This is my Friday column on the 49ers’ Mt. Rushmore.
Let’s play the Mt. Rushmore Game for the 49ers.
Who are the four greatest figures in 49ers history? I’m talking players, coaches or owners. You pick. Who would you carve onto the 49ers’ own Mt. Rushmore?
We can agree on three people right off the bat – Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. Those are gimmes.
“Each of them is clearly among the best ever at their position,” said the great Ira Miller, who covered the 49ers’ dynasty under Walsh and George Seifert for the San Francisco Chronicle. “An argument could be made that Rice is the best player ever at any position. I suspect Montana’s record of four Super Bowl victories without an interception will stand for a long, long time. Walsh, of course, created a template for modern offense and organizational structure.”
Rice, Montana and Walsh will be on the 49ers’ Mt. Rushmore for eternity. No one ever will erase them.
But who is the fourth 49er on that slab of stone? Now, the game gets tricky.
You could go with Steve Young. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, won one Super Bowl and may have won more than one if he hadn’t had to back up Montana for four seasons. He’s also a Hall of Famer.
Or you could go with Ronnie Lott. He’s the greatest defensive player in 49ers’ history, one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history and a four-time Super Bowl Champion. He’s also a Hall of Famer.
You could make an argument for Frank Gore. He’s the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, especially impressive considering he played for dysfunctional teams until at 2011, his seventh-season in the league.
I asked Michael Berger, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Executive Sports Editor at the advent of the Walsh Era. Berger also grew up in San Francisco. Who would he put on the Niners’ Mt. Rushmore?
“Who among your readership would remember Tony Morabito, the businessman-fan who made it all possible?” Berger asked via email. “Without his investment in 1946 and his commitment to building the team, there would be no 49ers.
“Or Frankie Albert, the team’s first QB and field leader, who gave the team an identity, a winning rep and thus growing fan popularity that assured its future. Or Joe Perry, the first black athlete to play for the 49ers, and the first to gain 1,000 yards in a single season. Or Hugh McElhenny, one of the most exciting runners of his generation.”
Berger threw out those names but declined to play the game. He said it was too complicated.
That doesn’t mean we can’t play. What about Jim Harbaugh?
It’s too early for him. He’s had a hot start to his NFL head-coaching career, but he’s been a 49er for only two seasons and he hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet.
It’s too early for Jed York, too, although he’s largely responsible for the recent resurrection of the franchise. He raised the funds to build the new stadium, and he hired Trent Baalke, who hired Jim Harbaugh.
You could make a convincing argument for Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the owner of the 49ers during the Walsh Era. Ira Miller did. DeBartolo is his fourth Mt. Rushmore face. “Everything starts at the top, no matter what business you are in,” Miller said. “He created the atmosphere that let the players and coaches flourish.”
On the other hand, DeBartolo is a convicted felon who was forced by the NFL to relinquish control of the 49ers in 2000. As a result he may never get elected into the Hall of Fame. Is there a place on Mt. Rushmore for Eddie? Your call. The actual Mt. Rushmore features presidents with controversial pasts as well, for what it’s worth.
My first three picks are Walsh, Montana and Rice. I’m not picking DeBartolo for my fourth and final spot on the mountain. I’m picking Bobb McKittrick, the 49ers’ offensive line coach from 1979 to 1999. I hope you don’t find my pick strange. You could argue McKittrick was just as important as Walsh.
McKittrick won five Super Bowls with the 49ers. Walsh won three. “Bobb was the constant in two distinctly different regimes – Walsh’s regime, and George Seifert’s regime,” said Fred vonAppen, the 49ers’ special teams coach from 1983 to 1988. “The philosophies of the two regimes were the same, but their interpretation of the philosophies was different. Bobb was a great teacher and a pragmatic guy. He could tailor his coaching to different players and different regimes.
“He was an ex-marine. He had a sense of duty and purpose that was above and beyond, but he had no ego. He drove an old beat-up Volkswagen.
“Assistant coaches tend to do a lot of networking behind the scenes. They help each other out with game planning and give each other tips. Not McKittrick. He didn’t network. He worked on his own. He was a coach’s coach, a musician’s musician.
“He came to the 49ers and molded an offensive line that had been consistent losers into a group that won Super Bowls and went to Pro Bowls. Bubba Parris, Jesse Sapolu, Keith Fahnhorst, Randy Cross – they’d all played together and not had any success.”
VonAppen said McKittrick’s impact goes far beyond the offensive line.
“McKittrick was largely responsible for the 49ers’ run game,” he said. “Walsh relinquished it to McKittrick.”
On top of that, vonAppen said there would be no “West Coast Offense” without McKittrick: “McKittrick had a touch with the play of the offensive line, how it relates to the scheme of the run and the pass. Walsh had only a passing interest in this area, so he deferred to McKittrick.
“Walsh’s system was a hodge-podge of complicated ideas that didn’t relate to each other. McKittrick had to take all these disparate ideas and put them together and make then learnable and digestible for the players.”
In other words, McKittrick was in charge of explaining Walsh’s plays and making them work.
Walsh and McKittrick were like two sides of a single personality – Walsh the dreamer, McKittrick the realist. And as dreamers and realists do, Walsh and McKittrick did not get along and often bumped heads. They didn’t understand each other, except on the football field. But they needed each other.
During training camp, Walsh would install the entire offense, explaining the concepts and how each specific play should be run. The only other person Walsh trusted to discuss concepts and install the offense was McKittrick.
“There were great assistants on that staff,” vonAppen said, “who knew the offense inside-and-out – Paul Hackett, Mike Holmgen – but Walsh seldom allowed them to get in front of the offense and talk about aspects of the game. Only McKittrick was allowed to do that.”
In 1999, McKittrick was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but he coached the 49ers’ offensive line that season, anyway.
One day, Walsh invited vonAppen to watch a closed practice. VonAppen stood on the sideline and took no notes – he was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
VonAppen watched McKittrick try to coach a drill, but McKittrick was getting weak and tired. McKittrick drove a golf cart over to vonAppen and said, “Fred, get in. I need your help with this drill.”
VonAppen didn’t move. “I don’t think I should,” he said. “Bill would flip out if he saw me on the field.”
“Fred, I’m a dead man,” McKittrick told him smiling. “I have six months to live. I have special privileges. Get in the cart.”
So, vonAppen got in the cart and helped McKittrick coach the drill.
Walsh did not object.
So, McKittrick’s face goes on my 49ers’ Mt. Rushmore. Whose faces go on yours?
Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.