To find the ultimate answer for creating a successful culture on a NFL team, why not go to a guy with an economics degree from the Ivy League?
Luckily, the San Francisco 49ers have fullback Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard, ’13).
“You didn’t know that Will Ferrell is the key to building a football franchise?” Juszczyk said with a grin creeping across his face. “I thought everyone knew that.”
Juszczyk, of course, was joking. Well, sort of. The real answer to building a culture that can lead to sustained success in a league full of parity is far more complicated. It’s an answer the 49ers are currently seeking under first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
Believe it or not, Ferrell is part of the equation, and so are Jerry Rice and Drake. In San Francisco, it requires striking a balance between pulling from a rich tradition and finding ways to evolve.
For Shanahan, it also means mixing in various things he picked up during his years around his father, Mike, when Mike was the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Those are things Kyle carried through a collegiate playing career at Texas and through 13 seasons as an NFL assistant.
“I think the most important thing is getting the right people,” Shanahan said. “Everyone can talk about the culture and what you’re trying to build, but you have to get the right people who are capable of being a part of the culture that you want because it’s got to be natural. It’s got to be real. It can’t be fake, so what we try so hard to do is get people in here where football means everything to them. It means just as much to them as it does to me and it does to everyone in this building, to where our No. 1 priority in everything we do is to win on Sunday.”
Majoring in football
Sitting in his spacious office at the SAP training facility on a recent afternoon, Shanahan has his shoes off and feet up on the desk as he ponders the origins of his culture-building philosophy. It’s clearly something he has thought about a lot.
When Shanahan says he wants people who care as much as he does, he offers examples. For instance, when he was playing at Cherry Creek (Colorado) High, anytime he suffered an injury, he ditched class so he could go to the Broncos training facility for treatment so he could play in the next game.
“I obviously grew up in a football house, and it’s not like my dad told me to be that way,” Shanahan said. “It’s just playing high school football was the most important thing in my life, and when I got to college, playing college was, and then when I got into coaching the pros, being successful as a coach was the most important thing. Every decision I made was that way.”
Take when Shanahan sat out his redshirt season at Texas after transferring from Duke. In December 2000, the Longhorns held a scrimmage for the redshirt players in the midst of bowl practices. In one of Shanahan’s classes, the final was scheduled for the day of the scrimmage.
A seemingly meaningless practice or an important final? The decision for the seven teammates Shanahan had in the class was easy: take the final.
“I was the only guy who showed up to the scrimmage,” Shanahan said. “They were like, ‘Don’t you have a final?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll just take an F. I’m here for football, and there’s no way I’m missing a scrimmage to go to this class.’ I had a B in the class, and I ended up getting a D-minus because I skipped a final. They thought I was crazy. I wasn’t doing it to show off to the coaches. I was doing it because I came to Texas to play football. I’ll be all right with my grades, but I came here because that was how my mindset was. That’s how it is in coaching, and that’s how I expect players to be.”
Shanahan and Lynch have driven that message home from the day they arrived in the Bay Area in January. When the Niners approached free agency armed with nearly $100 million in salary-cap space, they didn’t intend to spend money for the sake of spending. Shanahan wanted players who wouldn’t be changed by big paydays. He wanted players who would set examples for younger players about what is required of them if they want to get a big payday.
Much of that money was spent on players such as Pierre Garcon, who Shanahan already knew would be the same guy, regardless of the extra zeros on his check. Lynch dug deep to make sure players he had never coached had his same ethos, which they found in Juszczyk.
Niners CEO Jed York immediately was on the same page in that regard.
“I go back to something that Bill Parcells told me a long time ago. He said, ‘Jed, this is kind of a cheat sheet for owners. If your coach can’t explain how they’re going to use a player, don’t sign the check,'” York said. “I think that’s so true. You look at some of the guys we brought in, and either they have a connection directly or indirectly in the past, and Kyle knows how he wants to use people. He knows what they do well. And when you have that mentality, it helps set that tone from the beginning. Right now we’re trying to build a foundation, and that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win, but you can’t consistently win unless you have a strong foundation. If we can get that done, the sky is the limit. Whether it’s this year or in the future, we want to make sure that we have that foundation built, and I think Kyle and John have done an unbelievable job of identifying, ‘This is what we want 49ers football to be about, and we’re going to find people to fit that mold.'”
