Coach learned from his mis­takes

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - By Eric Branch

Kyle Shana­han came to the 49ers with a rep­u­ta­tion for ar­ro­gance and sub­par peo­ple skills, sug­gest­ing his me­dia deal­ings would fea­ture awk­ward­ness mixed with a typ­i­cal NFL-coach brew of con­de­scen­sion and para­noia.

But he sure has wrecked that rep­u­ta­tion over the past 11 months.

Plenty can be learned about a coach through his news con­fer­ences, some of which oc­cur mo­ments af­ter ag­o­niz­ing losses that in­spire sec­ond-guess­ing ques­tions. And Shana­han, through­out nearly 100 me­dia ses­sions, con­sis­tently of­fered ev­i­dence that re­ports of his

ego were greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Shana­han not only displayed hu­mil­ity, but can­dor, hu­man­ity and nor­malcy, even as his first sea­son be­gan with the first 0-9 start in fran­chise his­tory.

It’s de­bat­able how much pro­fes­sion­al­ism with the me­dia mat­ters in Shana­han’s role. The NFL’s most dec­o­rated coach, New Eng­land’s Bill Belichick, has turned win­ning and with­er­ing news-con­fer­ence stares into art forms.

How­ever, what Shana­han displayed in pub­lic of­fered a win­dow into how he dealt with oth­ers pri­vately. And the coach who was hired for his play­call­ing amid ques­tions about his per­son­al­ity proved, to bor­row a football phrase, he could han­dle both X’s and O’s and Jim­mies and Joes.

Dur­ing the up­swing of their 6-10 sea­son, many play­ers looked back and cred­ited Shana­han for keep­ing the team in­tact through two win­less months. Cen­ter Daniel Kilgore, the team’s sec­ond-long­est tenured player, termed it the clos­est locker room of his seven-year NFL ca­reer.

On Jan. 2, when asked about what he’d learned about Shana­han in their first sea­son to­gether, gen­eral man­ager John Lynch high­lighted his once-ques­tioned peo­ple skills.

“I knew the of­fen­sive acu­men and the mind that I thought was unique and spe­cial in Kyle,” Lynch said. “What I had never seen in him is him in front of a team, and how he could cap­ture a team and lead a team, which is a big part of be­ing a head coach. I couldn’t be more im­pressed.” Those who main­tained a cer­tain per­cep­tion of Shana­han were prob­a­bly stunned by a nugget in the re­cent ESPN story that de­tailed ten­sion within the Pa­tri­ots’ or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The story noted that Shana­han, then weeks re­moved from serv­ing as a scape­goat for his de­ci­sions as the Fal­cons’ of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in their crush­ing Su­per Bowl loss to New Eng­land, met with Belichick for hours at the NFL com­bine in Fe­bru­ary to learn from the de­feat.

The act of hu­mil­ity is telling: The sup­posed know-it-all son of Mike Shana­han, a two-time Su­per Bowl winner, knew he still had plenty to learn.

It was some­thing Kyle Shana­han, at age 38 the league’s sec­ond-youngest head coach, of­ten ac­knowl­edged while serv­ing as a rookie in his role.

Be­fore his first game, the pre­sea­son opener at Kansas City on Aug. 11, he said he had to be re­minded to se­lect cap­tains be­fore kick­off. In the weeks that fol­lowed, he con­ceded he was ad­just­ing to his new jug­gling act: Call­ing of­fen­sive plays and han­dling head-coach du­ties.

In fact, three days af­ter his de­but, he told re­porters he’d messed up by not call­ing a timeout in a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion. And he knew the er­ror would in­spire a text mes­sage from his dad.

“I usu­ally call him,” Shana­han said at an­other point in train­ing camp, “once I’ve al­ready messed some­thing up.” For Shana­han, it was part of an off­sea­son in which he displayed hu­mil­ity along with a hu­man touch.

In Au­gust, when first asked about play­ers kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them, Shana­han said he un­der­stood why they wanted to draw at­ten­tion to racial in­equal­ity. He spoke shortly af­ter a white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va., had turned vi­o­lent.

