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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Mike Singletary a single-minded inspirer

The San Francisco 49ers coach, whose workouts are as tough as his candor, tries to turn around a down-on-its-luck franchise.

August 06, 2009|SAM FARMER

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — The San Francisco 49ers used to count rings.

Now they count rungs.

Down the ladder of success they've gone, finishing with a losing record six years in a row and pushing those five Super Bowl victories further and further into the past.

Coach Mike Singletary is pushing back, in part by staging one of the league's most rough-and-tumble training camps.

"We just have to be better in everything we do," said Singletary, who had a Hall of Fame career as a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. "We can't waste a drill; we can't waste a practice. We're too far behind the elite teams in this league, and we have to earn the right to be amongst them.

"Before we can talk about a championship, we have to practice like a championship team. And we're just not there now."

Heaven knows they're trying. One of Singletary's favorite workouts is the so-called "nutcracker drill," which pits teammates nose to nose to see who can run over the other. And the 49ers will have more than their share of drills. San Francisco has scheduled 15 consecutive days of practices, most of them double days in pads. (The Oakland Raiders, by comparison, opened their camp with four days of walk-throughs before any contact.)

But it was Singletary's ability to lead and inspire his players that prompted the team to remove the interim designation from his title in December, making him the full-time head coach. The man he replaced, Mike Nolan, had gone 18-37 in parts of four seasons, missing the playoffs each time.

In his first game, Singletary's passionate "I want winners" postgame speech became a YouTube sensation. It came after he banished volatile tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room with 10 minutes left in a 34-13 loss at home to Seattle. Initially humiliated and fuming about the very public rebuke, Davis would later become one of the coach's adamant supporters.

"It's the first time I've had a coach that really stayed on me like that," Davis said. "I looked into his eyes and from that day I could tell where he wanted to go with things."

Said linebacker Takeo Spikes: "At the end of the day, people always want to be told the truth. We all respected him that much more for what he did. Not only did America fall in love with that, we fell in love with that."

Singletary did take a little heat, but only because it was later disclosed that he had dropped his pants during his halftime speech, angrily mooning his players for their effort. However, that did little to dent his reputation as a master motivator.

Even the 49ers' kicker would gladly head-butt a Humvee for the coach.

"He's an amazing speaker and a man who's been very successful in his own right," kicker Joe Nedney said. "You want to jump on those coattails, man. I want to see where he's going to lead us.

"If you want to put a visualization on it, you've got Tiger Woods walking down the fairway, and you've got hundreds of people in his army behind him. That's kind of the way I feel with this thing. It's Coach Singletary walking into battle and he's got his guys, his loyal constituents right there with him and believing 100% that he's right."

Bringing back the once-proud franchise is certainly no layup. Singletary is focused on increasing the toughness of his players, and ramping up the competition at every position. At quarterback, for instance, even though Shaun Hill went 7-3 as a starter last season, the job remains up for grabs.

After Alex Smith misfired on some passes and was jeered by onlookers in the bleachers, Singletary referred to the reaction as "outstanding." He wanted to see how the quarterback would cope with the boos.

The coach later said: "I want to find a new guy to lead the team. And right now I'm not seeing that guy."

Sugarcoat things Singletary doesn't.

And his players seem to appreciate it.

"Most of the time when you're dealing with coaches and players," Spikes said, "there's an automatic barrier put up. 'I can't trust him. I know he doesn't trust me.' But now it's like, if he tells me something I can take it and run with it, because I know he's telling me straight from the heart, regardless if it hurts."

It's almost an afterthought that Singletary was once an NFL superstar. Most of his players are too young to remember that.

In fact, one mentioned recently that he was checking out YouTube and spotted his coach in the Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" video -- a dusty artifact in the eyes of the young player.

Then again, many years have passed since San Francisco was in its heyday. And Singletary is hoping to change that, one rung at a time.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer

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