The top 5 coaches in 49ers history

The 49ers have a long and storied history. Since 1979, they have reached the playoffs 23 times, won 17 NFC West championships, played in 15 NFC Championship games, and played in seven Super Bowls, winning five. Over that time, the team has employed a total of 10 head coaches.

Here’s my list of the top five 49ers head coaches since 1979.

5. Steve Mariucci – Mariucci coached 103 games in San Francisco from 1997 to 2002. Over his time with the 49ers, Mariucci won 2 NFC West division titles. 

The best season of Mariucci’s tenure was his first, as he led San Francisco to a 13-3 record before falling to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park. 

Mariucci’s tenure was marked by fantastic come-from-behind wins and the first losing season since 1980. 

The 1998 season saw Steve Young hit Terrell Owens over the middle for a touchdown in the final moments to defeat Green Bay in the Wild Card round. 

In week three of the following year, Steve Young’s career was ended by a crushing hit from Aeneas Williams during a Monday night victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers finished the season with only four wins. 

After another miserable season in 2000, Mariucci led the 49ers back into the playoffs in 2001. 

In 2002, the 49ers trailed the New York Giants 38-14 with only 4:27 remaining in the third quarter. Mariucci’s 49ers, led by quarterback Jeff Garcia, would score the final 25 points. The comeback was capped off by a 13-yard touchdown pass from Garcia to Tai streets with 1:00 left to play. 

San Francisco would lose to Tampa Bay the following week, and Mariucci was fired soon after.

4. George Seifert – Seifert is the second-longest head coach in 49ers history behind only Bill Walsh, coaching 143 games. During his time as head coach Seifert led San Francisco to two Super Bowl titles and five NFC Championship game appearances. 

Seifert’s ranking is a reflection of the teams he inherited. 

In 1989, Seifert took over a team that had just won the Super Bowl and had two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the roster. 

He led the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory in his first season at the helm and would have made it back in his second year if not for a Roger Craig fumble late in the NFC Championship game against the New York Jets. 

After falling to the Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back NFC Championship games in 1992 and 1993, Seifert led a revamped roster back to the Super Bowl in 1994. San Francisco’s thrashing of the San Diego Chargers is the last time the organization hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the season’s end. 

Playoff losses to Green Bay in 1995 and 1996 marked the end of Seifert’s time with the 49ers, as he would be fired shortly after losing to the Packers for the second consecutive year.

3. Kyle Shanahan – When Shanahan took over in 2017, he inherited a roster that was one of the worst in the NFL. After struggling during his first two seasons, Shanahan led the 49ers to the Super Bowl following a 13-win campaign in 2019. In 2021, he would fall one step short of a second trip to the big dance. 

Over Shanahan’s first five seasons in San Francisco, he posted a winning percentage of .494, slightly better than Bill Walsh’s over the same timeframe. 

2. Jim Harbaugh – Hired in 2011, Harbaugh took over a franchise that had not posted a winning record since 2002. 

Harbaugh’s ranking is all about the turnaround he led. From 2003 to 2010, the 49ers won only 46 games and fell from the NFL elite. 

Under Harbaugh, the 49ers became respectable again, reaching the NFC Championship game in his first three seasons and the Super Bowl in 2012. 

1. Bill Walsh – This was a no-brainer. 

Walsh was the architect of the 49ers dynasty. He built the organization into a Super Bowl winner three times over and established a system that led the 49ers to win at least ten games per season from 1983 to 1998. 

Walsh didn’t only win games; his “West Coast offense” revolutionized the way the NFL game was played. Instead of running to set up the pass, Walsh’s offense passed to set up the run using shorter, easier throws which the receiver could turn into big gains. 

Walsh retired following the 49ers third Super Bowl victory, a 20-16 come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The final drive ended with Joe Montana hitting John Taylor in the endzone, and was Walsh’s opus. 

Who do you think are the top-five head coaches in 49ers history?

This article has 12 Comments

  1. I know it’s outside the parameters of the question, so I would just add an honorable mention of Lawrence “Buck” Shaw, the 49ers first Head Coach. He built the 49ers from the ground, and left the team with a 71-39-04 record. Someone should write an article or post a podcast about his accomplishments, especially since we’re in the doldrums of the off season.

  2. dear sirs are the 49ers goin to release dan ford will the 49ers bring in suh for them to look at chris

  3. chris
    Who is dan ford? Are you asking when Dee Ford will be released?
    If so, Dee Ford was scheduled to take a physical the week of June 5-11. As of the 06/20/2022 Dee Ford has not been released yet. While the 9ers haven’t made an announcement, it’s reasonable to assume there’s an injury settlement negotiation ongoing.
    And with the 9ers up against the 2022 salary cap, even if they trade JG they can’t afford Ndamukong Suh.

  4. My list would be:

    1. Bill Walsh
    2. George Seifert
    3. Kyle Shanahan
    4. Jim Harbaugh
    5. Dick Nolan

    Seifert has 2 Superbowl wins. That automatically puts him above Shanahan and Harbaugh regardless of how he won them. To me Shanahan and Harbaugh are interchangeable. Very similar records of success. I like Mooch but I don’t think you can overlook the great teams of the early 70s. Heartbreaking losses to an inferior team but Nolan still deserves some recognition.

  5. I think Jim Tomsula has to be in that conversation.

    And who can forget Drop Trou Singletary?

    Jack, I think a more engaging topic might be:

    The Bottom 5 Coaches in 49ers History

    1. He probably isn’t the worst coach in 49er history but the guy I liked the least was Mike Nolan. It just always felt like he was playing a part. Didn’t feel genuine in the least. Plus I felt like he was a bad coach. I liked Tomsula more than I liked Nolan. I even liked Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly more than I liked Nolan.

      1. Interesting perspective. I’ve always felt a certain decorum with Mike Nolan, irrespective of the actual results.

        But I can see why he could come across as disingenuous. I liked that he petitioned to wear a suit on the sidelines, a bit old school like Landry, but it was done more out of general respect for his father.

        Dennis Erickson was probably the worst of the bunch. He was there to collect an easy paycheck and then get fired. Although you can claim the same about Tomsula to a certain extent.

  6. 5. Kyle Shanahan
    4. Steve Mariucci
    3. Buck Shaw
    2. George Seifert
    1. Bill Walsh

    I would say Harbaugh is 6.

  7. WHAT….. no one remembers the incomparable Pete McCulley, the HC for 9ers in the 1978 season? McCulley’s HC record was 1-8-0, making him the least successful head coach in the 9ers history!

    If the W – L record is the measuring stick for the 9ers top 5 coaches:
    NAME……….. YEAR(S)……………… W – L
    1) George Seifert 1989-1996 98-30-0
    2) Bill Walsh 1979-1988 92-59-1
    3) Steve Mariucci 1997-2002 57-39-0
    4) Jim Harbaugh 2011-2014 44-19-1
    5) Kyle Shanahan 2017-2022 39-42-0

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