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Using those traits as screening criteria, the 49ers whittled down the list of candidates to just a handful -- coaches who hit on most, if not all, of the important measures. "Boiling the ocean," Marathe calls it. An advisory committee that included former 49ers players and coaches further thinned the list, down to five who would go on to interview. (Noticeably absent from the interviews were any college coaches. Marathe, while emphasizing that there were "a lot of other factors," points to the track record of college coaches making the jump to the pros without any prior NFL experience. Only two or three have had career winning records.)
The interviews -- all but one of them conducted in a hotel in St. Louis, away from media scrutiny in the Bay Area -- were epic sessions, some lasting six, seven hours, straight through lunch and into the afternoon. The questions ranged across the spectrum, but they all coalesced around a single point. "You're not just looking for a guy who's a head coach," Marathe says. "You want a guy who can manage the inflows and outflows of personnel, and understands that, in the Salary Cap Era, you're going to have churn on your roster. How a coach can manage churn, or how he understands that he has to manage that churn, is an important part of today's football knowledge."
One of the candidates, Jim Schwartz, a defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans in his first interview for a head-coaching job, took notice of the 49ers' novel, historically informed approach, something he "really respected." "When you saw some of the names who were interviewing," he says, "one of the things that stood out was that I was coming from a team that was 5-11. Usually, you're not getting many calls when the team is 5-11. People like the flavor of the month." When he was called in for an interview, Schwartz "realized they were looking a little bit beyond who was a hot name at the moment. ... They had no prejudice going in."
The 49ers went with Nolan, someone with "all the elements," Marathe says. "He blew away the interview process. In his quotes, at his press conferences, he exudes all of the qualities of an inspirational leader, a guy who the team rallies around and looks to for vision and direction. At the same time, he's a disciplinarian. He's exactly what we're looking for." Most importantly (at least as far as the media are concerned), he was a football guy, with a football-guy pedigree. Nolan, like everyone on the team, has struggled this year, but he seems to have charmed the Niners' legion of critics. After his successful debut, for example, the Merc's Killion swooned: "He was a leader on the sideline, coordinating his team, planning his strategy, aware of everything."
"Nolan," she wrote, unwittingly making Marathe's point, "was a CEO on the sideline."
"A lot of times," says Jim Schwartz of the Titans, "what happens in the media and even in the fan base is that if people don't understand, they fear it." In the football world, according to Schwartz, people hesitate to lean on complex statistical analysis because they "don't know or don't have the expertise." "When you start using words like 'regression analysis' and start using statistical modeling, you sort of go over their expertise," Schwartz says. "They don't have the background in those kinds of things that Aaron [Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com] or Paraag has."
Jim Schwartz is a football guy, to be sure. He's in his fifth season as the Titans' defensive coordinator and has worked the sidelines in some capacity since 1989. But he's a different kind of football guy, one who understands and appreciates what non-football guys like Marathe are trying to do; he is a football guy who knows his way around a regression. The man graduated from Georgetown with honors in economics, after all. There's an old Gil Brandt quote he likes to use: "We're taking one step closer to the dartboard than everybody else."
It's only a matter of years, maybe months, before someone makes Schwartz a head coach, and when that happens a cheer will go up from behind all those kryptonite-powered laptops. His hiring would represent at least a small shift in the terrain, if only because he'd be the first coach who, more than just being open-minded about numbers, candidly touts his alliance with the statheads. Those who fancy themselves doormen to the mythic football fraternity will be confused, infuriated even. They might even have to rethink the fraternity.
Would Schwartz want someone like Marathe in his front office? "Oh, certainly," he replies.
And why is that? Schwartz doesn't hesitate. "I think he's a football guy."