The memory remains vivid in George Seifert's mind. It was the day he was fired—from Cornell. In the Ivy League, for crying out loud. The year was 1976, Seifert's second at the helm of the Big Red, and it had ended as miserably as the first. Seifert's two Cornell teams were a combined 3-15. They lost to Columbia twice, and by the end of year two, the alumni had just about abandoned the program. So athletic director Dick Schultz—yes, that Dick Schultz, the one leaving his job as executive director of the NCAA under fire next month—called Seifert into his office and fired him. He then said something that stunned Seifert. "Some day," Schultz said, "you'll thank me for this."
As he slunk out of Ithaca, N.Y., Seifert was thinking, I never want to be a head coach again. Just give me a nice assistant's job, and I'll grow old and happy.
If Seifert had gotten his wish, we never would have seen what a good coach he is. In January 1989, when 49er coach Bill Walsh bequeathed his job to Seifert, his studious defensive coordinator, the Niners were supposed to settle into the pack of the parity-stricken NFL. After all, in Walsh's last five seasons San Francisco had rolled to a mark of 64-23-1, and who could possibly surpass the record of a football genius? In Seifert's first five seasons at the 49er helm (chart), the Niners are 66-18, including an NFC West-leading 9-4 this year after last Saturday's 27-24 loss to the Falcons.
"People take him for granted," says Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner. "To keep the thing going with different personnel and to rebuild the defense, that's a great job of coaching."
Seifert has brought to San Francisco what Phil Bengtson couldn't bring to Green Bay after Vince Lombardi left, what Jim Dooley couldn't bring to Chicago after George Halas retired, and what Richie Petitbon hasn't brought to Washington in the first year after the retirement of Joe Gibbs. Seifert inherited a state-of-the-art offense, and he let it click. At the same time he retooled a defense that now has only two starters remaining from his first team. The defense is one of the youngest and most promising in the league. It is led by the monstrous front four of Dana Stubblefield, Ted Washington, Dennis Brown and Artie Smith, whose average age is 24.
Seifert, who will be 54 in January, is wise enough not to overreact when a player's agenda conflicts with his own—when, for example, Jerry Rice whines about not getting the ball enough. Seifert knows that unless a player becomes a major distraction, as defensive end Charles Haley did before he was traded to Dallas in August '92, things will usually work themselves out. No, Seifert is not a players' coach, a guy who wanders through the locker room at 8:30 in the morning to take the pulse of his team. He is a calculating man who prepares his players to win, who doesn't stay with veterans past the point of their effectiveness, who is not afraid of playing kids and who lets his assistants coach.
The successful coaches of the '90s will not be the dictators. With free agency and freer spirits, coaches have to be willing to change on the fly, let players play and fit systems to players. This is where Seifert's strength lies.
"What I try to do," he says, "is create an environment in which it's possible to succeed. Football is a constant education. I present ideas, not mandates, and try to take advantage of the good people we have. A coach has to constantly adjust."
And how do you rebound, what do you tell your players, after a crushing loss such as the one San Francisco suffered on Saturday, when the 49ers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead? Seifert knows that words don't get it done. "You just get into the next game," he says. "You don't spend a lot of time philosophizing. You just get back into football. Period."
In the six years since he won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame, receiver-returner Tim Brown has been underused by the Raiders, but he is finally emerging as one of the NFL's premier players. Brown has kept the Raiders in the playoff chase with two superb games. On Dec. 5 he humbled the Bills with a 10-catch, 183-yard show in a 25-24 win, and his 74-yard punt return for a touchdown broke open a one-point game with Seattle on Sunday, giving the Raiders a 27-23 victory that improved their record to 8-5. "The more time we spend together, the more I realize how good he is," quarterback Jeff Hostetler says. "We'll get better together."
AL BUNDY DOES COLOR?
A new TV partner could be on the horizon for the NFL, starting in 1994. After meeting last week with Rupert Murdoch and others from his Fox network, league officials are considering moving Fox into the Sunday slot occupied for the last 24 seasons by NBC. Fox has become a serious player in the negotiations the league is conducting with the networks.
One thing Fox could do for the NFL is attract young fans, which the league desperately needs. The network specializes in such adolescent fare as Beverly Hills 90210 and The Simpsons, so it might offer a hipper brand of game telecast than cither CBS or NBC, and it would undoubtedly promote games during its prime-time schedule. NBC, which has threatened to abandon the NFL if rights fees aren't rolled way back, apparently isn't bluffing, and the combination of irreverent Fox and conservative CBS could make an interesting three-year package.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•At Stanford he was Touchdown Tommy Vardell; at Cleveland he has one touchdown in 27 career games.
•Only 531 days until the Jacksonville Jaguars play their first game, and they have already sold 45,000 season tickets.
