How Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers have weaponized the team's history

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 15, 2020

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers' path to Super Bowl XXIX was paved in blowouts, record-setting numbers and unrelenting swagger. But five days before the biggest game of the year, it was clogged by traffic, and Deion Sanders was late.

It's almost 25 years later, and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, standing before the current Niners the night before a late-season game against the Rams, passionately relays the story.

Having Young or some other prominent 49er address the team before a game has become common practice since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017. That's just one of the many ways these Niners have seized their past and connected it to the present in hopes of a better future.

"We're back at it now," Young said. "Kyle and John have reembraced the history. It's an embracing of the past. I think they can use it as a tool and sometimes a weapon. I feel completely affiliated with these 49ers. For many years, I didn't. ... This is certainly recognizing that we're gonna build off of our history, which is smart. We should."

What's new on this night is the message behind Young's story, another sign of just how far the franchise has come since Young and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice first spoke to this team early in the first Camp Shanahan.

As the story goes, coach George Seifert's players were supposed to be in their Miami hotel rooms by an 11:15 p.m. curfew the Wednesday before the game. The road to the hotel was two lanes, and with 20 minutes to spare, Sanders could see the hotel; he just couldn't get to it. He didn't make it back until closer to 11:40. He wasn't the only one to miss it, but he was the biggest name.

For a Niners team that had steamrollered its way to a 13-3 regular season, won its first two playoff games by an average of nearly 20 points and was a whopping 18.5-point favorite against the Chargers in the Super Bowl, the busted curfew was simultaneously unacceptable and perfectly timed.

The next day, after a meeting, the coaching staff walked out of the room, leaving the floor for a players-only session. Young took the lead, but it was Rice, not known for being vocal in such settings, who stood up and let Sanders know his tardiness wasn't going to fly.

Because Rice had long since established himself as a team leader, he believed he could speak his mind and that his teammates, no matter how bright their star, would listen.

Tensions rose as Sanders pushed back briefly. Jesse Sapolu, a four-time Super Bowl-champion offensive lineman, remembers Rice's emotions rising quickly. Rice let Sanders know that there'd be plenty of time for partying after the biggest game of the season.

The rest of the team followed Rice's lead, backing his play. Sanders fell in line. The incident and its fallout helped the 49ers refocus and throttle the Chargers 49-26 for the franchise's fifth and most recent championship.

"It was intense," Rice said. "I just felt like, there's plenty of time to really just have fun after the big game is over. You have to be accountable and lock in on what matters the most."

In retelling the story to the current Niners, Young wanted to hammer home a similar point about locking in. As this year's team approaches Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, it's a message that still resonates.

"He kind of put a foot in Deion's ass and got on him," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "And Deion took offense to it, and the rest of the team was like, 'No, you're wrong. You're definitely wrong on this.' They said it was just a huge moment for the team because it was just accountability. Everybody has to be held accountable."

'Why wouldn't we?'

When Lynch arrived as general manager in January of 2017, he wasn't really sure what type of relationship the team had with its illustrious past. He says he'd heard whispers that perhaps it wasn't great, and though Sapolu says he has always felt included, it just seems to come more naturally to Shanahan and Lynch because of their own ties to the franchise's history.

While the York family, longtime owners of the Niners, had always worked hard to create an open-door policy for former players and coaches, even installing former linebacker Keena Turner to serve as a bridge to the past, the coach ultimately was in control of who was welcome, how often people could visit and how long they could stay. Previous coaches, even if they wanted to welcome alumni, didn't last long enough to forge any sort of meaningful bond.

But with Shanahan and Lynch in charge, there was never any doubt the franchise's past would be amplified.

That part came easy for Shanahan, who had served as a 49ers ball boy for the aforementioned championship team when his dad, Mike, worked as offensive coordinator. Shanahan's love for the Niners was so strong at that time that he admits to wearing a Sanders No. 21 jersey every day from Christmas, when he received it, until the day after the Niners won the Super Bowl. (Shanahan insists he changed undershirts every day.)

Being around that team and his dad's subsequent success as the head coach of the Denver Broncos left Shanahan with close ties to many of the players he now welcomes back as alumni and a deeper understanding of the importance of embracing the past while moving forward.

"I just know how excited I was to have the opportunity to be the head coach of the Niners," Shanahan said. "I just look at that differently than a lot of other teams. I look at the Niners, just from when I was growing up, the way people look at the Yankees. Or the teams that have been around, those marquee franchise teams. I always felt that way about the Niners and that's why it was cool to be here, and I want everyone else to feel that way."

Lynch wasn't much different. Although he never played for the 49ers, he did play for legendary coach Bill Walsh at Stanford and for Sam Wyche with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Walsh had recommended Lynch to Wyche) and wasn't far from the organization when playing in Palo Alto.

One of Lynch's first acts as general manager was reaching out to the Niners' big four of Rice, Young, Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana and letting them know that although the team's rebuild needed to happen on its own terms, he wanted them to feel welcome to be around and be part of it all. Even in the opening stages of a down-to-the-studs rebuild, Shanahan and Lynch never shied away from setting the bar as high as possible.

