Back when coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh were neophytes in their new roles with the 49ers, they shared a memorable moment during their first offseason program in 2017.
“The guys were stretching and I was standing next to Kyle, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, we are coaching for the San Francisco 49ers,’” said Saleh Monday at the Super Bowl’s “Opening Night” event in Miami.
The sentiment came from working for one of the most storied franchises in sports, even though the team had struggled badly before Shanahan and Saleh got there. But Shanahan, a ball boy for San Francisco’s last Super Bowl winner in 1994 while his dad served as offensive coordinator, still held the organization in high regard.
“I know me being born in ‘79 mainly being an 80s kid and the 90s, when I always thought of the Niners, that’s what I think of with the Yankees,” Shanahan said. “I always thought they were a first-class organization from when I could remember watching sports and that’s the way I feel like it should be.”
Saleh and Shanahan, of course, got off to rough starts early in their tenures as the team was being reconstructed after Shanahan inherited a 2-14 roster. They earned the No. 9 and No. 2 picks after their first two years. Fast forward to 2020 and the two are coaching for the sport’s most-coveted prize.
A win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday would allow the team to be revered like those 49ers of the 80s and 90s that won five Lombardi Trophies.
And to help inspire the current team, some of the players that won Super Bowls in the 80s and 90s spoke in a team meeting about what to expect in a final pep talk before boarding the cross-country charter flight to South Florida.
“We were ready to play right after that,” Shanahan said.
“They were very passionate, very genuine. It was cool to see how much it means when you do win a Super Bowl and the bond that you have with those guys. To watch guys come back who haven’t been together for 20 years and watch how tight those guys were, they know how tight our team is now and it was very important to us that this special thing doesn’t end after this week.”
49ers alumni gather to fire up team
Former offensive lineman Harris Barton, who was on the team 25 years ago that won Super Bowl XXIX in Miami, presented the idea to general manager John Lynch. Barton, along with legendary receiver Jerry Rice, were among 14 players that issued a message.
“It’s a business trip and we could celebrate as much as we want after,” defensive end Nick Bosa recalled. “We got to come down here with a work mindset.”
Joining Rice and Barton were other alumni who live in the Bay Area, including defensive end Dwaine Board (1979-1988), quarterback Steve Bono (1989-1993), offensive lineman John Choma (1981-1983), linebacker Milt McColl (1981-1987), guard Guy McIntyre (1984-1993), quarterback John Paye (1987-1988), defensive back Darryl Pollard (1987-1992), running back Bill Ring (1981-1986), defensive back Eric Wright (1981-1990), tight end Eason Ramson (1979-1983), defensive end Dennis Brown (1990-1996) and offensive lineman Bubba Paris (1983-1990).
Since Shanahan and Lynch were hired, the organization has focused on reconnecting the team’s historic past with the present, which wasn’t always the case with previous regimes. There was no ring of honor with the names of Montana, Young and Rice when Levi’s Stadium was initially built.
The lack of acknowledgment of the team’s past made Levi’s feel lifeless and sterile. There was a sentiment while the team was struggling during the first years of the venue that it felt like the 49ers were always playing road games because the home field advantage they had at historic Candlestick Park was gone.
But that’s changed recently. There are murals just outside the locker room featuring all five Lombardi Trophies. On the opposite wall, there’s a picture including Steve Young, Roger Craig, Joe Montana, Patrick Willis, Ronnie Lott and Rice.
There are statues outside the main gate of Montana and Dwight Clark honoring “The Catch” from the 1981 NFC Championship Game. There’s a ring of honor with a the team’s retired numbers on the suite tower on the west side of the stadium facing the massive grand stand.
The team’s marketing catch phrase, “Faithful then, Faithful now,” is a nod to the fan base that was energized by the level of winning previously that is hoping for a sixth Super Bowl title, which would tie the Steelers and Patriots for the most in league history. The team printed shirts that say “I.G.Y.B.” for ‘I got your back’ stemming from a speech Young gave the club during Shanahan’s first season.
Current players inspired by alumni
For a number of current players, getting a sendoff from some of the players that had been on the Super Bowl stage before them offered inspiration.
“Finally being able to meet some of them was just a special moment,” tight end George Kittle said. “When you got guys like that supporting you, when you got Jerry Rice in your face with four rings on his hand, telling you to go win it, it’s pretty special.”
Said linebacker Fred Warner: “It meant a lot, it really did. … Since the moment I’ve walked on to this team, you see the pictures on the walls, the trophies, and you know that you see that the tradition is very rich. We’ve been working tirelessly to get back into this position and we’re going to make sure we capitalize on our opportunity.”
For Bosa, the talented rookie, it’s hard to believe his team has a chance to join those others Super Bowl winning teams.
“I feel like when you think football, you think Joe Montana, you think Steve Young, you think Jerry Rice, you think of those pictures they take with the trophies. It’s just crazy,” Bosa said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re on the same stage because of how legendary they are. It doesn’t feel like we could do that.
“But if we win we could be that, so it’s pretty awesome.”
By Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee