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Teaching the Trade

Posted Feb 1, 2012

Mike Solari totes nearly a quarter-century of NFL coaching experience working with some of the game’s finest teachers. After working as a part of Jim Harbaugh’s first coaching staff during the 2011 season, Solari is looking forward to a bright future with the organization. He’s already won one Super Bowl with the 49ers in another era, but Solari is hungry to bring San Francisco its sixth championship ring. Click here to watch Solari's interview.

IT COULD have been a classroom or it could have been a wrestling mat, but Mike Solari is happy to call the football field his place of work. That’s not to say he doesn’t need a whiteboard now and then. The 49ers offensive line coach always knew he would be a teacher. Whether it was in a traditional role or as a sports coach, his mind wasn’t made up until after a tryout with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s. Solari didn’t make the cut, but his rebirth in football was just getting started. With his playing days over, Solari joined the coaching staff Mission Bay High School in San Diego before moving up the ladder to the National Football League. With 23 years of experience at the game’s highest level, Solari knows his football. So whenever he pulls out his whiteboard on the sidelines to draw up a play, people listen to every word he has to say.

But before he could teach, Solari had to learn. Working under the tutelage of respected coaches like George Seifert, Tom Landry and Dick Vermeil, Solari’s expertise derives from a vast range of football minds. “I’ve been very blessed with the people I’ve worked with and work for,” Solari said. “The great thing is to take something from each coach. You just kind of change your style, your methods and what you learned from them, and then you just build. It’s been a great opportunity. I’ve just loved every place I’ve been.”

SOLARI ALWAYS walks around 49ers headquarters with a hop in his step and a smile on his face. Ditto for the practice field, where his high-energy coaching style has helped develop a quality offensive line. With a new coaching staff, a new scheme and a new center in Jonathan Goodwin, Solari and fellow offensive line coach Tim Drevno had plenty of moving parts to deal with this season. But as the year progressed so did the big guys up front.

Starting in Week 5, Frank Gore rattled off a streak of five-straight, 100-yard games, en route to becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in Week 13. While only Gore’s name will go down in the record books, the other five guys in the trenches certainly took pride in the accomplishment. “The bottom line is to get them to play as one,” Solari said of his offensive linemen. “And to get them to understand the fine details and be able to execute at a high performance.”

Such logic doesn’t apply only to the players. Solari has enjoyed working in concert with Drevno, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman in the year they’ve been together. It’s clear when Harbaugh built his first NFL coaching staff that he wanted it to be a cerebral one preaching the importance of details. “Greg’s done a nice job with the offensive staff, bringing us together in meetings and getting us all on the same page,” Solari said. “In the sense of us speaking the same language, we’re all saying it the same way, teaching it the same way. The most important thing as a coach is you have to be a great teacher. To be a great teacher, you have to be a great communicator and Jim’s done a tremendous job bringing this staff together.”

Solari has especially enjoyed his relationship with Drevno, as it allows the two coaches to give their players individual attention when needed or spend more time on the small things. Because when it all comes together, Solari says it’s like a form of art. “The offense – it’s a beautiful thing when you execute it,” Solari said. “The ball’s out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, the run game is multi-dimensional – outside on the perimeter, inside quick-hitting – the variety that you get.”

FROM CALIFONIA’S sunny shores to the heartland of America, Solari’s football trail has stretched across the country. It started with a stint at San Mateo junior college, before the Daly City native ended up at San Diego State University, where he played alongside fellow future NFL coaches John Fox and Herm Edwards. “We had a lot of fun playing down there,” Solari said. “It was just a real good football team with guys that were real close. We just loved the game so we did the second-best thing aside from playing and that was coaching.” After one year in the high school coaching ranks, Solari took a level-by-level approach to the League.

From Mission Bay, Solari moved up to the junior college game for two years before helping Boise State win the Division I-AA National Championship in 1980. The next six years were spent between the University of Cincinnati, Kansas University and the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the offensive coordinator in 1986. At long last in 1987, Solari earned a job under Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach with a top hat. Following two seasons in Dallas, Solari went to the Arizona Cardinals, before following coach Gene Stallings to the University of Alabama for two more years of college ball.

That all set the stage for his first stint with the 49ers in 1992, a five-year run which included a victory in Super Bowl XXIX. Serving as the team’s tight ends/assistant offensive line coach, Solari helped develop tight end Brent Jones into one of football’s best. But he also learned immensely from legendary 49ers offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick and Seifert, the team’s head coach. To this day, Solari carries lessons he learned from his first run with the 49ers. “The thing that we’re building here is the blueprint to a championship,” Solari said. “Coach (Bill) Walsh obviously started it and brought it here, and coach Seifert did a great job. Coach Seifert is an outstanding football coach – truly, truly is. He probably doesn’t get some of the credit that he deserves, in the sense of maintaining that excellence. He did a great job and he challenged all the coaches as well as the players.”

In the years between his jobs with the 49ers, Solari spent 11 years with the Chiefs, including the 2006-07 seasons as offensive coordinator. Then he went to work with Mike Holmgren in Seattle before returning to San Francisco under coach Mike Singletary in 2010. With his proven track record and his rapport with the players, it’s no wonder why Harbaugh wanted to keep Solari around as the 49ers embarked on a new era.

SOLARI’S GAMEDAY routine is a busy one. Throughout this season, he could be seen in between the lines with his scout team linemen hours before the opening kick-off. Sure, the young players he’s working with won’t see the field that day, but Solari doesn’t let the time go by idly. His guys are working on technique, doing drills and conditioning at a time when most are waiting for the show to start. It’s the type of dedication that can be seen up and down the 49ers coaching staff this year. “It really is hard to play in the NFL in the sense of the length of the season and then the intensity that you must bring on Sundays,” Solari said. “Then the preparation is unmatched. It’s one game a week and the amount of detail that goes into learning and being able to execute is unbelievable.”

Solari takes extra satisfaction in pulling his young players aside to show them the ropes. As a veteran who’s coached All-Pros like Willie Roaf, Walter Jones and Will Shields, Solari has seen the sacrifices necessary for greatness. “That’s what’s hard for a rookie because they’re used to ‘The day’s over when the day’s over,’” Solari said. “But when the day’s over in the NFL, it’s just beginning. The great ones – the pros – they take it home and study and they prepare at home.”

Clearly, coaching football is more than a duty for Solari. Sit down with him for a conversation and it seems a couple minutes can’t go by without him mentioning his love for the game. Outside of work, Solari is a simple man. With his wife, Patti, and three children, all Solari needs is family and football. “I love football,” the tenured coach said. “I love studying football and it’s an unbelievable game; you can always pick up something. …  I love staying here (at the team facility), but if I’m not doing football, I’m with my family.”