Seeking Opportunity

Recently we were able to ask Tom Rathman about his new position with the San Francisco 49ers. He has recently signed a multi-year contract to be their running backs coach. A three-year letterman at Nebraska, Rathman rushed for 1,425 yards and averaged over six yards per carry. He was drafted by the SF49ers in the 1986 draft. His 9-year NFL playing career included a season with the Raiders. Prior to beginning his NFL coaching career with San Francisco, the Grand Island, Nebraska native helped rebuild the Menlo College program by serving as the offensive coordinator and running backs coach in 1996.

Why did you get into coaching?

“I noticed at the time that I was playing like an “X and O coach” (someone who focuses on strategy). I wanted to help any way I could. Throughout life, I've noticed that opportunity presents itself to some people all the time. Others may get the break once and never get it again. I say, if you are presented with a chance, go for it and get it done right now. Always be opportunistic.”

Why did you choose to work at Menlo College?

“After playing for the 49ers, I wanted some family time, so I took a job coaching the running backs at nearby Serra High School in San Mateo in 1995. The following year, Doug Cosbie, Menlo College athletic director and head football coach, asked me to coordinate at the College.”

Fred Guidici, Assistant Football Coach and Athletic Recruiting Coordinator at Menlo College said, “Tom was an energetic, fiery guy fresh out of playing for the 49ers. The Menlo College players really responded to him. The team was 0 and 10 the year before. In one year, Tom turned the team around so that they were 5 wins/ 4 losses after the first year he was running backs coach. The students bought into the coaching team. We had an incredible professional coaching team including Wally Funk and Tony Borba. The senior class kids trusted each other and they believed in the coaches and the direction of the team.”

What was your biggest obstacle at Menlo?

“When I started coaching at Menlo College, the football team was not at the top of its game. I began by teaching fundamental football discipline and recruiting good athletes who were good students. In college football, because of the academics, the time you have to spend with students—I think then we had a 2-hour rule—is so small, it is challenging to maximize their potential. I'd be installed on the field holding notes for the plays in front of the huddle. We didn't have much film on opponents. But we did have a vision of what we wanted in order to develop tough, hard-nosed football players. We held the players accountable 100% of time. We focused on fundamentals, details, and plays. The program has been consistent ever since.”

You've been quoted in other interviews regarding your new coaching contract with the 49ers, that you want your guys to be the toughest group on the field. How will you achieve that?

“You can't teach how to be the toughest group but you can emphasize it snap after snap. Eventually, you will get to that position play after play. There is so much work to be done with details, footwork, techniques without even getting to the scheme. There are lots of techniques just in potential progression and protection adjustments.”

Was this the same philosophy you used when you were at Menlo or did you have other priorities?

“I have emphasized the same approach wherever I have been. There is an old cliché, 'you can be the hammer or the nail.' Personally, I'll take the hammer.”

Fred Guidici added, “Attitude was and is the number one most important prerequisite for playing football. If you aren't positive and playing for each other with the right mental attitude, you won't excel. With the right attitude the goal is to play for each other. If players can't do that, no matter how talented they may be, they won't succeed.”

What is your strategy on how to turn adversity—like Menlo's poor performance in 1995—into opportunity such as the advantage Menlo created for itself in 1996?

“You start with an opportunity because you are fielding the team. You look at how you coach on the field, and you develop athletes into fundamental good players. You hold note cards in front of the players and build their confidence. You're going to have opportunity but it is what you do with it that counts. Coaching can make the difference. You hold players accountable and you emphasize, emphasize, emphasize your points.”

What will your biggest challenge be in coaching the 49ers?

“I don't see anything as a big challenge. I will demand tough physical techniques. Players have to learn to execute the plays. They will learn what I'm teaching quickly on the field. You have to be sharp to play football.”

What is your advice to anyone who wants to turn things around? “Approach everything in life with a positive attitudeñare you looking at the world with the glass half full or half empty? That tells me a lot about your personality. If you look at things half full you have a brighter look towards the future.”