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George Seifert

Asked once whether he cares how he comes across on television,
George Seifert replied, ''No. Can't you tell?''
There is nothing image-conscious about the man who stands sentinel
on the 49er sideline, arms crossed, strands of slicked-back white
hair sticking up, lucky gray cardigan peeking out from beneath the
red windbreaker, aviator shades drooping in concert with the pinched
features of his face. No lip twitch betrays his delight, no furrowed
brow his displeasure. The 49er head coach remains so inscrutable that
fans at Candlestick Park have felt compelled to hold up a giant
banner begging him to SMILE GEORGE.
The fans' urging is understandable. Seifert -- at 55 a
dyed-in-the-wool 49er fan who has led his teams to two Super Bowl
victories in six years and who has reached the 50- and 75-win
milestones faster than any other coach in history -- has often looked
like a man under his own personal rain cloud.
Before the 1995 NFC Championship Game, there had been at least
three high- pressure systems following Seifert. There was the
Bill-Walsh-was-a-g enius cloud, the Montana-that-got-away storm and,
of course, that cruel tempest that seemed to blow in from Dallas
every January. Before the 49ers met the Cowboys in their third
straight NFC title matchup, on Jan. 15, Seifert put the contest in
perspective. ''If you win the game, the fishing's good, the living's
easy, the wind's at your back, and angels follow you wherever you
tread,'' he said. ''And if you lose -- death. There's that sense.''
When San Francisco won 38-28, heavenly hosts finally replaced the
clouds. ''I've been here for four Super Bowl victories ((three as an
assistant coach)), and I've won some NFC championships,'' Seifert
said after the Cowboy game, ''but nothing compares to the emotion of
this one.''
For Seifert, the win over the Cowboys was not only his finest
moment as a coach but also perhaps his highest high as a fan, a role
he has played much longer. Raised in San Francisco's Mission
District, he has been a 49er fan his whole life. When he was a kid,
he worked as an usher at 49er games and chased after his heroes --
players like Hugh McElhenny and Billy Wilson -- to plead for their
chin straps as souvenirs.
Seifert played football at Utah before working his way up the
college coaching ranks. In 1980, he became a 49er assistant and three
years later took over as defensive coordinator. Since replacing Walsh
in 1989, Seifert has had an 84-24 record, established the best career
winning percentage (.778) in the NFL and become the first rookie
coach to lead a defending champion to another title. Yet the public
has remained unimpressed.
''Pressure is part of this business, and quite honestly, I think I
handle it pretty well,'' he says. Case in point: After the 40-8 loss
to the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 2, when 85% of the callers in a
local radio-show poll said they wanted Seifert replaced by Jimmy
Johnson, he graciously said, ''I'd like to thank the 15 percent who
voted for me.''
Seifert, who needs that kind of outlook to survive in coaching,
can surprise in other ways. The former defensive coordinator whose
diagrams were so precise that the man who replaced him felt he had to
take drafting lessons to measure up enjoys riding his bike to and
from practice like a kid, with no hands on the handlebars. The man
whose football-related superstitions are so extensive that entire
newspaper columns have been devoted to them is the same guy who
regularly returns to fish at a spot south of San Francisco where he
almost drowned seven years ago. The scold who has chewed out players
for dancing in the end zone after touchdowns likes to rock out to
Billy Idol in his car on the way to games. The coach who takes full
blame for 49er losses always congratulates his players on ''their''
wins. And the stiff who won't crack a smile on the sidelines is
actually a pretty happy soul. ''What kind of dream is it to root for
a team when you're growing up and then become the coach later in
life?'' he asks. ''What can be better?''