John Morton has coached a well-known Hall of Fame wide receiver; the very one he grew up idolizing. He’s coached in the college and professional ranks since 1997 and even spent time as a player with three NFL clubs. For as long as he remembers, the 49ers wide receivers coach has been passionate about the game, and more so when it comes to sharing his insights on it. In doing so, the boisterous coach has been known to have his voice give out occasionally. Still, Morton keeps coaching and keeps delivering the necessary information to get the most out of his players. Click here to watch Morton's interview.
IN MICHIGAN, Morton found his passion for football on high school wrestling mats of all places. On those mats, a teenage Morton discovered his love of competition. Morton wasn’t even a member of Avondale High School’s wrestling team. Instead, Morton was a talented basketball player looking to push his conditioning level by training with the wrestlers in the middle of basketball season. Under the shadow of an older brother who excelled at the sport, Morton sought out ways to distinguish himself as an athlete, and more so as a competitor.
Morton found that on the Avondale wrestling mats. “I was a scrawny little kid and I didn’t want to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” Morton admitted. To break free of the comparisons, the 49ers coach met up with the wrestling coach and simply said, “I want to work out with the wrestlers.” To which the coach replied, “Sure, you can come in and work out with us. I’m not sure how long you’re going to last.”
Morton said he wanted to give it a try and he did, giving his best effort every day. Morton woke up at 5:30 in the morning during the school year to lift weights and condition his body with the wrestlers. “It was kind of fun,” Morton recalled. “I thought that was my first time of really competing and finding the passion for competition.” With his appreciation for training in place, Morton went on to become an All-League receiver for Avondale High, all while emulating his favorite player at the time, 49ers Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice.
THE ROAD to stardom wasn’t paved immediately for Morton. Eager to play collegiate football, Morton elected to play at Grand Rapids Community College where he served as a scout team quarterback his freshman year. Never the one to quit, Morton saw playing time as a sophomore and did well enough to earn himself a scholarship to Western Michigan. Morton’s time at Western earned him an invite to the National Football League’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Morton, however, never made it to playing in an NFL regular season game, but he did catch on with the Los Angeles Raiders practice squad for two seasons starting in 1993. Morton would go on to spend time with the Green Bay Packers and was in the Jacksonville Jaguars training camp in 1995. Later, Morton was with the Raiders for training camp in 1996 before moving on to stints in the Canadian and World Football Leagues the following two seasons.
It didn’t take long for Morton to realize his true calling in the midst of his journey to make an NFL roster. Morton was so focused on learning and talking about the game of football, there would be times where he’d draw up plays on napkins for his coaches. “I got really involved in it at that point,” Morton said. “I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so when I got done playing in those years, I had an opportunity to go back to the Oakland Raiders.”
WORKING FROM the bottom up is how Morton gained traction in his coaching career. In 1997, Morton joined the Raiders to work in several capacities. He even worked alongside 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh during his time in Oakland which lasted until 2004.
In Oakland, Morton’s football knowledge grew tremendously as he worked under three Raiders head coaches, John Gruden, Bill Callahan and Norv Turner. Morton said all three were influential in his coaching career. “I worked my way up. I was the offensive assistant, the coffee boy – the whipping boy, whatever they wanted, I had to do,” Morton recalled. “Eventually I was able to coach Tim Brown and Jerry Rice – that was kind of awesome. I learned a lot from those guys.”
From working as an offensive assistant, to coaching the wide receivers, to becoming an offensive quality control coach, back to coaching receivers and then finally on to tight ends, Morton experienced just about every type of coaching role with the Raiders. He also found out what it was like to work beside Harbaugh.
TAKING OVER Morton’s responsibilities is how Harbaugh first met his future wide receivers coach. With Harbaugh hired on to Oakland’s staff as the team’s offensive assistant in 2002. “He kind of took my job,” admitted Morton, who moved over to senior offensive assistant/wide receivers coach that year. “I trained him how to use a computer and stuff like that. That was kind of interesting... It was fun. We had a good connection. We worked well together.”