‘There’s not a bear in the building’
Early in the Niners’ first preseason game against Kansas City, Shanahan’s first game as a head coach, cornerback Rashard Robinson was on the wrong end of a long completion to Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill. Soon after, he missed a tackle that would have forced Kansas City to kick a field goal. Robinson was upset as he returned to the sideline, until he heard a familiar bit of 49ers’ jargon.
“There’s not a bear in the building,” Juszczyk said. “It’s an obscure reference, but it makes sense when it comes to football. Just summing it up, there’s no need to panic out there. There’s not a bear in the building. Jump offsides, you have a bad play, whatever happens out there, there’s no need to panic. Nothing is worse than a bear actually being in the building. That’s not what we’re dealing with.”
Even for the most fervent fans of Will Ferrell movies, the bear in the building might not immediately jump to mind. It’s a reference to the 2008 movie “Semi-Pro,” in which Ferrell plays an ABA basketball owner/coach/player named Jackie Moon. During one scene, Moon is forced to wrestle a bear, which eventually escapes into an arena full of people. Once the bear breaks free, Moon shouts into a microphone, “EVERYBODY PANIC!”
Early in his tenure as coach, Shanahan showed the clip to his team. It’s one he picked up from Atlanta coach Dan Quinn when he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Quinn, whom Shanahan notes is a big proponent of culture, likes to find ways to keep it light while offering an important message.
Shanahan has also been known to make frequent references to the Catalina Wine Mixer, a fictional helicopter leasing event in the movie “Stepbrothers,” again with a lesson for his players to not let a moment get the better of them.
“Some things you have to realize it’s just not that big of a deal,” defensive tackle Earl Mitchell said. “It’s not the Catalina Wine Mixer. Those are the two big messages: There’s not a bear in the building, and it’s not like we’re at the Catalina Wine Mixer.”
When the Niners turned the ball over five times in a preseason loss to Denver, both of those phrases were tossed around liberally on the Niners’ sideline.
“You start fumbling, and guys are coming to the sideline, and everyone is freaking out,” Shanahan said. “Everyone wants to freak out after the game, and like, ‘We suck. We can’t do anything,’ and it’s like, guys, there’s not a f—ing bear in the building. We had five turnovers. They had zero. Go look at the stats. It’s probably 0 percent win percentage. Let’s not reinvent the wheel. Let’s not panic. Let’s learn how to not have five turnovers, and then we’ll talk about how to play football after that. It kind of brings perspective to everybody.”
‘If Jerry Rice wants to practice, go ahead and practice’
For four straight years, Shanahan has made it a point to find a young running back and ask him if he knows who Marcus Allen is. He has yet to get a positive ID. As a lifelong student of the game, it drives Shanahan crazy.
So when Shanahan and Lynch took over the Niners, one of their top priorities was to make sure that every player on the roster knows about the franchise’s storied past.
“I think of San Francisco like people think of the Yankees,” Shanahan said. “Just me growing up, that’s what the Niners were just throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. They were the team, and I know my generation saw them that way. I don’t know how all the players now feel. Half these guys don’t know a lot of players that would surprise the hell out of you if you ask them. You want people to understand the expectations of something like that and the standard that they set.
“You want players to understand that and respect it and grow from it. But that’s about where it ends. You have to do everything else on your own. You just want people to understand the importance of where you’re at.”
Lest any of the Niners forget, Shanahan and Lynch have made sure that there are visual cues almost everywhere you look. Levi’s Stadium now has banners of current and former stars, with other pieces recognizing great moments in team history. On the walk into the locker room, the wall to the right is adorned with a mural featuring Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Patrick Willis, Roger Craig and Steve Young, with the words “It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it” underneath it. Shanahan also changed how the lockers are arranged, eschewing the usual position group formation and mixing players from all facets of the team.
