Artifact of the Game: Foster Farms Bowl
Maryland and Stanford Provide Foundation for 49ers Championships
By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian
When Gene Washington hauled in a 78-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Brodie in the San Francisco 49ers 1971 NFC playoff win over the Washington Redskins, Bay Area football fans immediately recalled Stanford University’s intimate connection to the 49ers.
After all, Washington and Brodie were well-known All-American players during their collegiate days at Stanford. But the University of Maryland’s contribution was just as significant. The coach who reshaped the 49ers and unleashed the club’s pass-happy offense of the era was a Maryland man named Dick Nolan.
As Maryland and Stanford prepare to meet in the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl, Levi’s Stadium plays host to two storied collegiate programs that have had a profound impact on the 49ers football fortunes.
Nolan starred as a running back and defensive back at Maryland during its National Championship runs in 1951 and 1953. He borrowed a little wisdom from his Maryland coach, Jim Tatum, served as defensive coordinator under his mentor, Dallas coach Tom Landry, then rejuvenated the 49ers. After taking over a dormant franchise in 1968, Nolan sparked the 49ers to their first three NFC West titles. From 1970 to 1972 Brodie, Washington and Coach Nolan were the main ingredients behind the 49ers initial string of playoff success. Twice they brought San Francisco to within one game of a Super Bowl appearance.
Nolan instilled a winning culture in San Francisco that extended to the natty attire he wore on the 49ers sideline. His game day business suits harkened back to an earlier era when NFL coaches like Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Tom Landry appeared to have stepped out of a Wall Street board meeting.
“Dick was a very classy man,” former 49ers tackle Len Rohde said. “The way he dressed, the way he treated his players and the way he conducted himself, it rubbed off on the rest of us.”
Nearly 30 years after Nolan left the 49ers, his son, Mike Nolan was hired as head coach in 2005. Mike revived his father’s formal sense of fashion by sporting a specially designed Reebok suit similar to those worn by his dad. The suit is on display at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony.
Though Brodie quarterbacked the 49ers to their first NFC West title, he is just one in a long line of Stanford signal callers to earn a spot on the San Francisco roster. The list includes Frankie Albert, Steve Stenstrom, John Paye, Guy Benjamin and former Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett.
Albert holds the distinction of being the 49ers first quarterback. Prior to joining the 49ers in 1946 for the club’s inaugural season, he led Stanford to a perfect 11-0 record in 1940 including a win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. His gridiron exploits inspired a Hollywood film entitled The Spirit of Stanford (starring Frankie Albert).
“Albert did things we’d never seen before,” former 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle said. “He could run, pass, kick. And he was unpredictable. He could make something out of nothing.”
Albert spent seven years at quarterback for the 49ers then was hired as head coach in 1956. He guided the 49ers to their first NFL playoff appearance in 1957.
Through the years Stanford has served as a quarterback pipeline to the 49ers, but Maryland has produced two of the most athletic receivers ever to play for the club in former world-record hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah and current tight end Vernon Davis.
San Francisco selected Davis in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft and he quickly won the hearts of 49ers fans. Davis’ game-winning touchdown catch with nine seconds left in a 2011 NFC playoff game provided the winning margin in the 49ers 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints and is remembered in 49ers lore as “the Vernon Post.” He is currently the franchise tight end leader in receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards.
“I looked at Alex (Smith). He looked back at me,” Davis said when recalling the play. “I took off, came off with some explosion, got to about 10 yards, planted my left foot, soon as I could turn, the ball was right on me.”
Nehemiah joined the 49ers in 1982 as one of Coach Bill Walsh’s “projects” after a distinguished track career at Maryland. He was the first man to run the 110-meter hurdles in under 13 seconds and was considered one of the fastest men in the world. Walsh developed Nehemiah into a dangerous deep threat who averaged 17.5 yards per reception. He was a member of the 1984 Super Bowl-winning 49ers team.
Artifacts and memorabilia from many former Maryland and Stanford football stars are on display in the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Included are the football Davis caught on “the Vernon Post,” Frankie Albert’s original game-worn 49ers jersey, John Brodie’s 1970 Player-of-the-Year Trophy, Gene Washington’s All-Pro Trophy and Dick Nolan’s sideline jacket. Museum guests can also stroll through the life-sized 49ers Hall of Fame statues and a recreation of Bill Walsh’s 49ers office, or watch interactive highlight videos of every 49ers season. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit levisstadium.com/Museum. For group pricing call 415-GO-49ERS.