JUST ASK US
•The smartest thing that Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver could do—aside from pursuing San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard to be his football czar—is to insist when he meets with commissioner Paul Tagliabue in January that the NFL exercise its option under Article XXXI, Section 2 of the new collective bargaining agreement. That's the provision that gives the league the right to grant expansion teams an extra pick in every round of the 1995, '96 and '97 drafts. Three quarters of the teams must vote yea for additional picks to be granted, and Tagliabue should persuade them to do so. Jacksonville and Charlotte have paid an enormous toll to enter the league—$140 million apiece in franchise fees—yet they will receive only a half-share of the TV revenues for their first three years, which will leave them each with an estimated $55 million less than the other teams will receive in that time period. The least the NFL should do for the Jaguars and the Panthers is give them a big assist toward becoming competitive.
•Unknown players deserving first-time selection to the Pro Bowl: San Diego center Courtney Hall, Pittsburgh tackle John Jackson, Jet linebacker Mo Lewis and Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler. Lewis, who has had double-digit-tackle games in 10 of the Jets' 13 outings, is probably the team's defensive MVP. He speaks for this unsung group when he says, "Sometimes when I pass newsstands, I look at the guys in the pictures and the headlines and I think, I'm playing better than these guys. Why aren't they writing about me?" Soon, Mo. Soon.
•You've got to hand it to Tagliabue for negotiating the network TV contract the league signed in '90 and for achieving labor peace. However, he has evidenced brain lock in his appointments to the league's all-important competition committee, which formulates playing rules. Last week he named Cincinnati general manager Mike Brown, yet another business-side guy—the commissioner's fourth such appointment—to what is supposed to be a nuts-and-bolts football body. The committee, now co-chaired by Miami coach Don Shula and Giant general manager George Young, also includes Seahawk coach Tom Flores and Chief coach Marty Schottenheimer, all veteran football men. A businessman or two would give the committee some balance. But four? Come on.
Late in the Rams' 23-20 upset of New Orleans, L.A. rookie running back Jerome Bettis took off his helmet near the Saints' sideline and stared at the enemy. "I just wanted to show them, Hey, I'm for real. Here I am. Get used to me," he said. They know, they know. Bettis, a 244-pound brick house, carried 28 times for 212 yards—the fourth-highest total by a rookie in NFL history. By the end of the first quarter, Bettis already had 125 yards on the ground and the Ram line was operating without its two best players, tackle Jackie Slater and guard Tom Newberry, who were injured....
First hints on realignment: The league would like to shift Phoenix to the NFC West while keeping the Dallas-Washington-Philadelphia-Giants axis in the NFC East. There could also be a southern division, probably in the AFC, made up of Carolina, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Miami and Atlanta. The other Dixie entry, the Saints, would most likely stay in the NFC West....
One NFC scout says that four of the top five picks in next April's draft will be nonseniors, if all the top prospects elect to declare themselves eligible. The scout's top five: Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler, San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, Ohio State defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson, Notre Dame tackle Aaron Taylor and Michigan running back Tyrone Wheatley. Taylor is the only senior....
The agent for former Phoenix quarterback Timm Rosenbach, who walked away from football last spring at age 26, has had a dozen inquiries from teams trying to get Rosenbach back into the game. "I try to tell them it's over for Timm," says Gary Wichard. Rosenbach will earn a degree in psychology from Washington State in May, but he still has some growing up to do. The last thing he said to anyone in the Cardinal organization, after the '92 season, was "See you in the spring," but he never showed up for spring drills. Rosenbach's decision was obviously painful, but he has never picked up the phone to tell offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, who was a good friend, why he quit.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Dallas at the Jets, Saturday. How nutty is this? This game against the Super Bowl champs might be the best chance for the playoff-hopeful Jets (8-5) to win in the last three weeks of the season. The game is in the cold and the swirling December wind of the Meadowlands, which the Jets are used to. And in the last two weeks they visit the Bills and the Oilers, two teams in the thick of the playoff fight. Says New York cornerback Eric Thomas, "It's the perfect opportunity for us to show everyone we can slug it out with a big guy. And Dallas is a big guy."
THE END ZONE
Moosemania has hit Dallas. Every time fullback Daryl (Moose) Johnston touches the ball, Texas Stadium resonates with Moooooose calls. The fans are showering him with gifts, too. Gianna, an upscale boutique in Irving, is sending Johnston a stuffed toy moose—with a belt worth a reported $3,000 wrapped around its waist.
Brown kept L.A. in the AFC West race with a 74-yard punt return that sank the Seahawks.
VICTOR MALAFRONTE/CELEBRITY PHOTO
Murdoch is eyeing the NFL.
Bettis has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Rams.