Sports

James Burns: Boo the man who doubted Samurai Mike

James Burns

No one will ever confuse me for a team president in the National Football League.

Shocking, I know.

Maybe it's because I don't have hair to slick back, and the only "power tie" I own is balled up somewhere in my sock drawer.

Or, and this is likely the case, maybe it's because I have zero knowledge about the inner-workings of a sports franchise and its many personalities and pawns.

See, my football savvy is in picking players to fill out fantasy football rosters -- and even that has come into question.

Turns out, I'm just as bad at picking coaches.

Sunday's big announcement out of San Francisco sealed it.

Following the 49ers' season-ending victory over the Redskins, the team announced interim head coach Mike Singletary would be the franchise's long-term leader.

The 49ers' brass handed Singletary a new four-year deal, ensuring Iron Mike will have time to build on the second-half strides the team made this season.

"I find myself in the middle of something, feeling very fortunate to be surrounded by all of the good people around me," Singletary told reporters on Sunday afternoon.

"Now it's just a matter of continuing to hype it up, continuing to move forward and keep our eyes on the vision that we have."

San Francisco went 5-4 with Singletary pulling strings, dropping his pants and whipping mal-contents into shape.

He won without gimmicks and flare -- just old-school fire, grit and determination.

Maybe that was lost on you, given everything that transpired in football this season.

(Read: Favre's rise and fall in New York, the Detroit Lions' plummet into football purgatory, the soaring Atlanta Falcons, the sunny Miami Dolphins, etc.)

Or maybe it wasn't.

Replace Singletary with anybody else and...

The Niners sink faster than a rock tossed off the Golden Gate.

"This man is just something amazing," kicker Joe Nedney told the San Jose Mercury News. "You want to play hard for him because you know that if you don't, he's going to give you that stare and burn a hole right through you."

Remember my shocking admission earlier -- that I'd never be confused for, say, Niners new team president Jed York?

Here's why: Four seasons ago, if you asked me about Mike Singletary's future in football, I would have looked you dead in the eye and said...

What future?

That's not a crack on Singletary's know-how or ability to draw up a game plan or excite a locker room.

Physically, I just didn't think the Monster of the Midway -- the Hall-of-Fame linebacker who ate running backs for lunch -- had much left in him.

We met, Singletary and I.

It wasn't a long encounter, maybe 30 minutes or so, just long enough for me to build a horrible first impression.

It came hours before a Sunday home game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2005.

Quarterback Alex Smith was a rookie. So, too, was head coach Mike Nolan.

Singletary was also a first-year man, joining Nolan's staff as an assistant coach by way of the Baltimore Ravens.

We -- a gang of Central Valley reporters -- met them all that morning in the driveway of the team hotel as part of a meet-and-greet arranged by the team chaplain.

Singletary walked up late and almost scooted by unnoticed.

He carried leftovers in one hand and a sweater in the other.

He wore a ballcap, pulled down low on his brow, hiding his trademark gaze.

He looked old.

He seemed shaky.

And he was thin.

Like a JV punter.

Like he was sick.

On the trip from the hotel to the stadium, we rehashed our morning interviews. To a reporter, we wondered what had become of Singletary.

Quietly, I wondered how much staying power he had as an NFL coach, assistant or otherwise.

He looked ready to retire. The only thing missing was a Tommy Bahama shirt and flip-flops.

Singletary, I was certain, would never be a head coach.

Of course, I was wrong.

Sunday's announcement sealed it.

The Niners made Singletary the long-term solution to a problem years in the making.

They rewarded Samurai Mike not for squeezing five wins out of a lemon, but for his ability to point the ship back in the right direction.

He galvanized a team with marginal talent; seized control of a locker room on the verge of implosion.

He did it with old-school fire, grit and determination -- the very characteristics that made him one of the most feared tacklers in football history.

The York family -- Jed, in particular -- can see the potential in this lighter, leaner, older version of Singletary.

They see what I couldn't four seasons ago.

And that's why I'll never be confused for an NFL team president.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached via e-mail at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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