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George Seifert Selected to Join 49ers Hall of Fame

Posted Jun 16, 2014

George Seifert has been selected as the 2014 inductee into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.


George Seifert’s experiences with the 49ers are many. In fact, they’re endless. Truth be told, he’s a walking memory bank of team history. He also has a unique take on a signature moment in 49ers lore. While everyone remembers Dwight Clark’s touchdown reception in the back right corner at “The ‘Stick,” Seifert has a different recollection of what made “The Catch” so significant. As the coach likes to tell it, the ’81 NFC title game victory would not have been a highlight for the ages without a tackle made on the ensuing possession by one of his defensive backs.  With less than a minute left and the Dallas Cowboys looking to regain the lead, Seifert recalls one of his rookie cornerbacks making a touchdown-saving tackle on Cowboys wideout Drew Pearson. “Thank God for Eric Wright running out and grabbing Drew Pearson by the back of the neck and slamming him to the ground,” Seifert says. “Had that play not happened, there would be publicity about ‘The Catch,’ but it certainly would not be what it is. And it might have been the end of my career as well.”

The Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame is a fitting home for Seifert. In the 1950s, the San Francisco native was an usher at Kezar Stadium. In 1989 and ’94, Seifert was the head coach of two Super Bowl-winning 49ers teams that called Candlestick Park home. In 2014, Seifert has been selected as the sole inductee into the proud franchise’s Hall of Fame. Making the achievement even sweeter, Seifert will be the first inductee to be honored at the franchise’s new home, Levi’s® Stadium. “To be recognized for something that took place in my professional life is something that’s special and I think particularly special from the standpoint of me growing up in San Francisco and being a 49ers fan,” Seifert says. “It’s a special thing; there’s no question about that.”

THE COACHING CIRCUIT

Seifert’s incredible football journey was in full motion by the time the 49ers knocked off the Cowboys. This was the first of many epic accomplishments. But before Seifert was able to lead his hometown franchise to Super Bowl glory as the head man, the detailed-oriented coach rose through the ranks to become a Hall of Famer. Seifert’s fascination with football began at Kezar Stadium, the first home of San Francisco’s team. Seifert and his teammates at Polytechnic High School often walked across the street to the football stadium in the southeastern corner of Golden Gate Park. They entered the stadium as ushers. Seifert, however, spent more time marveling over “The Million Dollar Backfield,” instead of performing his work duties. In particular, Seifert took interest in Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Hugh McElhenny. Seifert paid close attention to the details at many home games, including the team’s heart-breaking loss to the Detroit Lions in the ‘57 Western Conference Championship Game. Decades later, he would play a prime role in guiding the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance by teaching the techniques that allowed Wright to tackle Pearson.

Next on Seifert’s football path was a stop at the University of Utah. Though he played sparingly on the football team while earning a zoology degree, Seifert was still fascinated with the technical aspects of the game. He focused his added studies on the defensive side of the ball. Once Seifert put his football career to rest, he worked on his graduate degree. Football, however, returned to Seifert’s life when a former college roommate and teammate approached him about becoming a graduate assistant at Utah. It didn’t take much convincing. “Something clicked,” Seifert says. “I loved teaching technique, and I always enjoyed the football environment.”

In 1965, Seifert was approached again for his services in nearby Salt Lake City. This time it was by Westminster College athletic director Howard Richardson, who was looking to restart the school’s football program. Seifert was offered the school’s head coaching job at the age of 25. “Then I was totally hooked,” he says. The Westminster job was followed by coaching stints at other major universities. Seifert was a graduate assistant at the University of Iowa in ’67 while he earned his master’s degree. Seifert went on to coach defensive backs at the University of Oregon from ’69 to ’71 and later joined Stanford University in the same role in ’72 after being hired by former 49ers coach Jack Christiansen. The Bay Area return only lasted three seasons. “I was antsy and wanted to be a head coach again,” says Seifert, who left Stanford to take over the head coaching duties at Cornell University in ’75. Still, it was during these influential years that Seifert developed his style of coaching. The experiences also fueled his desire to grow within the profession.

A LUNCH TO REMEMBER

The experience at Cornell wasn't a smashing success, but it didn’t derail Seifert's focus on being a successful coach. In 1977, he returned to Stanford where he would coach defensive backs on Bill Walsh’s staff. Before working for Walsh, who would go on to become a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach for the 49ers, Seifert felt like he was seasoned from all of his coaching experiences across the country. “I came across coaches who were outstanding technicians and body-mechanic coaches,” Seifert says. “I was really hooked on technique, and I think from that aspect, it was one of my stronger suits when I first came to Stanford and worked with Bill.”

Seifert still remembers how Walsh secured his coaching services in ‘77. The two met at the now defunct Hyatt Rickey’s for lunch in Palo Alto. Walsh didn’t have an exact position in mind for Seifert initially, but he knew he wanted Seifert on his staff. “That was kind of different,” Seifert says of the conversation that forged a bond between the two. Seifert agreed to return to Stanford where he went back to working with the defensive backs. It didn’t take long for Seifert to be impressed with the program that Walsh had established.  “The thing I remember is when we practiced, it was competitive,” Seifert says. “There weren’t a lot of scripts that we had to run certain defenses or what have you. We were competing against Bill’s offense each day in practice and I think I developed an insight into the offense and it really helped me develop into a professional coach.”

