- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Mike Nolan got humiliated. He got fired. And, he got that pail of melted ice cream.

Nolan expected his tenure with the Redskins to quickly transform him from defensive coordinator in Washington into a head coach somewhere.

At 37, he already had a decade of experience as an NFL assistant. He was ready to move up, but instead was forced to move on. He was fired, spent one year with the New York Jets, moved to offense with the Baltimore Ravens, then back to defense as the club’s coordinator.

Perhaps, in the end, all that was for the best. Nolan now has his job as a head coach, with the San Francisco 49ers.

“I wasn’t ready to be a head coach then,” Nolan said. “I’m not going to say I’m ready for everything now, but I’m a lot better prepared for this job having gone to Washington and every other place I’ve been since.

“There were a lot of things thrown my way that kind of caught me off guard.”

Like ice cream.

New Redskins owner Dan Snyder, in a not-too-subtle dig at what he considered a bland defensive scheme, during the 1999 season had a container of vanilla ice cream placed outside Nolan’s office so there would be a melted mess when he arrived for work.

Coach Norv Turner caved in to Snyder’s demand that Nolan be fired after the season, even though the Redskins allowed an average of just 16 points over their final nine games (including two in the playoffs).

Nolan moved on to the Jets, where he had the unenviable task of following Bill Belichick as the defensive coordinator. Then came Baltimore, where a staff change resulted in Nolan coaching the receivers in 2001. The next year, he succeeded another defensive guru, Marvin Lewis.

“Coaching on offense, being in the room with the enemy, was extremely helpful,” Nolan said. “There were a lot of things I thought I knew, but I really didn’t.

“Following coaches like Bill and Marvin is like being the step-dad,” Nolan said. “The players look at you like, ‘The other guy was really good, who are you?’ But after coaching Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the last two defensive players of the year, and having them do whatever I asked, I have no hesitation at all asking my players here to do anything.

“If I think it’s the right thing to do, we’re going to do it.”

Like most rookie coaches, Nolan inherited a bad team in the 49ers. That, he was prepared for.

And those past years of experience helped Nolan confront challenges that few Hall of Famers ever had to face.

Not long after Nolan took over the 49ers, the club was hit by a scandal that damaged its reputation in San Francisco. In-house videos that lampooned minorities and gays — they were intended to show players how not to behave in one of the nation’s most diverse metropolitan areas — became public, setting off a furor.

The video’s creator, public relations director Kirk Reynolds, was fired. Reynolds had been one of the few employees not on the business side of the organization to survive the staff purge that followed the disastrous 2-14 season of 2004.

“Our building was kind of a shell when I took over,” Nolan said. “There was no president, no general manager, no player personnel guy, no scouts and I had let all the coaches go. Then all of a sudden Kirk is going to be out the door, and we were taking shots right and left all the time. Until you’re a head coach, you don’t know how important that P.R. guy is and ours was gone.”

The controversy faded once training camp got under way, and Nolan suddenly had to deal with tragedy.

Guard Thomas Herrion, who joined the practice squad last December, collapsed and died in the locker room after an Aug20 preseason game at Denver.

“Having a player pass away is nothing you anticipate or go through someplace else,” said Nolan, who has kept Herrion’s locker in the 49ers’ practice facility the way he left it. “There are always defining moments in your job, and Thomas’ death was one of them in terms of my relationship with the players and their relationship with me and with the organization.”

The emotional bonds forged by Herrion’s death helped the host 49ers upset the archrival Rams 28-25 in the season opener, two weeks shy of 37 years since the 49ers and rookie coach Dick Nolan (with 9-year-old son Mike as a ballboy) beat St. Louis in their 1968 home opener.

The senior Nolan, now affected by Alzheimer’s, went on to lead the 49ers to three NFC West titles during his eight seasons.

“My father taught me that football was a people business and not just an X’s and O’s business,” said Mike Nolan, who still sometimes throws himself into the middle of a drill. “I don’t think a lot about being in my dad’s old job, but it’s certainly unique that I’m back here. A lot of my foundation in football was established here. It gives me more incentive to get the 49ers back on track.”

As expected, that’s proving difficult.

Since the opener, San Francisco has been outscored 135-51, getting pounded by Philadelphia and Indianapolis and blowing big leads against Dallas and Arizona. The 49ers have the NFL’s worst defense and the NFC’s worst offense. Three starters are out for the year and quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, posted an abysmal 12.5 passer rating in his debut.

“This was a 2-14 team, and not just because of the [previous] coaching staff,” Nolan said. “Whether it be the way they handled the salary cap or the way they drafted, there are more holes than you would like. We don’t have many stars, but we have a lot of good players, a good solid group of young guys who work extremely hard.

“We’ve come up on the short end right now, but because of all that hard work, I really believe it’s going to turn for us at some point.”

Note — The Redskins signed rookie linebacker Zak Keasey to the practice squad. Keasey had been cut on Oct. 15 to make room for cornerback Dimitri Patterson.

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