Along with that, any time there’s an opportunity to bring one of the franchise’s legends into the building, the Niners haven’t hesitated. Before one training camp practice, Young and Rice spoke to the team. During that day’s workout, the 54-year-old Rice appeared in shorts, a T-shirt, cleats and receiver gloves and went through individual drills with the receivers. When team drills started, Rice lined up about 5 yards behind the play and ran through every rep, offering an example of what went into making him the most prolific receiver in league history.
“It’s almost like a cheat sheet,” Lynch said. “This is the way it should be. And these guys know when we walk by those Super Bowl trophies that they don’t come free. You’ve got to go earn them, but why not take advantage of guys like that, and why not invite them? And if Jerry Rice wants to practice, go ahead and practice. That’s good for us. And Steve Young up here, I’ve always respected Steve. The stories they told, I think, better than we ever could, they told them what the 49er way is, and it was awesome.”
To be sure, Shanahan and Lynch are well-aware that they can’t use the past as a crutch.
“Our past is something that we want to celebrate, but we can’t rest on what people did in the past,” York said. “We have to build our own present and make our own future, and I think that’s what Kyle and John understand. I think it’s really important that those guys know this is what Bill Walsh was about, this is what the great 49er teams were about, and that’s part of their fabric, but they’ve also made it their own. I think that’s the thing that’s important. You can’t be Bill Walsh. You can’t be George Seifert, you can’t be somebody else, but that’s a part of their fabric, and I think it makes it a lot easier for me to communicate with those guys because the 49ers run in their blood.”
Age as an advantage
In addition to his duties as Shanahan’s administrative assistant, Nick Kray is known as DJ Kray Kray, the man responsible for the practice music. Kray has his own pop-up tent near the practice field where he spins a variety of cuts — mostly hip hop — during every workout. Behind closed doors, Kray handles plenty of other daily tasks, including putting together the aforementioned video clips.
Kray’s musical stylings aren’t limited to the practice field, either. Before every team meeting, music is playing. The artist most often heard? Drake. More often than not, that comes at the request of Shanahan, not because he’s actively trying to relate to his players but because he genuinely likes it.
“I play Drake because I like Drake,” Shanahan said. “That’s still what I listen to. I’m still close with the music. Now it’s starting to be different, but I still know the main guys. I don’t know some of the weird stuff. But Drake is what I would be playing because that’s what I like.”
At 37, Shanahan is older than every player on the Niners’ roster, but he’s close enough in age that it’s not that difficult for him to relate to his team. Veterans such as Mitchell and center Daniel Kilgore emphasize that Shanahan sets a standard of what is expected of each player, and so long as those players meet that standard, there is time for fun.
But Shanahan has long viewed his relative youth as an advantage when it comes to connecting with players of all backgrounds. He is quick to point out that none of that matters unless he can first earn every player’s respect as the coach. That’s why he emphasized being able to provide answers to any and all questions. If not, players will pick up on it right away.
“I think that’s been one of the first things that kind of jumped out to me is just, like, he understands the younger culture and the lingo,” Juszczyk said. “I think he can use it to his advantage to be able to get the point across. It’s not just the same old banter that you have earned from older coaches your whole career. He kind of puts it into our perspective and understands it a little bit better.”
Plenty to prove
Culture isn’t exactly something that can be measured so progress is in the eye of the beholder. For now, Shanahan will only allow that he is happy with his team’s work ethic. The real tests will come after the Niners go through a losing streak. Shanahan knows that such tests are on the way.
For a team that was 2-14 a year ago, fixing everything in one offseason is almost impossible. These Niners still have plenty of holes, but there seems to be a genuine belief that things are headed in the right direction, especially once they get the right people in place.
“We want 53 guys who realize this is what I do to support my family, this is what I do for a living, and this will come over everything — except, obviously, your family and life-and-death decisions,” Shanahan said. “But [otherwise] this is the No. 1 important thing in my life.”
In other words, 53 players who are willing to skip the final