Here is my Friday column on Mike Solari.
SANTA CLARA – You need to know about the 49ers’ offensive line coach, Mike Solari.
You may not even have heard of him or seen his face – the 49ers’ position coaches don’t get much pub under Jim Harbaugh, rarely talk to the media. But if you’ve studied the sideline during a game and seen a coach with a thick, full gray beard, a coach who looks like the Dos Equis man – the world’s most interesting man – that’s Solari.
Solari may be the best offensive line coach in the NFL, may even be the best coach on the 49ers’ staff, an exceptional staff. Solari’s track record is beyond belief:
From 1987 to ’88, Solari was the Cowboys’ assistant offensive line coach and assistant special teams coach under Hall-of-Fame head coach Tom Landry. From ’90 to ’91, Solari was an assistant coach for Hall of Fame college coach Gene Stallings at the University of Alabama. And from ’92 to ’96, Solari worked with legendary 49ers offensive line coach, Bobb McKittrick. Remember McKittrick because I’m coming back to him.
Solari is a Bay Area guy – he grew up in Daly City – and a normal guy, like offensive linemen tend to be. Here’s what I mean.
I meet Solari outside the 49ers’ locker room at 4:30 on Tuesday after the 49ers finish a walk-through. I walk over to him to introduce myself, but he beats me to it, extends his arm and asks me what my name is.
He suggests an empty office for the interview. He even asks the first question: “How long have you been in the Bay Area?”
I tell him I’ve lived here my whole life, except the four years I spent at UCLA. Solari gets excited.
“I went to El Camino High School, then I went to the College of San Mateo,” he says, “then San Diego State. I went down to Southern California like you.”
Solari shares the same reality as you and me, and makes that clear up front. That’s what offensive linemen are like. Joe Staley is like that and Mike Iupati is like that and Jonathan Goodwin is like that. Regular people. People who would lend you a jumper cable. Trust me, wide receivers and quarterbacks are not like that. They’re stingy with their jumper cables. They don’t even have jumper cables.
“Growing up in Daly City, the San Francisco 49ers represented an outstanding football team,” Solari says as we sit down in an office. “Those days, it was John Brodie and Gene Washington and Cedrick Hardman and Tommy Hart.”
Solari is the only 49ers coach who has worked with Jim Harbaugh and George Seifert and Bill Walsh – Seifert was the head coach during Solari’s first stint with the Niners, and Walsh became a consultant in ’96. Solari is the embodiment of the 49ers’ tradition.
Solari was the tight ends coach and assistant to McKittrick, who was Bill Walsh’s run game coordinator in the ’80s and one of the greatest 49ers ever. “He was a tremendous technician and a great guy to learn from and to watch work,” Solari says. “Bobb always said that leverage was so much more important than weight in being able to win with fundamentals and technique. It’s something I carried on and emphasized throughout my coaching career. It’s carried over here with Jim and the coaching staff. We’re looking for big, athletic offensive linemen. Guys that can move in space. Guys that can pull and make adjustments in space. Hard to find, but that’s what we’re looking for, that athleticism.”
Think Mike Iupati – a 6-foot-5, 331-pound battering ram. A wonderful freak.
“Some things have changed,” Solari says. “You’re looking for bigger offensive linemen than the days with Bobb. The defensive linemen have gotten so much bigger, you have to keep up with the mass, the size. You need big people. You win with the big people. You have to hold up on the line of scrimmage to win.”
“Have the rules changed?” I ask Solari.
“There is much, much more leniency with your hands,” he says. “You can use them more in grabbing and holding. Before, you had to have your hands inside and it was more about leverage.”
These days, it is more about pushing and pulling – not a McKittrick tactic. Solari had to adapt to changing times. Linemen have gotten so enormous they can’t bend like linemen could in McKittrick’s days. The 49ers’ current right guard, Alex Boone, is 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds for crying out loud. Randy Cross was 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds in 1985.
Solari has become the McKittrick figure on the 49ers’ current coaching staff, the veteran position coach who shares his knowledge with younger assistants. Solari shares his job with Tim Drevno, a newcomer to the NFL – this is his third season. They are co-offensive line coaches.
“It’s great,” says Solari, “You could be emphasizing something with the older players and I’ll break off, and Tim will take the younger guys with him separately. So, it’s tremendous teaching and great reinforcement. We break up the group quite a bit so you’re getting more reps, better teaching, better feedback because you have two coaches watching and implementing. It’s a better teaching environment and a better developmental environment for the younger guys.”
I’m out of questions so I stand up and thank Solari for his time.
“Nice to meet you,” he says.
“Nice to meet you, too.”
And it was.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.