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Seifert has no hard feelings toward Carolina, but wishes he had won more

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

George Seifert, the only man who has served as head coach of both the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers, practically disappeared from sight the day the Panthers fired him on Jan. 7, 2002.

Many who worked in Bank of America Stadium then have never seen nor talked to him since. The occasional interview request from Carolina-based reporters went unanswered for 11 straight years. Seifert was alive, of course, and vaguely assumed to be fishing a lot somewhere in California. Beyond that, no one seemed to know.

So when I found a phone number for Seifert this week and punched it in, I didn’t expect much.

I certainly didn’t expect Seifert to answer the phone on the fourth ring, his voice resonant and sounding exactly the same as he did in his three-year tenure as Panthers head coach from 1999-2001.

But it was him. Now 73 and living in Nevada near Lake Tahoe, he sounded relaxed and friendly once I had convinced him I was not a telemarketer nor a friend of his pulling a prank (he suspected the latter).

While surprised to hear from anyone in Charlotte, Seifert didn’t seem at all upset about me tracking him down. In fact, he was willing to talk for the first time in nearly a dozen years to a reporter from the Carolinas – albeit not for long.

I first asked him about Sunday’s game, given his association with both teams.

“I’m happy to see both Carolina and San Francisco do well,” Seifert said. “Of course I’ll be cheering for the 49ers Sunday. That’s nothing against Carolina, but I have a much longer history with San Francisco.”

That is true. Seifert not only coached the 49ers, but was a childhood fan of the team. He actually ushered at 49ers home games while in high school.

Seifert said he didn’t keep up with the NFL closely anymore, though he does go to one 49ers game per year. He will not be going to this one, having already attended the 49ers-Cardinals game, but does plan to watch it on TV.

“I’m fishing, hunting, enjoying the outdoors and playing with my grandchildren – all the stuff you are supposed to do in retirement,” he said.

When I asked him if we could do an in-depth interview, the coach demurred, saying he hadn’t studied either squad.

When I pressed him a little, saying I would be more interested in what he’s been up to anyway, he said: “Oh, people don’t really want to know about me after all this time.”

But the coach who won five Super Bowls with the 49ers – two as the head coach, three as an assistant – stayed on the phone. And he did answer a few questions in the course of our conversation that he later said he didn’t mind me using in this column.

When asked if he harbored any ill feelings toward the Panthers, Seifert said absolutely not.

“I have no hard feelings,” Seifert said. “The only regret is we didn’t get it done there. I wish we had won more games. I enjoyed my time in Charlotte, though, despite that final season. It was an awesome place to live.”

Seifert, who also served as the team’s de facto general manager during his three years, did give the Panthers a great going-away present. His final draft was the best the Panthers ever had. He picked linebacker Dan Morgan, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and wide receiver Steve Smith in the first three rounds of the 2001 draft. All eventually made the Pro Bowl, and Smith became the best player in team history.

When I remarked that Smith was still here 13 years later and that the Panthers should be indebted to the former coach for that, Seifert laughed and said: “You could also say I gave them an opportunity to get a pretty good pass rusher – a guy who helped them get to the Super Bowl. Out of something bad came something good, right?”

Seifert was referring to that 1-15 season of 2001, which was so bad it allowed the Panthers to draft Julius Peppers with the No.2 overall pick in 2002.

‘An ongoing problem’

That 2001 season was what undid Seifert and the Panthers. After the Panthers went a respectable 8-8 in his first year and a mildly disappointing 7-9 in the second, they won their first game of 2001 and then lost the final 15. That set what was an NFL record at the time. And that wasn’t a team with no talent – 20 players on the squad played in the 2003 Super Bowl under John Fox.

But Seifert made the poor decision to release Steve Beuerlein and stake his fortunes on Jeff Lewis, the Panthers’ quarterback, which worked out so badly that Seifert reversed field and cut Lewis before the regular season began. And the 2001 team went 0-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer.

After loss No.12 in a row, following the Panthers blowing an 18-point lead to Buffalo, Seifert issued one of my favorite quotes in Panthers history: “The problem here is that we haven’t solved the problem,” he said. “And it’s been an ongoing problem.”

Rookie Chris Weinke ended up starting at quarterback all year for Carolina. In the Panthers’ final home game, only 21,070 fans came to watch New England crush the Panthers, 38-6. It was a haunting scene. (The two teams met in the Super Bowl two years later).

After that 2001 season, team owner Jerry Richardson felt like he had no choice but to fire Seifert. As the owner said at the time: “The energy has been sucked out of our organization and our fan base. In my opinion, we had no alternative. We had lost 15 consecutive games. We were 0-4 against Atlanta and we were 0-4 against New Orleans the last two years. We were 31st in the league in offense. We were 31st in the league in defense. It couldn’t continue.”

An unusual coach

Seifert was different than the other three head coaches the Panthers have employed in a lot of ways. The other three were defensive coordinators who were getting their first head coaching jobs. Seifert was already well established; his quirks well known. He didn’t like to wear headphones on the sideline, believing it interfered with his thinking. He did not traffic in personal chatter – he did not know your wife’s name nor how many children you had.

Seifert was all about business. And that had always served him well with the 49ers, where he succeeded Bill Walsh and became the fastest NFL head coach to 50, 75 and 100 victories. Interestingly, the Panthers went 3-1 against Seifert teams in 1995 and 1996, which the coach once said helped lead to his “demise” with the 49ers.

When he chose to use it, Seifert also had a good sense of humor. Once when he was the 49ers’ head coach, after an early-season loss he heard that 85 percent of fans had voted for him to be fired in a poll.

“I’d like to thank the 15 percent who voted for me,” Seifert said. The 49ers ultimately won the Super Bowl that season.

Seifert always wore sunglasses and could be intimidating and prickly. One of his Panthers assistant coaches – offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, now serving in the same position for the Minnesota Vikings – quit on him unexpectedly one season because of a personality conflict.

Although people remember Seifert as a total bust in Charlotte, that’s not really true. Remember Steve Beuerlein’s famous draw-play touchdown in the final seconds to beat Green Bay? Seifert made that call.

Seifert didn’t have enough moments of brilliance, though. He was 61 when Richardson fired him, and never resurfaced in the NFL after that. But Seifert said just before we hung up that he still doesn’t regret taking the Panthers job.

“I just wish,” Seifert said, “that we had been more successful.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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