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Along the way, 49er coach George Seifert hit a big pothole

I have a friend who got a job out of grad school as the director of advertising for a small bank. It was exactly what he wanted: He had a lot of power for a 24-year-old, and he was on his way to the top of his chosen field. Then, one summer day, he got canned. Suddenly, he was 26 and unemployed.

In the days that followed, he went through anger, depression and all the usual why-was-I-born self-pitying torments of the fallen wunderkind. Finally, when it became clear that suicide really wasn't an alternative, he took a deep breath and reentered the fray. Thirteen years later, he is a successful ad man at a big-city agency, ready to break out and start his own consulting firm. Recently, I asked him about the old heave-ho: Who messed up—he or the bank?

He chuckled, the sting clearly assuaged by time, money and success. "Both of us," he replied.

I thought about my buddy's response when I read that San Francisco 49er coach George Seifert, the first-year wizard with 16 wins in four months at the helm of an NFL team, had been a bomb as a college coach. He couldn't even hack it in the Ivy League, where he coached Cornell to 1-8 and 2-7 seasons in 1975 and '76. After the latter season, Seifert was fired by none other than the NCAA's current executive director, Dick Schultz, then the athletic director at Cornell.

I won't question Schultz's reasons for the firing; reports say that they were the usual: not enough wins, disgruntled boosters, etc. The real questions are, Did Seifert deserve getting the heave-ho? Did the Big Red lose a brilliant coach? Does Seifert know something now that he didn't know then? Is Joe Montana a better quarterback than Jim Hofher, Cornell's 1976 signal caller?

Let's answer the last one first. Yes. Talent is a factor in Seifert's success with the 49ers. O.K., it's a huge factor. Former Big Red free safety John Curran, now a vice-president with McDonald & Co. Securities in Cleveland, says that Cornell's talent back then was "subpar even for the Ivies." Of his own similarity to San Francisco free safety Ronnie Lott, Curran says, "I think we're about the same age."

Unfortunately, Seifert's embryonic coaching abilities couldn't transcend his players' lack of skill. "The trouble was he didn't know much about the Ivy League," says Hofher, who last week was named the Big Red's coach. "There are no scholarships in the Ivies. He was a very bright guy, very studious and very intense, but I'd be shocked if he hasn't changed. Unless you're a buffoon, you're going to improve with time."

Seifert had played guard and linebacker at Utah and had been a graduate assistant for the Utes before getting his first head coaching job in 1965, at tiny Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He was 25 and led the Parsons to a 3-3 record. After that he was an assistant at Iowa, Oregon and Stanford before going to Cornell. His only win in 1975 was a 21-6 defeat of Bucknell. The next year his boys improved, beating Harvard 9-3 and Penn 31-13. Seifert closed out his collegiate coaching career with a 6-18 record.

Curran feels that Seifert wasn't given a chance at Cornell. "He never got to coach the guys he recruited," he says. "I remember thinking that he really got screwed."

Curran remembers something else: "He's supposed to be a defensive genius now. It's funny to me, because I don't remember him ever coming to the defensive side of the field back then."

Clearly, Seifert has changed. "No question, I've learned how to delegate authority," he says. He also has learned the pain of questioning one's own self-worth. "It took me eight years [after the firing] before I thought I wanted to be a head coach again," he says. From 1977 to '79 he was a defensive coach under Bill Walsh at Stanford, and in '80 he followed Walsh to the 49ers, where Seifert became known as a low-profile, hard-working aide with great insight into the game. In time he became a player's coach, as well. "George has made it a point to make everybody feel a part of the team," says 49er wide receiver Mike Wilson.

For whatever reason, Seifert has flourished in the professionalism of the NFL. And he realizes that a swift kick in the butt sometimes sends you staggering into the high life. "I was shocked by the firing," he says, "but it has worked out fine, and even as I look back on the experience, I wouldn't trade it."

Imagine what might have been: Schultz is patient; Seifert turns Cornell around; Seifert signs a lifetime contract with the school and becomes the Ithaca, N.Y., graybeard, lingering on through those snowbelt winters without a single Jerry Rice or Roger Craig on his roster.

Life goes on, folks, and often it gets better. And that's good news for Seifert, my buddy and anybody else who has ever taken the long walk off the short plank.