"We all practiced in the NFL the way the Niners did," Lynch said. "Everybody did. That was the standard. So I think that drew us to the place, so then you get here and say, 'How are we going to be successful?' And what a great resource to have that here. So it just naturally happened because we both thought, 'Why wouldn't we?'"

'Holy s---, that's Jerry Rice'

Located at the northeast corner of Levi's Stadium, the 49ers Museum is a 20,000-square-foot homage to the team's rich history. Each spring after the NFL draft, the 49ers turn the massive space into a de facto classroom for their incoming rookies. As part of their rookie development program, the 49ers make sure the newbies get a crash course in all things scarlet and gold.

Sapolu is usually one of the keynote speakers.

"They need to know that the standard is still the same but they don't have to do it the exact same way we did it," Sapolu said. "And understand that whatever way they choose to do it, they have to reach that standard in their own way."

Aside from life-skills classes on things like money management, players get an occasional dose of Niners history. One class includes a viewing of the franchise's story at the stadium's in-house theater. Another stop includes time at the Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Super Bowl gallery, home of the team's five Lombardi trophies and the rings that go with each title.

"They always say, 'We're not trying to be them, but we're trying to be a better version of them,'" tight end George Kittle said. "I knew a little bit about the history of the Niners, but when they bring us through all that stuff and say, 'Hey, this matters and this is what we're trying to get back to and better than that,' it's really awesome, and the fact that John and Kyle wanted to do that just makes it resonate a little bit more."

While the classes and speeches certainly leave a lasting impression, it's the wow moments for the current Niners that seem to really hit home.

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey remembers attending the team's first "state of the union" address as a rookie in 2018, when the team unveiled its 1994 all-white uniforms. Rice was there to model the throwback look.

"You're just like, 'Holy s---, it's Jerry Rice,'" McGlinchey said. "And he sits there and he talks to you and he tells you old stories. There's nothing better to me than hearing war stories from guys who were a part of the game and at where it was then and to be able to compare and still take stuff from them and put it into what it is now. There are so many lessons and valuable things to be learned from those guys."

There's also the time Rice showed up with Young to speak to the team in the early days of Shanahan's first training camp and decided to lace up some cleats, throw on some gloves and take part in a practice.

Suffice to say, a young and impressionable group of 49ers was in awe. Then-undrafted rookie receiver Kendrick Bourne sidled up to Rice, getting tips on route running, the importance of a daily routine and tricks on how to create separation.

Like Rice, Bourne came from a small school (Eastern Washington) and wasn't exactly known for blazing speed. He has since developed into one of the Niners' most dependable wideouts.

"When we practiced with Jerry, that was one of the best days of my life," Bourne said. "Just being able to be out there with him and seeing him still doing it at that age is just amazing to see.

"Now when you come into this building or this organization, you have to know what we're playing for, what we're trying to be."

Bourne has kept in touch with Rice, who has also made himself available to other wideouts on the roster. Those personal relationships between former and current players have tightened over the past few years.

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has grown tight with Sapolu. Sherman has long known Sanders and former cornerback Eric Davis, chatting them up about their time with the team and the finer points of cornerback play. Fred Warner and his fellow linebackers have access to recent greats like NaVorro Bowman, who was released by Shanahan and Lynch in their first season but has been welcomed back upon retirement.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has an open line to Young if he needs anything. At one point this season, Young asked Garoppolo if the team's history was a weight. Garoppolo told him it was an incentive.

"It pushes you," Garoppolo said. "It sets the standard for quarterback play. And the tradition that they've set here with the Niners, it's incredible."

To complement the visits, the Niners have also made cosmetic changes behind the scenes that serve as constant reminders of what came before.

The wall just inside the door of the locker room has been painted with a mural featuring Young, Montana, Patrick Willis, Lott and Roger Craig with a favorite quote of Shanahan's, reading, "It won't be easy but it will be worth it."

Likewise, the Bill Walsh quote "Champions behave like champions before they're champions" is one of Lynch's favorites, and players see it every day. There's even a wall with photos of every player who has played 10 seasons for the organization.

"This is the new generation, and they are making their own trademark," Rice said. "But when you have veterans that have been around for a long time and that have done it, now these guys can approach us and they can get in our head."


Lynch often thinks back to the first visit that Rice and Young paid to the rebuilding Niners in 2017. At the time, they were coming off a 2-14 season, painfully far removed from former glory.

With the players "on the edge of their seats," as Lynch says, Rice and Young reminded them that before their dynastic run of the '80s and '90s, they too had to go through a drastic rebuild.

At the time, Young told a story far more personal than the curfew incident. Taking over for Montana, Young acknowledged he wasn't the most popular guy when Lott came up to him, shook him and delivered a simple message.

"He said, 'I got your back,'" Lynch said. "And Steve said it just dawned upon him that that's what the 49er way is. It's about having your teammate's back at all times. It was incredibly powerful."

So powerful, in fact, that the Niners turned it into an in-house T-shirt with the letters "I.G.Y.B" on it, which remains in the regular wardrobe rotation for players, coaches and staff.

"They're just words, but if you were there, it was a feeling too," Lynch said. "And if you ever watched those two play, the passion they played with, the excellence they played with, you start to understand why those teams were incredibly talented with Hall of Famers, but there was a spirit about those teams that was special.

"And that's what we're trying to create."

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