Dickey: Nolan’s grown by leaps and bounds

One of the reasons to be optimistic about the 49ers’ chances this season is the growth of coach Mike Nolan.

It seems strange that Nolan had to grow into the job, given his background as the son of a head coach, an NFL assistant since 1987 and a defensive coordinator since 1993. Yet, he was much less sure of what he was doing than Jon Gruden was when he became the Raiders’ coach, though Gruden was only 34.

Gruden always knew exactly where he was going. Nolan had to learn from experience.

Nolan had been passed over for head-coaching jobs because he didn’t interview well, so he worked hard to overcome that and impressed 49ers owner John York when he interviewed. He has learned how to deal with the media, both in large news conferences and smaller gatherings with writers after practice. He prepares for the latter encounters by jotting notes on a piece of paper during practice and then introduces the topics with writers. In 40 years of covering pro football, I have never seen another coach do that.

These are the other areas where Nolan has progressed as a coach:

SELECTION OF ASSISTANTS: Nolan’s first offensive coordinator was Mike McCarthy, who came with a good reputation but didn’t work out with the Niners. Norv Turner was a huge improvement last year.

When Turner left to coach the San Diego Chargers, Nolan made a wise choice by elevating quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler, who had been working with Alex Smith for two years. Now, Smith will be working under the same system with a coach with whom he’s familiar.

Nolan’s first defensive coordinator was Billy Davis, but that didn’t work well, either. Because he lost confidence in Davis, Nolan handled the defensive calls during games last season, which should not be the job of the head coach. Now, he has Greg Manusky, who is well-versed in the 3-4 defense, so Nolan can back off.

HE’S CLEARER ABOUT WHAT KIND OF TEAM HE WANTS: Nolan has always stressed character in building a team, but he deviated from that when he signed talented — but troubled — wide receiver Antonio Bryant. After one season, though, he tacitly admitted his mistake by releasing Bryant.

HE’S DEVELOPED AN EXCELLENT WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH PERSONNEL CHIEF SCOT MCCLOUGHAN:They’ve worked well together on both drafts and, this offseason, with moves in free agency.

From the start, the two agreed that drafting a quarterback had to be the first priority. In drafting Smith, they knew they were getting a quarterback who had very little experience but who also had a strong character and could overcome adversity.

Smith had a rocky first season, but improved last season, enough to give hope that he can become the quarterback to lead them to the playoffs.

Also from the start, Nolan and McCloughan have agreed that the primary goal is to build through the draft. That is still the goal, though they jumped on the chance to make improvements through free agency this offseason.

Though they’ve made great strides, the 49ers still need substantial improvement to get into the NFL’s top tier, but the fact that their coach has grown into his job gives hope that they can do that.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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