When Walsh became an NFL coach before the ’79 season, Seifert stayed at Stanford for one year. He eventually took the leap into the professional football ranks, agreeing to be the 49ers defensive backs coach in ’80. Seifert was back in his hometown. “In those early days when things were getting going, (former owner) Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was out there doing anything he could to help,” Seifert says. “Bill had a sense and a feel for what he wanted to do and (general manager) John McVay was his right-hand man. We were all heavily involved. Everybody had input and was expected to present what their feelings were about certain players.”

The teamwork led to a fruitful draft in ’81. San Francisco used the eighth overall selection to pick future Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott. In the second and third rounds, the team added future starters in NFC Championship-saving tackler Wright and Carlton Williamson, respectively. The trio was paired with veteran journeyman Dwight Hicks to form Seifert’s new-look secondary. The ’81 season would become a special one for the organization. Not only did the franchise win its first Super Bowl, a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI, Walsh was named AP Coach of the Year. As for Seifert, he had talented players soaking up his technical wisdom. “What an impact those four players had,” Seifert says, before going out of his way to praise his assistant defensive backs coach, Ray Rhodes. “He played for me in my first year as a coach for the 49ers and he really bought into the technique-style that we were interested in and he had a great rapport with the players.”

SHOES TO FILL

Seifert’s defense was among the league’s best in the ‘80s, while Walsh’s offensive schemes meshed brilliantly with Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana and Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice. San Francisco would go on to win two more Super Bowls with Walsh. The 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX and defeated the Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXII – Walsh’s final year with the team. The following year was perhaps the most challenging moment of Seifert’s career. Walsh stepped down as head coach and Seifert was selected as his successor. “That was a special time and it was a special time for my family,” Seifert says. “My mother-in-law was really happy because that meant we could spend a few more years in the Bay Area and she lived in San Francisco.”

Seifert had to look out for his other family, a locker room full of stars that were seeking another opportunity to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy. Seifert relished the chance to lead the franchise he grew attached to during his days as an usher. “Even to this day, it never leaves you,” Seifert says of the challenge in replacing Walsh. “It was tough and I think I was prepared for it. I think I was the right man for the job at the time. As an assistant coach, Bill was very demanding, which he should have been, and there was an awful lot of pressure to maintain the standard that we had established fairly early.”

Seifert held up. And so did his team. Seifert followed Walsh’s lead in how he interacted with players and installed offensive and defensive systems. He didn’t lobby to draft players who could only aid the defensive side of the ball. Instead, he kept the offense in mind at all times. “I had been a part of the development of it and had believed in it, so it was a natural and easy transition for me,” Seifert says. “The beauty of our offense the artistic sense of the offense and the way it cut people up. There was no way we were going to chance that. We had great personnel for what we were doing offensively and defensively. It was a challenge, but something that was exciting.”

The 49ers finished 14-2 in ’89, Seifert’s first year as head coach, and won three postseason games, including Super Bowl XXIV. Seifert didn’t just win his first ring as a head coach – his team dismantled the AFC Champion Denver Broncos, 55-10 – and the 45-point margin of victory still stands as the largest Super Bowl win in league history. “Having been a fan of the team and idolized the players during my high school years and then to have eventually become the head coach, it’s indescribable, the feeling,” Seifert says.

PASSING THE TORCH

The challenging parts of Seifert’s head coaching career, however, were just getting started. Four years into Seifert’s tenure, the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs. The elite quarterback missed the ’91 season and most of the ’92 campaign with an elbow injury. By the time Montana was healthy enough to lead the offensive huddle, San Francisco was fortunate to have another Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young, playing at an All-Pro level. Despite Montana’s long list of accolades, the decision was made. Young replaced Montana in ‘93, much like Seifert replaced Walsh. “In all honesty, the transition was brutal,” Seifert says. “It was one of the more difficult things that I had gone through during my coaching career. Joe had meant so much, not only to the football part of the team, but also to the emotional foundation and the tradition of the 49ers. That’s something that you might say still haunts me to this day.”

But Seifert knew the team was fortunate to have Young on deck. Two seasons later, the left-handed passer led San Francisco to a 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, giving Seifert his second Super Bowl win as a head coach and fifth as a member of the franchise. It was especially sweet because of the expectations on that team. The 49ers enlisted high-profile future Hall of Famers in free agency: cornerback Deion Sanders, plus defensive ends Rickey Jackson and Richard Dent. The players were brought in to help San Francisco get past Dallas in the conference championship. And they did. “Being a part of that team in particular, enabling that group to bring that group together and win that Super Bowl, that’s something that I’m particularly proud of,” Seifert says. And of course, Young’s precision played a part in getting it done. “We were fortunate to have Steve waiting in the wings,” Seifert says of the quarterback who set a Super Bowl record with six touchdown passes against the Chargers.

Despite all of its signature moments, Seifert’s tenure with the 49ers came to an end in ’96. After eight seasons as San Francisco’s head coach, he had posted a 98-30 regular season record with a winning percentage of .766. He would later finish his coaching career leading the rival Carolina Panthers from ’99 to 2001.  Seifert retired from coaching and went on to be a familiar face around the 49ers organization, routinely taking part in the franchise’s alumni events. He’s attended nearly every Hall of Fame enshrinement dinner and will now have a weekend to celebrate his vast accomplishments. “So many people were a part of my career and the success we had,” Seifert says. “I’m permanently indebted to all of them. It was extremely exciting and something I’m very proud of, to have been part of the organization and part of the glory years of the 49ers.”