Singletary turning around 49ers his way

Published Oct. 17, 2009 5:02 a.m. ET

Mike Singletary rips into a player one moment, then quickly finds a way to turn the scolding into a positive. "Do you want to be great?" he hollers. It's classic Singletary - stern yet caring, passionate but respectful. And totally aimed at his goal. When he became the 49ers head coach last October, Singletary declared "I want winners!" and that signature phrase is now a billboard slogan around the Bay Area, alongside his picture. So far, so good. San Francisco is 3-2 and sitting atop the NFC West as the team heads into its bye weekend. "He's gotten rid of the identity crisis that was plaguing the team and that's the biggest thing," receiver Isaac Bruce said. "What makes a good motivator is that a person will come out and tell you what you can do. He'll be honest with you and tell you what you are, but continue to tell you what you can and what you will be." Owner John York and his team president son, Jed, removed the interim tag from Singletary's title this season with the belief he's the man to turn around their organization at long last. San Francisco has endured a franchise-worst six straight losing seasons. Singletary expects to take his team to the playoffs this year for the first time since the Niners won their division in 2002 - and he doesn't much care if his methods are popular as long as they get there. "I have no problem with conservative. If you were to say I'm a conservative guy, that's great," Singletary said. "I have no problems with exotic. If you were to say I am an exotic coach, that's fine. I have no problems with any other adjective you use. But, if you say that I am not a winning coach, then I have a problem. "The only way you judge a coach is, is he winning or is he losing? That's it." Singletary is charismatic. He's entertaining. If not a football coach he could be a public speaker or a preacher. In fact, he's a minister's son who wears a wooden cross around his neck. He walks laps around the field on game day with team chaplain Earl Smith. After a last-second loss at Minnesota on Sept. 27, Singletary addressed his team in the locker room: "You have nothing to be looking at the floor for. You didn't steal anything, you didn't do anything wrong. OK?" he said. "We're going to get better. We're going to get there. We will see them again in the playoffs, all right? You hold your head up. We ain't putting our heads down for nobody. You hold your head up. You're a champion. So hold your head up, put your shoulders back, and let's rock. OK? Let's go!" On Wednesday, when most everybody else was already inside or en route to the lunch tent, it was the hands-on Singletary monitoring new practice squad offensive lineman Khalif Mitchell as he ran sprints. Singletary gave top draft pick Michael Crabtree the benefit of the doubt during his prolonged absence and contract impasse, which finally ended Oct. 7 with a six-year contract featuring $17 million guaranteed. "I know that this kid is a kid of character," Singletary said. "When I talked to his high school football coach, when I talked to people that were around him, that grew up with him, I learned a lot about him and was excited about having him be a part of this team. ... All the diva and all of that stuff, we don't even have time for that." The 51-year-old Singletary's influence reaches far beyond his players and the locker room. During training camp, 49ers employees sported T-shirts reading: "Don't tell me. Show me" - straight from one of Singletary's first speeches when he took over for the fired Mike Nolan last October. And a memorable start it was for Singletary. San Francisco lost 34-13 that day to the Seahawks. Singletary pulled down his pants in the locker room at halftime to make a point, benched struggling quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan in favor of current starter Shaun Hill, and sent tight end Vernon Davis to the showers early for what he deemed inappropriate behavior following a personal foul penalty. Afterward, the Hall of Fame linebacker called out his team with the now infamous "I want winners" speech. "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team," Singletary said. "It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win." Singletary, who this season said he'd rather forget that day, keeps pointing to the Niners' new identity. They're working to build something here, a tradition that lasts well past this season or next. Singletary acknowledges it will take time to get this team back to its glory years, when stars such as Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig led the way. Veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes believes the turnaround began at Christmas last year. Singletary gave the team the day off - a rarity in the NFL these days, even on holidays. "It's been realistic to us since coach Singletary stood up and said, 'We're going to be a different football team,"' Spikes recalled. "It's been a long time since I've been part of something special, since 1994 in high school." Singletary has rubbed off on many of his players. They talk like him, they point to his example. They don't ever want to disappoint him. Davis has come along way to earn Singletary's trust. He's a captain now, a go-to guy. He has three touchdown catches among his 22 receptions for 262 yards. "Coach Singletary, he probably is the best thing that ever happened for me," Davis said. "Because no matter what you do, or no matter how good you do it, he set the bar." From Day 1 of his first training camp back in August, Singletary demanded the best from his players. They took the field in full pads from the start. Practices were physical. Running back Frank Gore said it's the toughest camp he's been through. While football is a huge part of Singletary's life, he has long vowed to be a present father to his seven children. On a rare off day during camp, that's where he was, with his family. "I make sure that I don't forget the big picture," he said.