It wasn’t long after that the two would reconnect, in the college game, no less. When the Raiders replaced its coaching staff in 2005, Morton received a call from Harbaugh asking him to join his coaching staff at the University of San Diego as the passing game/wide receivers coach. The two would go on to help San Diego win a Division I-AA Mid Major national title. “It was awesome because I had the opportunity to call plays for the first time,” Morton said.
Morton called his next coaching move, “real special.” In 2006, Morton joined Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints coaching staff as the passing game coordinator/offensive assistant. That year, the Saints came one game short of making it to the Super Bowl. Despite the disappointing outcome, Morton valued the experience as he had his hands in a lot of the team’s success in the passing game.
COLLEGE BALL came back in the picture for Morton in 2007 when he decided to join the coaching staff at the University of Southern California. Just like his time in Oakland, Morton enjoyed a number of roles on the staff that involved the passing game and wide receivers. In addition to being the school’s wide receivers coach for four seasons, Morton serves as the passing game coordinator in 2007-08 and also as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2009.
Around that time, Harbaugh reached out to Morton to join his staff at Stanford following his time at San Diego. Morton didn’t want to offend his former co-worker turned boss, but he politely declined the offer and went to Southern Cal. “I didn’t know how he’d react to that, I turned him down and went to USC-type of deal,” Morton said. “He didn’t make much of it. We’ve been friends for awhile now.”
SO WHEN Harbaugh’s name was rumored to be up for the 49ers head coaching job, Morton was openly rooting for his old friend to get the gig. When Harbaugh signed a five-year contract, Morton wasn’t far off his mind. Morton agreed to become the 49ers wide receivers coach on Jan. 20 of last offseason. “I was hoping when this 49ers job came open he’d get it – and he did,” Morton recalled. “I was like, ‘I hope he calls,’ and he did. (When Harbaugh called) I said, ‘I’m ready. My bags are packed, let’s go!’”
Coaching in the Bay Area was a perfect fit for Morton. “Jerry Rice was my childhood idol. I played wide receiver, too. Bill Walsh, the West Coast offense, it’s what I’ve been in my whole career,” Morton said. “I’m just like a kid in the candy store here.” The receivers coach means it, literally. There will be times Morton finds himself marveling over the team’s historic images scattered around the building.
THE VOICE can be heard from distance for good reason. Morton communicates with his players immediately and with them spending time isolated on the perimeter, the word needs to travel fast. Instead of waiting to share tips in post-practice meetings, Morton gives instruction as soon as possible. As a result, Morton’s voice turns raspy fast, like 4.4, 40-yard dash fast.
“Wherever I’ve been,” Morton began, “I’ve been the most vocal. For one, I’m coaching wide receivers so I have to be loud so everybody can hear me on the field. But at the same time, the drills that I’m doing, I have to set the drills up a certain way and so I have to talk to everybody, quarterbacks, receivers, backs or whatever. I want them to hear me.”
And with such a diverse background of knowledge, it’s important for Morton to share his feedback. Only, he makes sure to be consistent in sharing it. “It doesn’t matter what age the players are, you just have to coach them. They want to be coached. I learned that early in my career,” Morton said. “Be a teacher. Have some constructive criticism but be a teacher. Once they know you’re making them better, they’re going to listen. I kind of go by that, however you get your point across, you get it across.”
Morton takes bit and pieces from all his peers in the route-running business. Dating back to his time with Rice and Brown, the Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame wideouts, Morton picked up a lot from being around those talented players. He also utilizes the lessons from Gruden, Callahan, Turner and Payton.
With that background, Morton has provided the 49ers with great insight on what it takes to move the football through the air. Moreover, Morton’s ties with Harbaugh have only strengthened the camaraderie within the offensive staff. “It’s real special. I love his passion,” Morton said of Harbaugh, the Associated Press’ Coach of the Year winner. “He’s so competitive and I’m the same way. I grind hard and that’s the only way I know how to do it. And with what he’s done, he’s been successful. He beat us three of the four years I was down at USC… I’m hopping on the bandwagon.”