, and if you won, Martz would get all the credit and you’d probably be out anyway. Did you think about that?
Nolan: No. Obviously, I had to answer the question asked of me. I know Mike. Mike’s a good friend. My objective is to try to win. I’m not into who gets credit and who doesn’t. I know what goes on — and who does what and who contributes and who hurts things and all those kinds of things. To let the outside influence a decision like that when I want to win, I didn’t let that enter into it. If that’s the kind of message that gets passed along, and we’re winning, it wouldn’t have gotten to me. It’s just perception. I only had to recognize it because the question was asked of me a few times.
Q: Obviously, this was something that meant a lot to you personally because of the history with the 49ers. Is that the part that hurts you the most?
Nolan: Not really. The part that hurts me the most is probably twofold. One is that we didn’t win. The other part was the relationships that were created – in particular with the coaches and players. Those are the two things. Any time there’s change, it affects you. If you’re winning a lot of games and there’s a disagreement and you lose your job, the disappointment again is the relationships. But you feel good about the job you did because you won. In this case, there’s the disappointment we didn’t win, as well as the relationship that I have.
Q: When you were told was it just Jed York and Scot McCloughan in the room?
Nolan: I don’t want to divulge who said what. As I found out today, everybody is throwing different things around. It was uneventful, that’s all I can say.
Q: After you were fired, did you ask to meet with the players?
Nolan: No. As a matter of fact, that’s what disappoints me, because it happened around 3:30. The ESPN thing got started around 2-something. It was a little disappointing that something wasn’t said earlier in the day because I would’ve liked to at least talk to the players, but I didn’t get the opportunity.
Q: Have you talked to a lot of players?
Nolan: I’ve talked to quite a few and a lot of it is text (messaging). . . . There’s quite a few. Most of them I returned all the calls. I’ve been so busy with family and friends calling. At this point I’m just trying to return calls. Between now and the next few days, I’d like to speak with everyone on the team. I still have some calls to make, but I’ve spoken to quite a few already. Modern technology and texting saves a lot of time. . . . I’m going to start a blog and communicate with the players (laughs). And because it’s a blog, I can say anything I want and it doesn’t have to be accurate.
Q: Is that a commentary on my reporting?
Nolan: Not on yours . . . just on blogs in general (laughs).
Q: I know you and Frank Gore really hit it off. You treated him well, and he thinks very highly of you. What was that conversation like?
Nolan: It was sad. Yeah, that’s the best way to describe it. It was sad.
Q: What’s next for you?
Nolan: Today I got a nap. That felt good. Just taking it a day at a time. It’s been too soon. I took my son to school and was able to do a few things I don’t typically do this time of year. I’m not sure.
Q: Is there any doubt in your mind you’ll some day get a chance to do this over and get it right somewhere else?
Nolan: Be a head coach?
Nolan: I can only be hopeful. That’s like prior to getting the
Q: What are your thoughts about the 49ers fans and how they treated you?
Nolan: I appreciate them. I’m just as disappointed for them as I am for the players and coaches and everyone else involved. We lost and obviously as a fan you want the same thing we all want, which is to win games and to go to the playoffs. I feel for them, for their disappointment. But, there’s a lot of football left — they’re not even at the midpoint, yet. Hopefully, Mike (Singletary) can make up the difference and do the things we couldn’t do and win some games. It’s a more friendly schedule, other than being on the road, in the second half. There are some great opportunities to win. Not to say that we didn’t have some great opportunities to win, as well. At the same time, these last four games were difficult. We felt if we’d played better, with more consistency, we could’ve won.
Q: What kind of job will Mike Singletary do? Is he ready for this?
Nolan: We’ll find out. This is his opportunity. Any time it’s your first time, those questions remain. That’s where Mike’s at right now. I think Mike has great leadership ability. I think he’ll keep the players together through a difficult transition. They’ll have faith and confidence in him. But as you and I both know, there’s a lot of things you experience when you become a head coach for the first time. Nobody wants to hear it, but it’s a lot like parenting. Everybody says they’re going to be a great parent until they have a child. Then, it’s, ‘Oh, my God, do I have to do this?’ The great thing is that Mike already has a pulse on the team. He has three outstanding coordinators. There’s a lot of things in place. Mike just has to lead the team. And Mike is a very good leader. We’ll see.
Q: You had never been a head coach. You come to the 49ers and you were a very powerful head coach with final say on personnel. In retrospect, was that too much?
Nolan: No. As a matter of fact, it was more difficult after the change last year. I felt I had to watch it more closely. Maybe that’s just a personality trait.
Q: What do you mean when you say you had to watch it too close?
Nolan: When you know have final say, you always know what’s going on because nothing can be done without you. When it’s the other way, whether it’s important or not, you just like to be involved. But, again, that’s just because it was a change. It was new; it was different. So it was a little unsettling early. I think it would’ve been the case either way. I was for it (giving McCloughan final say on personnel), and I still am. But it was different. I thought the first two years, we got an awful lot of work done. There’s no question when we came in, the place was a mess. And I felt we made great strides in the first two years. It was unfortunate that last year, the third year, went so awry with some coaching losses and some player issues with the quarterback and all that. It didn’t hit right. That year set us back. Like I said, if this year had been last year, there’d be a lot more patience and tolerance. I think there’d be a lot more optimism because you can really see it this year because it looks like it’s on the verge. Whereas last year, it didn’t look to be on the verge and it was supposed to. And I agree. It was costly.
Q: Let me take you back to 2005. Any regrets about Alex Smith as the No. 1 overall pick?
Nolan: I don’t want to go there. That’s an unfair question because you’re not going to know until he gets an opportunity. He’s been hurt the last two years. Anybody could answer that question because you’re not going to know. That’s not my area anymore. I don’t have to answer that, but somebody else will, though (laughs).
Q: Mike Singletary said you had the hard part. Your job was to build the foundation. His job is to build u[on that foundation. Do you leave this job proud of what you did as far as getting the organization on the right track?
Nolan: I think he’s right about what he’s saying. The best gauge for where a team is at is in the locker room. If you got talent there and they’re staying together and they’re playing hard and performing and they’re close . . . something has to happen for them to start winning, but at the same time there’s a lot of things in the building that, without question, are better than they were. At this point, it’s just about winning. The pieces are in place. The coaches are in place. It’s about winning now. If Mike can get that right, I’ll be as happy as he is.
Q: You’ve said in the past some of your best learning experiences we when things didn’t go so well, such as the Redskins job. In the future, how will this make you a better coach?
Nolan: Oh, without question, it’s been a difficult experience. Even from the beginning there have been a lot of trials and things – from a player (Thomas Herrion) dying in the locker room to a lot of unexpected things have happened on this job. Without question, I’ve grown a tremendous amount with it and gained a tremendous amount of experience. I’d still love to be here to coach and enjoying the successes that you reap when you go through all those things. But we’re not. If another opportunity comes along, without question I’ll call on the experiences that I’ve had – good and bad – to do a much better job next time.
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And with that I thanked Mike Nolan for his professionalism in dealing with the daily beat reporters and answering a lot of difficult questions through the years. I wished him and his wife, Kathy, and their family all the best in the future.
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