One of the people being lauded for his role in the recent success of the 49ers will be at the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. In fact, he'll be on the other sideline.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was head coach of the 49ers for a less-than-mediocre 3 1/2 seasons, posting an 18-27 record before being fired midway through the 2008 season. But many of the players he brought to the organization are now key figures in the team reaching the title game for the second straight season.
"I'm glad they've done well, not only for those players but for the organization," Nolan said Tuesday in Atlanta. "I put a lot of time and effort into that, so in a strange way it's a little rewarding that those guys are doing so well . . . It reinforces your commitment to building something and making players better, so that's a good thing."
The 49ers' appreciation of him comes directly from the top.
"I give Mike a lot of credit for helping set the foundation for this current 49ers team," owner Jed York said. "It's never easy to let somebody go that you have so much respect for, and you wish things had worked out differently for Mike . . . He is a very classy man and he's a heck of a football coach. He's not the person that I want to see with the 49ers looking across the field knowing he is coordinating the defense of our opponent."
Ten of the current 49ers were acquired during Nolan's tenure, including linebacker Patrick Willis, safety Dashon Goldson, defensive tackle Justin Smith, left tackle Joe Staley, running back Frank Gore and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. There are 13 players who remain from his last 49ers team in 2008.
"It was a very young group back in the time," Nolan said. "They've matured, grown up. It is nice to see them doing well."
He could have an advantage because of his ties. "Mike is very familiar with them and I think that will give some more insight in terms of what these guys are all about," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said.
Of course, one player Nolan was not there for is Colin Kaepernick. "He's a chore," Nolan said. "He's a game-wrecker."
Despite his time with the 49ers -- his only head coaching opportunity in a 25-year NFL coaching career that also included coordinator jobs with the Giants and Jets -- Nolan said he will have vindictive impulses or desire to show that team they made a mistake in firing him.
"It's been four years and this is my third stop since then, so a lot of water under the bridge from that standpoint," he said. "It doesn't change the competitive nature of the game and what we're doing . . . I think it would be incorrect for me to say it would be sweeter [to beat the 49ers]. To me, I want to win for the same reason everybody else does: So we can go to the Super Bowl."
Win or lose, some of Nolan will be going on to the big game. It will either be as a founding father of the 49ers success or the defensive coordinator of the Falcons. He's hoping for the latter, even though he's proud of his former players. Proud, and maybe a bit regretful this week.
"Looking back on it now, if we'd had a lot of bad [players] maybe it would have been better," he laughed. "But we didn't."