“I think any­body who sees that stuff and doesn’t get the feel­ing that they’d like to do some­thing about it,” he said, “… I think some­thing’s wrong with you.”

Shana­han also ad­vo­cated for as­sis­tant Katie Sow­ers, an off­sea­son in­tern whom he made the first LGBT coach in NFL his­tory, along with the sec­ond full-time fe­male coach.

In more sub­tle ways, Shana­han was de­cent.

Dur­ing a train­ing-camp prac­tice, when fans were far ref­or­ma­tion moved from the field where the team was work­ing, he had them es­corted to the side­line for an up-close view.

In mid-Au­gust, dur­ing a con­fer­ence call the day af­ter a pre­sea­son game, he was gra­cious with a first-timer on the line while other re­porters grit­ted their teeth. The calls are de­signed for game-re­lated ques­tions, but the new ad­di­tion dom­i­nated the ses­sion with off-topic ques­tions, in­clud­ing queries on what was by then an al­ready well-worn topic: Shana­han’s re­la­tion­ship with his dad.

In re­sponse, how­ever, Shana­han an­swered at length, mak­ing the reporter feel at ease in­stead of os­tra­cized.

Still, it was fair to won­der if Shana­han’s sum­mer dis­po­si­tion would change when the reg­u­lar sea­son brought in­creased pres­sure and scru­tiny.

How­ever, Shana­han set the tone the day af­ter a sea­sonopen­ing 23-3 loss to the Pan­thers.

The de­feat was marked by the first two ma­jor de­ci­sions of Shana­han’s head-coach­ing ca­reer: He twice went for it on fourth down and each at­tempt back­fired. Shana­han said he re­gret­ted one of his fourth­down de­ci­sions and also copped to an­other mis­take — a tongue­lash­ing he gave an of­fi­cial.

“If he was here, I would apol­o­gize to him now,” Shana­han said. “He's try­ing to do his best just like I am. I was just frus­trated.” Shana­han was not a quote ma­chine with go-to one-lin­ers. His lan­guage wasn’t par­tic­u­larly col­or­ful, but it was no­table in that it lacked the se­cre­tive­ness and para­noia of­ten marked by NFL-coach-and-reporter ex­changes.

Un­like one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Jim Har­baugh, whose stan­dard re­sponse to in­jury ques­tions was that a player was “work­ing through some­thing,” Shana­han pro­vided specifics. Many re­porters might have done dou­ble takes when, the day af­ter the sea­son opener, Shana­han freely of­fered in­over­size typ­i­cally shrouded in se­crecy: In­side linebacker Reuben Fos­ter had sus­tained a high an­kle sprain that would side­line him for at least a month.

Sim­i­larly, Shana­han didn’t hes­i­tate to ex­plain the specifics of plays, which also came as a shock to those ac­cus­tomed to Har­baugh (“We don’t talk about scheme”) or Chip Kelly, who in­sisted he wasn’t run­ning a hurry-up of­fense in 2016 de­spite strong vis­ual ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

Af­ter a 41-39 loss to the Rams in Week 3, Shana­han was asked about a failed two-point con­ver­sion and an­swered with a 254-word re­sponse: “That two­pointer we’re try­ing to get it to Mar­quise (Good­win) first who runs a shal­low, he’s cov­ered and then we go to Pierre (Gar­con) sec­ond and now …”

Shana­han did have lim­its on what he could share, but he didn’t revel in shut­ting down re­porters. Once, while giv­ing a non-an­swer, he mem­o­rably of­fered an R-rated apol­ogy: “I don’t mean to be a d—,” he said.

He then cov­ered the mi­cro­phone, turned to a mem­ber of the PR staff, and sheep­ishly re­turned his gaze to the au­di­ence: “That was bad,” he said. “Shows my im­ma­tu­rity.”

It also serves as a light-hearted ex­am­ple of a se­ri­ous take­away from a de­but sea­son that in­cluded a hum­bling meet­ing with Belichick: The sup­pos­edly ar­ro­gant young coach could ac­knowl­edge his mis­takes.

Tony Ave­lar / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

First-year head coach Kyle Shana­han kept the 49ers fo­cused de­spite an 0-9 start.

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